Maybe It's Just Me, But...

Musings of a mildly mad multi-disciplinarian

How Much Should You Compromise for Your Relationship?

Your relationship should serve you, not the other way around

The goal for anybody looking for a relationship is to find that special someone who "completes you," who meshes with your personality and character so well that you coexist in perfect harmony. This is not to say that you are identical with the other person, but you complement each other like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, a perfect fit that creates a new, wonderful entity. When people talk about finding Mr. or Ms. Right, this is what they mean, but this is an ideal. And as with all ideals, there often comes a time when they must be compromised, as we "settle" for Mr. OK or Ms. Good Enough. But how much compromise is too much?

In the early, passionate stage of a relationship, when you're in the blissful throes of romantic discovery, the world is a wonderful place and the birds sing beautiful melodies in tribute to your new love. It is a feeling incomparable to any other, and naturally you want that to last forever, or at least for as long as possible. You may say you'll do anything to make this relationship last, and you mean it—that's the problem.

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Compromise is great in small doses, often necessary to smooth over a few rough edges of an otherwise smoothly functioning relationship. Turning down the TV while the other person talks on the phone is no big deal, nor is turning off the TV to give some extra help with errands or chores once in a while. These compromises do not threaten to our core needs, wants, and deepest desires—the reasons we got into a relationship in the first place. It is when we start compromising these essential elements of who we are that the cracks in the foundation of relationship start to show.

A healthy relationship should affirm who each partner is and allow each person to meet his or her needs together with the other. A lesser relationship demands that one or both partners change in a deep and meaningful way to meet the needs of the other, which compromises one or both of the persons involved. In such cases, the compromise serves the relationship, which is backwards—the relationship should serve the persons in it.

Let's consider an example of excessive compromise, involving two important components of most relationships: emotional and physical intimacy. They're not the only two, of course, but for most people I think they're pretty high up on the list, and represent intrinsic desires that a healthy relationship should help fulfill. If the partners in a relationship agree on the relative importance of these two, whether one is more important than the other or they are equally important, then all is good, and the partners can mutually satisfy their needs.

But if the partners disagree on the relative importance of them—if one values physical intimacy more while the other needs emotional intimacy more—then it may be more difficult for the relationship to meet both partners' needs without creating stresses or breeding resentment. I say "may" because often physical and emotional intimacy go together, as in love-making that joins the physical and emotional, so the differences in priorities might not manifest themselves since both partners get what they need from the same act. But when the partners cannot find a way to satisfy both needs at the same time, they may start to resent having to satisfy the need of the other person while leaving his or her own need unfulfilled—and if a need is an essential part of who a person is, leaving it neglected will only breed resentment and pain.

This may seem obvious, but it is hard to keep this in mind while entranced by the transcendent bliss of a new love, when you're willing to give up anything and everything to be with the other person and you don't appreciate the costs of what you're giving up. (The same thing can happen at the end of a relationship, when you push all the pain down and promise the world if only the other person will give you another chance.) And sometimes these incompatibilities and compromises aren't even apparent early in the relationship—maybe they don't come to the surface until you've moved in together, for instance. But once they do manifest themselves, they cannot, and should not, be ignored, not if the relationship is going to last (if it should).

The bottom line: Little compromises are natural and unavoidable, but be careful not to give up too much of what is important to you for the sake of a relationship that should help to affirm who you already are.

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You can follow me on Twitter and also at the following blogs: Economics and Ethics, The Comics Professor, and The Literary Table.

Mark D. White is the chair of the Department of Philosophy at the College of Staten Island/CUNY.

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