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How to Tell That It's Time to Give In to Your Partner

3 research-based steps to go from no to yes.

Key points

  • Knowing when it's time to give in to someone you disagree with is important to maintaining good relationships.
  • A new paper based on well-established motivational psychology shows the importance of supporting a partner's autonomy.
  • Three steps can help you go from "no" to "yes" when you find it hard to give in.

When two people are close to each other, there are inevitably going to be situations in which they disagree. In most cases, someone is going to have to give in to the other person’s decision, wishes, or preferences. Ideally, there is a give-and-take between partners, and they come to agreements on a fairly equitable basis.

What happens in your own relationship? Do you feel this kind of balance or does it seem that one person’s wishes take priority over the others? Although you know logically that balance in decision-making is preferable, would you rather have it so that it’s you who has that priority? Wouldn’t conflict just go away?

As ideal, potentially, as that situation might seem to be, it’s also entirely possible that you’re not always right. For example, perhaps you and your partner have a routine where every night, you make sure your coffee machine is set up to run automatically before you wake up. One morning, your partner goes to grab their customary morning brew, only to find that the machine never ran. Rather than admit that you simply forgot, you insist that something must have happened to the power, the switch, or the machine itself. This is a bit of a ridiculous position, given the clear evidence to the contrary (as your partner points out). Wouldn’t it be better to admit the truth and just say you made a mistake?

Conflicts such as these can pop up in any relationship, not necessarily just the one with your most intimate partner. You might have a dispute with a colleague at work over the best course of action to follow in dealing with a report. As your colleague points out the logical flaws in your position, you find yourself digging your heels in further even though, in the back of your mind, you know that your colleague is right. Why not just say so, and let the project proceed according to their suggestions?

Motivation and Personal Growth

If you’re the type of person who likes to be right all the time, and who demands that others follow your wishes, you might want to rethink some of the ways you interact with the people in your life.

According to the now-well-established perspective known as self-determination theory (SDT), people have three sets of complementary needs that, together, make it possible for an individual to experience a sense of inner fulfillment. In a new review article on SDT, Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, who developed the initial theory while both were at the University of Rochester (Ryan is now at Australian Catholic University), teamed up with Ghent University’s Maarten Vansteenkiste and Bart Soenens (2021) in a “Legacy in Motivation Science” review article.

From their wide-ranging review, you can gain a new perspective on why it can be valuable to your close relationships to be able to give in to the other person, at least from time to time. In the words of Ryan et al., the capacities that people have to “be aware of ourselves, to actively learn and master our worlds, to strive to internalize cultural norms, to reflectively consider our own attitudes and values, and to make informed choices concerning them… afford us an ability to care for the selves of others." To put it simply, you want to have a certain degree of self-determination in your own life as a way to be able to drive your behavior, but you also need to acknowledge that other people have this need as well.

There is a very strong positive psychology element to SDT which is worth considering for a moment. As the authors note, “SDT… assumes an inner propensity toward growth and integration as being characteristic of a healthy person." Ideally, both you and your partner are able to express this “inner propensity.” If you remove your partner’s autonomy by always having your wishes followed, then your partner’s ability to grow will accordingly become suppressed.

The Role of Autonomy in Relationships

Having explained the overall framework of SDT, it’s now time to dig deeper into this international team’s review of research on the need for autonomy in close relationships. Again, quoting from the authors, “relatedness also requires recognition of the other as a person, a person endowed with capacities for autonomy and with their own internal perspective on events."

Indeed, this need for autonomy is one you should be able to recognize almost instantly as a quality in your own individual development. Part of the basis for what’s called “secure attachment” in infancy is being cared for but also being given room to grow. As you develop through your early years, you ideally feel that the important people in your life will be there for you, but you also want to be able to express your independence. When you enter into adult relationships, that same principle applies, or what the Ryan et al. authors call “autonomy support.”

This concept of autonomy support means that in the very best of relationships, both partners feel that they are together because they want to be, and that their needs for autonomy are recognized and valued by their partner. By always insisting on having your way, you therefore deny your partner this ability to feel respected as a competent and independent individual.

There’s another side to the autonomy-relationship equation. Based on their review of SDT-based research, Ryan and his fellow authors conclude that people feel better about themselves when they provide autonomy support to their partners. If you feel that you’re supporting your partner’s autonomy because you want to (i.e. due to your own need for autonomy) both of you will benefit. Neither of you will feel controlled by the other, and as a result you’ll have fewer conflicts and feel more satisfied with your relationship.

How Can You Learn to Give In?

Based on the extensive literature that the Ryan et al. research team summarized, it seems clear that SDT’s legacy is indeed well-established, and that it will continue to generate useful findings for many years to come. It’s clearly a theory worth paying attention to, then, if you’re trying to have better and less conflictual relationships.

Turning to practical outcomes of this work, how could you implement the idea of autonomy support in your own relationships? Three steps can take you from your constant "no"s to more than the occasional "yes":

Step one. Test what it feels like to concede to your partner when it is you who is in the wrong. That’s perhaps the easiest feat to accomplish. When the data are clearly there that show you need to abandon your position, it shouldn’t be that hard.

Step two. Listen to your partner’s point of view when there is no clear right or wrong. Let them express their own position without chiming in with your own. Maybe there’s something there that you didn’t consider. Returning to the example of the work colleague, this would be another important way to lower the temperature and look at the pros and cons in a more objective fashion.

Step three. Take that perhaps painful final move of actually allowing your partner’s view to prevail. When you cross from "no" to "yes," notice how much better your partner seems to feel; also take stock of your own reaction. Maybe it’s not as painful as you thought the process would be; it may even feel pretty good. The next time a similar situation arises, you may breeze through right to this step with little difficulty. Or you may not, but your partner will at least feel heard.

To sum up, by considering the needs of those close to you it can be possible to build the kind of relationship that will support both personal growth and mutual fulfillment.

Facebook image: Zmaster/Shutterstock


Ryan, R. M., Deci, E. L., Vansteenkiste, M., & Soenens, B. (2021). Building a science of motivated persons: Self-determination theory’s empirical approach to human experience and the regulation of behavior. Motivation Science, 7(2), 97-110. doi:10.1037/mot0000194

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