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.

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Guest's picture

When you have a huge issue between you and your spouse, like where to live or the question of children, it seems like you can't win if you have different opinions. Someone will always be upset by the decision. The only thing couples can do is discuss these major issues at the beginning of their relationship, because once you're married, there is little you can do. If there is a deal breaker, at least you notice it early in the relationship. Then, you can think about whether or not you can give and take or if the relationship isn't worth it...

Julie Rains's picture

I do think that certain issues can and ought to be resolved early, as I mentioned in the article. I thought about discussing these in terms of dealbreakers and still think that's a valid approach but had concerns about advocating (or even vaguely implying) that one person might give ultimatums or seem to give them. Thanks for commenting.

Guest's picture

compromise is not compulsory in married life.
i think mutual understanding is the best thin.
this article is so gud.
i must preffered my friend to read this.

keep it up
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Guest's picture

Wow! This is the best thing I've read in forever and a day. I give you so much credit for going against the norm when it comes to typical ideas surrounding this topic. You are so absolutely right.

Julie Rains's picture

Thanks so much for your comment. Compromise can be useful but certainly not always.

Guest's picture

You can tell that was written by a woman. As a married male I'm a pro at compromising. Women never have to. So, if you are a guy about to get married, here is the only advice you need in this area... learn these words: "Yes Dear". Then when she is not looking, do it anyway ;).

Julie Rains's picture

Sounds fun. Here's an example of agreeing without compromise (not letting someone else win by default and then holding it against them or being deceitful): my husband and I needed to change medical insurance and were scrutinizing options. I felt uncomfortable with the only in-network providers scenario but he wanted to go with this less expensive option.

One of the reasons I didn't like the in-network only plan was because of possible emergencies during travel and we were in the midst of planning a vacation. He thought I was being overly cautious (surely they'd pay for emergencies, he reasoned) but I wanted more certainty and didn't want to argue with anyone about what constituted an emergency after the fact. He dug into the policy design and found that his favored option had an entire program devoted to travel -- we just needed to call ahead of our trip, get the name of approved providers, and yes, emergencies were covered. So, I agreed with him after the discussion. This approach can work for both sides.

Guest's picture

I like how a lot of the comments are very tactful in nature :-). Instead of feeding the trolls you give a good rebuttal and even a thank you!

Anyways, I enjoyed the article and often look for better ways as a male to compromise without letting my female counterpart get what she wants only. I think both with proper education of their options and opinions (i.e. speaking more in depth about the issue and 'drilling' to the core of the issue and finding out why or why not its in the best interest of you/me/us) helps. Its definitely good to find this out early in the relationship because it can set the tone for so much ahead (like looking out to the sky in the morning and seeing dark clouds approaching before heading out to sea-- you can either steer through the storm or avoid it altogether...).

Good sounding foundation material for a solid relationship I'd like to think...

Guest's picture

Gaah. Living the "where to live" debate now. I have a compromise position, he does not. Also, I have built up resentment about being made the family (just the 2 of us) breadwinner 8 years ago when he lost his job - and he hasn't worked since. I am a loving and supportive spouse, but how long do I be loving and supportive without living where I want to live (BTW, I have a completely portable and good job I can take with me to continue to support us)?

Julie Rains's picture

This is a tough one all-around, not just the where-to-live debate but the working/resentment added in -- something that I don't think a blog post could handle but perhaps a counselor or non-biased friends who can see the full situation.

Guest's picture

Gaah. Living the "where to live" debate now. I have a compromise position, he does not. Also, I have built up resentment about being made the family (just the 2 of us) breadwinner 8 years ago when he lost his job - and he hasn't worked since. I am a loving and supportive spouse, but how long do I be loving and supportive without living where I want to live (BTW, I have a completely portable and good job I can take with me to continue to support us)?