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4 Characteristics of Good Romantic Compromises

Can we tell our partner that we have compromised on them?

Key points

  • There are two major types of romantic compromises: (1) compromises on romantic freedom and (2) compromises on the choice of a suitable partner.
  • Four major characteristics express the difference between good and bad romantic compromises, such as being limited in time but not momentary.
  • Good compromises allow people not not only survive but to thrive.

"Too many women throw themselves into romance because they're afraid of being single, then start making compromises and losing their identity. I won't do that." —Julie Delpy

Romantic compromises are often criticized for going against the idea of genuine love. Although compromises are central in life, as well as in love, romantic ideology rejects any type of compromise and moderation. Are romantic compromises really so terrible, or can such compromises be valuable? Four major characteristics express the differences between the two.

The nature of romantic compromises

"You've got to give a little, take a little, and let your poor heart break a little, that's the glory of love." —Bette Midler

We should constantly compromise within our romantic lives. Yet half of all married couples are unable to accept the romantic compromise they have made and consequently divorce. Among those who remain married, many feel that they have compromised themselves and often think about separating. The lucky people, who are most profoundly in love, have seemingly not needed to compromise at all. They are free to follow their loving hearts, which have taken them to the relationship they want.

There are two major types of romantic compromise: (1) compromises on romantic freedom that are made when entering a committed relationship, and (2) compromises on the choice of a suitable partner. In the first type, the major concern is that we might give up alluring possible alternatives while continuing to yearn for them. In the second type, another concern is added: accepting negative aspects of the partner. When the negativity of the relationship is significant, the decision to end the compromise should be taken immediately. However, if the negativity is not severe, then yearning for the possible will usually be the dominant concern. Often the two concerns are combined, and the feeling of romantic compromise is an outcome of both.

In romantic compromises, we give up a romantic value, such as intense, passionate desire, in exchange for a nonromantic value, like living comfortably. Nevertheless, in our hearts, we keep yearning for the desired romantic road not taken. We do not know when the yearning heart’s cry is real or when the cry is momentary and can be compensated for as the relationship develops (Ben-Ze’ev, 2019).

Women who explain their romantic compromises

Here are several citations from women who explain the nature of their romantic compromises:

“I thought that without compromising, I would not get married;”

“I thought he would change;”

“He was the man who I wanted to be the father of my children;”

“I had no passionate feelings for him, but he was a good friend;”

“He was wealthy;”

“I chose an older and less passionate man, as I thought he would bring out the best in me;”

“He was stupid, but he loved me very much;”

"I didn't feel that I was compromising too much when I married my husband, but then his negative traits became clearer, and my love started to fade. I want to improve our relationship, but I have also begun to realize the value of alternative solutions. I go back and forth between these two options!"

“At my wedding, I wanted to jump out of the window and have sex with my ex, but my husband is still a good person;”

“I compensated for my marital compromise by dating other married people;”

“I did not love my late husband, but I respected him. He was very kind and proud of me and gave me back my self-confidence.”

Why is it so painful to compromise in love?

Don’t compromise yourself. You are all you’ve got.” —Janis Joplin

In a relationship, when does the art of compromise become compromising?” —Carrie Bradshaw, Sex and the City

Compromises in life and love are common, yet are often criticized as a sign of weakness and admission of defeat. Strong people are perceived as those who don’t compromise. Although close relationships require compromise, romantic ideology opposes any kind of compromise (Ben-Ze’ev & Goussinsky, 2008). The very term “romantic compromise” appears to be paradoxical. You cannot tell your partner: “I love you, darling, even though I have compromised on you.” But we often feel this way.

Unlike financial compromises, which are made in response to a specific situation and have a finite impact, romantic compromises are ongoing experiences—you might live with this compromise all your life. Moreover, romantic compromises are usually reversible. This nagging notion that there are seemingly better options can prevent lovers from being satisfied with their own lot and can pose an ongoing threat to enduring love.

We live in a complex world that demands compromise. This calls for an order of priorities that can guide us when to give up something of lower value for something of higher value. In fact, the ability to seek compromise in a conflict while understanding the concern of the other is considered the height of reason. Relative to young and middle-aged people, older people make more use of higher-order reasoning schemes that emphasize the existence of multiple concerns, allow for compromise, and recognize our limitations (Grossmann et al., 2010).

Good and bad compromises

I can't be a wife. I'm not that sort of person. Wives have to compromise all the time.” —Sarah Brightman

Compromise makes a good umbrella but a poor roof.” —James Russell Lowell

In a world without constraints, we would not need compromises, as we would get whatever we wanted. In a more realistic world, there are many limitations to what we can achieve, and compromises are necessary. This requires the distinction between good and bad compromises.

Following Robert Goodin’s analysis (2012) of good settling, we may characterize good romantic compromises as (1) setting one’s mind at rest; (2) limited in time, but not momentary; (3) having an intrinsic value, and (4) continuing striving.

1. Setting one’s mind at rest. Good compromises provide the lover’s heart with a home in which to settle. When lovers accommodate the values and desires of their beloved, they are not necessarily compromising their own values or desires but are sharing the other person’s values and desires and beginning to consider them as their own (Solomon, 1990, 150). Not every change in one’s values is a compromise.

2. Limited in time, but not momentary. Good romantic compromises are ongoing experiences over time—they are not momentary but might also not last for a very long time. The lack of a constant, active search for an alternative in good romantic compromises does not mean that such an alternative cannot be considered when circumstances are suitable. In good romantic compromises, the temporal perspective of the couple is broader than that of the immediate difficult situation.

3. Intrinsic value. Good romantic compromises are valuable not merely because they prevent futile, frustrating searches for the perfect person, but also because they promote the partners’ flourishing. Thus, in choosing a spouse, people may give greater weight to the partner’s kindness and wisdom than to that person’s attractiveness. Good romantic compromises include accepting a good-enough relationship, while continuing to try to improve it.

4. Striving. Although good compromises end futile striving, they do not stop all forms of striving. The striving, however, is focused on nurturing the romantic relationship, rather than relentlessly seeking to replace it.

In bad romantic compromises, the above characteristics are absent, as people feel that in making compromises, they are actually compromising themselves. In good compromises, the feeling of compromise vanishes when the relationship develops further, while in bad compromises, the relationship gets worse, and divorce is almost inevitable. Good compromises are those in which an initial conflict of values turns, in time, into a convergence of values (Gutmann & Thompson, 2012).

Concluding remarks

If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with.” —Crosby, Stills & Nash

The bad news concerning romantic compromises is that they are here to stay. The good news is that there are also good romantic compromises; romantic compromises are not lethal, and people can accommodate them in a way where their negative impact is eliminated, or at least reduced. In good compromises we are not merely surviving, but thriving as well.

This post is partially based on my book, The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change over Time.

References

Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The arc of love: How our romantic love changes over time. University of Chicago Press.

Ben-Ze'ev, A., & Goussinsky, R. (2008). In the name of love. Oxford University Press.

Goodin, R. (2012). On settling. Princeton University Press.

Grossmann, I., Na, J., Varnum, M. E.W., Park, D. C., Kitayama, S., & Nisbett, R.E. (2010). Reasoning about social conflicts improves into old age. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107, 7246-7250.

Gutmann, A., & Thompson, D. (2012). The spirit of compromise. Princeton University Press.

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