How to Agree without Compromise
June is a popular month for weddings. During this time, many couples will probably hear that compromise is the key to a healthy relationship. I disagree.
When my husband and I got married more than 25 years ago, we talked about compromise. We didn’t actually compromise, but we talked about what the word meant and mostly, I talked about why I believed that compromise was, very often, a lousy idea.
I tend to take things literally and many of the dictionary definitions aren’t promising in terms of personal and relationship well-being (see com·pro·mise from the American Heritage Dictionary):
- To expose or make liable to danger, suspicion, or disrepute
- To reduce in quality, value, or degree; weaken or lower
- To impair by disease or injury
- To settle by mutual concessions
“To settle by mutual concessions” is, I hope, what most people are thinking of when they expound the benefits of compromise, though I weigh in the negative connotations. Reaching an agreement by meeting halfway isn’t always possible or advisable.
Taking turns is one tactic for compromising. Sure, if one person wants to have Italian for dinner and the other wants Chinese, you can cook your own meals separately, arrange take-out and eat at home, or you could eat Chinese tonight and get Italian next time. But this method can be disastrous when circumstances change (as they will) and whoever should have the next turn doesn’t get to choose.
And, what’s an appropriate compromise if:
- She wants to live in New York but he wants to stay in LA. Do you choose Chicago?
- He wants to start a family; she doesn’t want children. Do you babysit your nieces and nephews on weekends? Do you become foster parents?
- She thinks that putting money into a surefire (translation: risky) investment is the perfect solution to money problems but he disagrees. Do you put 50% in the investment and 50% in a savings account?
Maybe, I’m just bad at finding mutual concessions. But sometimes doing the right thing doesn’t mean each person gets a half-win, half-lose solution.
Before making a commitment, some issues ought to be discussed. If one person never wants children, then the other needs to have this information to make a decision about whether to continue the relationship. The idea is to consider and express what’s truly important to you, not find a way to control your partner.
Look beyond superficial solutions. Drill down to the core of the problem. Discover motivations. Talk about your reasoning. Tell childhood dreams and lifelong insecurities. Once spoken, fears may seem unwarranted; dreams, now undesirable. One partner may finally understand the other’s angst surrounding certain issues and reverse direction. You may learn that there's not enough money to pay the mortgage, and decide to find a smaller home and sell one of your cars, rather than hoping that an investment could mean a big payoff.
Explore alternatives that address underlying problems. Professional contacts that seem impossible to keep intact on a long distance basis after moving across the country could be preserved through frequent travel and face-to-face visits.
Consider the impact of decisions on the well-being of you as a couple, which may or may not be the sum total of each individual’s happiness.
Agree immediately, or table the discussion for later, or have a series of discussions. Find the path that leads to wherever you decide you want and need to go.
Compromise can be a quick-and-easy conflict-solving technique. But it can also be a shortcut that doesn't lead to a better relationship, assuring that noone gets what he (or she) wants, allowing deeper problems to simmer, and stalling or preventing in-depth discussions of hopes, priorities, needs. For the long haul, you’ll need more than compromise in your relationship-building toolbox.