The Problem With Compromise
I tell my couples that I don’t like the idea of compromise. Most people that I see think of it too simplistically, like splitting things down the middle. That might work OK for sharing dessert. But if one person wants to live in New York and the other in San Francisco, you can’t usually settle it by moving to Chicago. Or if one partner wants a baby and the other is reluctant? Have half a baby? Get a dog?
The difficulties in relationship have to do with the differences between us.
Those differences at their hearts usually cannot be split or dissolved. As I’ve written elsewhere, most boil down to value or personality differences, and the two are intertwined. Personality (and/or temperament) involves relatively invariant traits like introversion/extroversion, agreeableness, or openness to experience.
I define values as emotionally loaded beliefs. The reason we grow distant or get into fights is because we get emotionally attached to beliefs, our beliefs (or the actions that spring from them) come into conflict, and then the conflicts become emotionally threatening to our senses of integrity. I believe the dishwasher should be done this way, you believe it should be done that way, and so we tussle about how it should be done. I believe you said x, you believe you said y, and we get caught up in a fight about the fight. You like to lounge around on vacation, I like to see all the sights; you like putzing around the house, I like socializing with friends, etc., etc. It’s been said that fights are not so much about winning, as not losing.
We will fight mightily to avoid the pain of losing a piece of ourselves.
There’s also some overlap between personality and values. For instance, introverts are more likely to enjoy quiet hanging around the homestead, whereas extroverts are more apt to want to be out meeting and greeting.
Some issues are amenable to finding a middle road, but as it gets more into personality differences, core values, and identity, the tension rises. As the feelings grow that our needs are not getting met and our partner isn’t hearing us, the polarization can get exaggerated. We can even end up even thinking that our person doesn’t care or doesn’t like us! And how do you compromise on that!
Instead of compromise, I suggest that what is needed is a combination of acceptance and adaptation. Acceptance is understanding what our partner’s personality traits and core values are, how they’re different from our own, and granting that ultimately they’re not going to change radically. John Gottman’s research shows that 2/3 of couples problems never go away. The “master” couples are the ones who can make some peace with this.
I believe those 2/3 of “perpetual problems” are based in differences of personality and core values.
Adaptation is the flip side of acceptance. It’s the little efforts you make that let your partner know that even though your personality and core values are not the same as theirs, you’re willing to step out of your comfort zone a scootch because you know it matters to them. We do this more easily in the dating/honeymoon phase because we’re especially motivated to capture the other person. But then we can become complacent once things are more solid. This is part of the reason behind the oft-heard complaint that one’s partner was different “when we were dating.” Most likely so were you!
There are a few tweaks that can help. First of all, though it works best if both partners are striving for both things, don’t police your partner. Just work on your acceptance of your partner's ways of being, and your adaptations to their requests and desires.
Second, gratitude helps with both things. Often the things that bother us about others are the double-edged counterpart of the things we love. The easygoing person may also run late. The uptight person may be attentive to detail and planning. The person who’s good with people may be not so good with computers, and vice-versa. Remind yourself that along with the things you like will probably be some things you like less.
Third, remember that you chose this person and they chose you.
What may seem like arbitrary concerns or desires on your partner’s part are not arbitrary to him/her/them.
They’re meaningful and important to them, otherwise they wouldn’t make such a big fuss about it. So learn why it’s important to the person you love even if it’s not important to you, whether it’s football, flowers, keeping the counter clean, being allowed to leave some things lying around, staying connected to the difficult relative, getting down on the ground with the kids, moving to Poughkeepsie…whatever.
Finally, sometimes it requires being able to tolerate the tension of the differences between you without having to solve anything in the moment or rush to a conclusion. Anxiety drives us to want to fix things, to wrap things up. But the big issues — like babies, where to live, when to get married — may take some time. Impulsively grasping at closure to relieve the anxiety often means one person is overpowering and/or the other is capitulating prematurely.
As you’ve probably experienced, that rarely works well in the long run. Learn from that experience. Take time together to mull over all the considerations and conflicting elements. Take time to really understand both partners’ wishes and aversions to the point that you can accurately describe them back to each other, including the emotional roots that bind them. This is much more likely to lead to eventual mutual adjustment and agreement that will weather well.