Compromise Made Simple: 7 Handy Tips for Couples
What are the best ways to meet in the middle when your needs are far apart?
Posted Oct 29, 2015
Even if you marry the person of your dreams—the “one of all ones”—you still won’t live happily ever after. Humans that we are, we inevitably run into problems when our wants and needs don’t match our mate’s. And unless we become skilled in the fine art of compromise, in such situations our relationship can quickly degrade into feelings of dissatisfaction and discord. Not to mention a disillusioning sense of being all alone in the relationship. Such an experience can be most disheartening, for when we first committed to our partner we assumed that this relationship would protect us from ever having to feel lonely again.
The solution to this problem—which can also foster the growth so closely connected to personal happiness and fulfillment—is to learn how to best accommodate your partner’s differing desires, but without being obliged to sacrifice your own. In this post, I’ll enumerate seven ways of compromising that will help you recapture the love, trust, and intimacy that may have been—well—“compromised” when you had to face the fact that you and your mate simply weren’t the same person: That what you so much required and wished from them was, unfortunately, hardly identical to what they needed from you.
Six of the seven types of give-and-take that I’ll be elaborating on here have already been listed in an earlier post of mine: “How to Optimize Your Relationship: The 70/70 Compromise.” And these methods of mutual accommodation were themselves adapted from the excellent self-help book When Anger Hurts by M. Mckay, P. D. Rogers, & J. McKay (New Harbinger, 1989). This eminently practical guide focuses on how to effectively control your anger, yet has some exceptionally valuable things to say about relationships as well.
As an example, take this paragraph (also quoted previously) that, on a separate sheet, I regularly distribute to couples I work with. For I believe it can be crucial in altering their mindset and increasing their motivation to work through troublesome differences:
“The key attitude for successfully resolving conflicts with your spouse is problem solving. You’re not trying to make your spouse feel bad. You’re not trying to prove your spouse wrong. You’re simply trying to fix what’s wrong. The problem-solving attitude assumes that conflict has no moral dimensions. Instead, conflict is a matter of opposing needs. Disagreements are best resolved when each person’s needs are assumed to be legitimate and important [bold face and italics added for special emphasis]. That way you don’t have to argue about whose needs are bigger, or more justified. Since both parties have an equal right to want it their way, problem solving becomes a matter of acknowledging and factoring these needs into a mutually acceptable agreement.”
The one thing I’d like to expand on, in this pithy summary of what could help virtually all couples get much closer to the relationship they yearn for, is this: It makes very little sense to fight about what’s fair. For what feels fair to one party might yet feel grossly unfair to the other. In the end, the only thing that matters is that the solution arrived at feel fair to both of you. Moreover, it hardly matters what anybody else might think. For if you and your partner see your final agreement as equitable, then (for all intents and purposes) it is equitable. That is, no external confirmation is “called for.”
Anyhow, here are seven ways of engendering a win/win situation in instances where you and your partner’s wants and needs just don’t jibe. Although these various conflict-negotiation methods may not be able to address every single situation—especially those that are unusually complex or convoluted—I think you’ll find them “serviceable” in a wide variety of contexts:
1. “Let’s try to find some way to meet in the middle or split the difference.”
I’ve written elsewhere (in “Couples—Stop Fighting Over Money!”) that there’s an inevitable clash when you’re (whether by nature or conditioning) a saver and your partner is a spender (or vice versa). Such differences are common, and at their worst can be disastrous to a relationship. Moreover, these predilections aren’t really changeable. So what needs to happen is for each of you to explain your perspective on money without at the same time striving to invalidate the other’s. For, however contrasting, each viewpoint has its own subjective validity. The next step, of course, is to negotiate a mutually acceptable compromise. Although discovering the best way to “meet in the middle” probably won’t seem ideal to either of you, as long as you can come—unbegrudgingly—to accept the personal legitimacy of your partner’s monetary orientation, then whatever compromise you reach will affirm your relationship’s viability (i.e., your ability to work together to preserve, and even increase, the harmony, trust, and good will between you).
Another example of “splitting the difference” might relate to how warm or cool you want to keep your house. Depending on whether you’re warm- or cold-blooded, you might prefer a lower, or higher, temperature than your partner. But can you set the thermostat somewhere between your different preferences and still feel reasonably comfortable (even if it requires one of you to take off your sweater, and the other to put it on)?
A final example of this all-important type of compromise could relate to your being more extroverted (or, for that matter, introverted) than your mate. So if you'd prefer, say, to do more social things outside the home than suits your spouse, you need to consider that your partner requires less external stimulation than you do—and then make whatever adjustments feel “right” for both of you. Or the two of you might decide that in many instances it’s fine for one of you to go out to be with your friends, while the other stays at home, “catching up” on their much greater need for solitude.
2. “If you’ll do this for me, I’ll do that for you.”
In many cases, there are things that your partner does that annoy you—and undeniably, things that you do that annoy them. None of these things may be bad or wrong as such, or even serious, but they’re still bothersome. Say, your partner doesn’t look up from their smart phone when you’re really needing to get their undivided attention. And say, also, that you typically don’t acknowledge them when they share with you some personal accomplishment. To address such frustrations you can simply—and without blaming your partner for what's distressing you—request that they alter or eliminate this irksome behavior and, in exchange, you’ll do your best to modify one of your own that they find irritating. Needless to say, this kind of compromise can work for positive things as well. For instance, “If you could pick up my dry cleaning for me, I’ll take care of buying your mother a birthday card.”
