Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

How to Optimize Your Relationship: The 70/70 Compromise

If there's a "magic bullet" for resolving couples conflict, what is it?

Gatwick . . . Romantic Couple / Flickr
Source: Gatwick . . . Romantic Couple / Flickr

Compromise is certainly key in politics. But it's no less key in relationships. Perhaps the main reason so many couples remain mired in power struggles is that they're unable to grasp the elusive art of give-and-take. And the "my way or the highway" approach to solving marital conflict is about as ludicrous as it is futile.

After all, if one spouse bull-headedly declares "case closed" (as in, "It's my money, and I'll spend it anyway I please!"), then at the earliest opportunity the other spouse will find a way of re-opening the case . . . or precipitating a new one. As I frequently advise couples, most win-lose solutions are ultimately lose-lose, for the partner experiencing defeat will immediately be looking to the next round for a comeback--or worse, immediately take pains to sabotage their partner's victory.

So couples need to realize that (as difficult as it sometimes seems) either they jointly discover a solution that's win-win, or both of them will wind up feeling beaten. Practically speaking, there's really not much in between. If your will triumphs over your partner's, at first you may experience some satisfaction, but in the process you've inadvertently turned your partner into an adversary. So finally it's a Pyrrhic victory-the cost to your relationship far exceeding the initial reward of your success.

If a committed relationship is to thrive, each partner must learn how to join forces with the other, not compete with them--or seek to outwit or invalidate them. It's just not possible to engender harmony in a relationship when unresolved differences are dealt with combatively. For such a tactic inevitably leads to friction and frustration. And once marital contentiousness becomes a way of life, then--whether or not the two of you stay together--you'll end up emotionally divorced.

Moreover, when you lock horns in the effort to bait, badger, or otherwise argue your partner out of their preferences, you're telling them in so many words that your personal wants and needs have higher priority--are more worthwhile--than theirs. And, realistically, how could a secure, loving attachment ever emerge from such a "me first" interpersonal stance? Besides, present research powerfully supports the notion that the happiest marriages are egalitarian.

So it's hard to take seriously any perspective that suggests a marriage can prosper if only one spouse subordinates their will to the other. After all, any spouse routinely obliged to take a one-down position in order to keep the peace is almost surely going to be miserable. For having to endure such subjugation hardly promotes self-esteem, serenity, a sense of well-being, or loving feelings toward one's partner.

If, then, relational compromise is crucial, what exactly does the 70/70 formula in the title signify? Admittedly, the math here may be a bit questionable. But what the ratio is specifically "calculated" to convey is that a mutually acceptable compromise offers both parties most of what they're seeking. That is, successfully executed, each spouse gets about 70 percent of what they had in mind. And since in working toward such concurrence both parties experience their wants and needs as being factored into the final accord, the triumph is mutual. It doesn't belong so much to one partner or the other, but to the relationship.

If, however, you grew up in a family where conflicts were almost never resolved--only recycled--it's likely that when you quarrel with your mate, you're really not thinking about reaching an agreement but simply venting your feelings, or being heard. Which makes perfect sense since as a child you may never have witnessed your parents' actually talking through a problem. Should this be the case, if you're to reach viable solutions with your mate, you might first need to work on adopting a new, more positive mindset. Nonetheless, if you can convince yourself that there must be some mutually agreeable resolution "out there," sooner or later you'll discover it (even though, frankly, it might not look anything like you imagined!).

Obviously, there are right and wrong ways to approach conflict. The best--and pithiest--description I've ever seen on how (and how not) to go about discussing, and ironing out, relational differences is from the book When Anger Hurts (McKay, Rogers & McKay). I think it's well worth quoting here:

[In resolving conflicts] 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. 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.

couple happily comm'gMany years ago I affixed to my office corkboard a note with the words: "A mature relationship is one in which each partner strives to meet the other's needs." I think the above paragraph pretty much sums up the "technology" for achieving this goal. It's something like couples "colluding" to make each other happy. And it's no easy task. But with the right mentality it's generally doable. The single, most important thing to avoid is the self-righteous assumption that God is somehow on your side, or that there's only one right solution for a problem--namely, yours. In such instances, productive problem-solving becomes virtually impossible. On the contrary, if you perceive the problem in terms of "opposing needs," each of which is viewed as "legitimate and important," there's every chance you'll arrive at a solution that affirms both of you.

The book cited above also outlines the kinds of compromises most likely to work. Although these remedies may not adequately address certain unusual or complicated situations, they nonetheless suggest the creative outlook required for successful problem-solving. Consider my adaptations of them as useful starting points for further discussion:

• "How about we do it my way this time, and your way next time?"
• "We could do it my way when I'm doing it, and your way when you're doing it."
• "If you'll do _____________ for me, I'll do _____________ for you."
• "How about part of what I want with part of what you want?"
• "Maybe we could try it my way for a week and see. But if you're not happy with it, we'll return to the old way."
• "Here's one way we could split the difference. What do you think?"

Hopefully, these examples will provide you with the essential "flavor" of effective problem-solving. For--as the much overused maxim goes--"Where there's a will. . . ."

NOTE 1: Since I've published for Psychology Today a variety of articles to assist people in improving their relationship, I'll here provide links to readers who might be interested in further exploring ways of doing so:

“Working on Your Relationship During Courtship—Really?!”

"Do You Defend Your Partner's Defenses? Here's Why You Should"

“Compromise Made Simple: 7 Handy Tips for Couples”

“Courage in Relationships: Conquering Vulnerability and Fear”

“What’s the Key Imperative for Lasting Love?"

“How to Respond When Your Partner's Bark Feels Like a Bite”

“The Danger of Trying to Possess Who You Love”

“Don’t Just Salvage Your Relationship—Recreate It!”

“6 Ways to Recreate, Not Just Salvage, Your Relationship”

“The Three Things You Should Never Say to Your Partner”

“Can You Give Your Spouse as Much Love as They Don’t Deserve?”

“In Relationships, Understanding—Not Agreement—Is Key. Why?”

“How Fair Is Your Marriage?”

“One Marriage = Two Realities”

"Giving to Get vs. Griping to Get”

“How Rational Are ‘Rational’ Marriages?”

“Couples—Stop Fighting Over Money!”

"Criticism vs. Feedback—Which One Wins, Hands Down?" (Parts 1 & 2)

"Anger—How We Transfer Feelings of Guilt, Hurt, and Fear"

NOTE 2: If this piece in any way "spoke" to you, and you think it might to others as well, kindly consider sending them its link.

NOTE 3: If you’d like to check out my writings for Psychology Today generally—on a broad array of psychological topics—click here.

© 2010 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

---To be notified whenever I post something new, I invite readers to join me on Facebook, as well as on Twitter—where, additionally, you can follow my frequently unorthodox psychological and philosophical musings.