3. “How about this time you do it my way [or let me have my way], and next time I’ll defer to you?”
This might be called the “taking-turns” solution. And in many instances it’s easily enough implemented—again, assuming that both of you see what you “work out” as fair. Consider the phrase (rather distasteful, I admit): “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” What this adage suggests is that there can be various ways of getting something done. And though your preference may differ from your partner’s, there’s not really one intrinsically superior way of handling the matter. So it makes perfect sense, alternately, to defer to each other’s proclivities. This could relate to preparing a meal, cleaning the house, or taking a particular route to see your child’s basketball game. And if it’s a matter of simply getting your way (vs. your spouse’s), it could involve which restaurant to go to, which movie to see, which friend or relative to visit, and so on.
4. “What if we do it my way when I’m doing it, and your way when you’re doing it?”
My favorite example to illustrate this method of resolving conflict is likely also the pettiest. It pertains to inserting toilet tissue into your bathroom dispenser. If your partner was raised in a family of dedicated “over’s,” chances are they’ll see the right way to load toilet tissue as done in a way that permits the roll to unfurl from above. But if, on the contrary, you came from a family of devoted “under’s,” the opposite will be true. Compromise here simply entails inserting the new roll your way when the present one runs out “on your watch,” and letting them do it their way when it “expires” on theirs.
5. “How about part of what I want with part of what you want?”
Many situations call for this type of solution, from choosing what home you’ll live in (and making “trade-offs” as regards neighborhood and location, floor plan and amenities, closeness to work and schools, etc.) to specific furnishings for the home—as well as what places to visit on your time-limited vacation, to what foods to include for a family Thanksgiving dinner. In these instances, compromising consists of “paying partial tribute” to each of your preferences, despite how opposing they may be. In a committed relationship, you’re no longer regarding the matter from an “I” point of view but from the marital context of “we”—which, don’t forget, you implicitly agreed to when you originally decided to enter into a life-long union with your partner.
6. Could you try it my way for a week or two and see how it works? And if you don’t agree that this way works better, or you just can’t get comfortable with it, we’ll go back to the old way.
Here, too, there are many areas in which this solution might apply. It could have to do with a new way of disciplining your children, based on an article you read that made a great deal of sense to you. For it may be that what you and your partner have been doing to deal with your kids’ misbehavior hasn’t proven very effective. Or it could relate to a different way of handling family finances that you think might be much more efficient than what, up to this point, the two of you have been doing. Or it might be an unprecedented way of allocating your leisure time. Or dealing with a difficult relative. Or moving in the direction of a mutually agreed-upon goal. Or altering the way you make love, which over time may have become too routine (or even tedious) to you. And so on.
7. “Might we handle this one my way, but that one your way?”
This might relate to how you pay for two different purchases—making a decision on your own for one of them and allowing your partner to decide on the other. Or selecting where to sit at a sporting event while having your partner choose which ticket (and ticket price) to purchase for a play or concert you've agreed to attend. And note how this solution to accommodate different tastes or tendencies complements the other strategies for compromise—in that it, too, involves a mutual effort to somehow “meet in the middle.”
I’ll end this piece by adding a few caveats.
Remember, unless the compromise you agree to feels like a win/win, your relationship will end up not with a winner and loser but, ultimately, with two losers. For if one of you experiences being taken advantage of, or as having had to capitulate to the other simply to keep the peace, you can count on there being significant negative residue left over from such a “forced” compromise. And sooner or later these feelings of anger and resentment are bound to leak out, sabotaging the other’s presumed victory. So take care not to terminate the problem-solving process prematurely. Make certain that the decision reached truly feels acceptable for both of you.
In short, never finally consent to anything unless you can do so without lingering doubts or misgivings. Keep discussing your questions or qualms until you’re satisfied that the compromise you’re making is one you’re comfortable with. And feel free to re-open the discussion if what you thought you could live with turns out to be something that violates your integrity, or goes against your psychological grain.
It also makes sense to play to each other’s strengths when you’re discussing the appropriateness of different solutions to your conflicts. For instance, if you’re looking for better ways to share household responsibilities, don’t mechanically assign tasks to one another without considering your different preferences and proficiencies. If one of you is better at washing dishes than drying them, it’s obvious who should do what. And this could also relate to gardening, vacuuming, or organizing what goes where. Typically, what we’re disposed to do is in line with what we’re naturally good at. So whenever possible such considerations should be taken into account.
Moreover, no decision need be—or maybe can be—everlasting. Over time, circumstances may change, so that what initially was experienced as fair may no longer feel that way. For instance, if your partner is now working outside the home, he or she may need you to pitch in more with household chores or begin to take over driving the kids to school. Frequently, compromises can’t be “fixes” that last indefinitely, so both of you need to be flexible in revisiting—and revising or renegotiating—decisions that no longer feel equitable to both of you.
All this being said, it might be high time for you and your partner to change your focus from what feels wrong in your relationship to how to make it right. . . . And here—I hope you'll agree—compromise is key.
© 2015 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All rights reserved.