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The Art of Compromise

Compromise is not about giving in.

Source: RyanMcguire/pixabay

Jack will admit that he avoids conflict. If his partner, Abby, takes a firm stand, he’s apt to go along simply. What Abby often doesn’t realize is that Jack is giving in when she assumes they are on the same page.

Good relationships are about balance, where both partners feel they have an equal voice and can reach a mutual compromise if there is a disagreement. But there are healthy and unhealthy forms of compromise, and over time, like Jack and Abby, an imbalance will lead to problems. If Jack continually gives in and feels that Abby is running the relationship and always getting what she wants, Jack is at risk of falling into depression, having smoldering resentment that can lead to periodic explosions, and maybe eventually to an I’m-fed-up divorce.

Here are some of the unhealthy versions of compromise that you want to avoid:

Going Along

Many, like Jack, have learned to manage relationships and conflict by being passive and going long. The problem is that less anxiety comes with a cost—you’re living others' lives and not his own, and at some point, you look back and realize that you never lived the life you truly wanted. The challenge for folks like Jack is to learn to speak up despite other’s disapproval and strong emotions.

Give In, but Expect a Payoff

Jack goes along with Abby but believes he deserves some payback—appreciation, more affection, and sex or that she will give in to his desires at some future time. Usually, the problem is that this is all in his head. It would be more balanced if he said, “I’m willing to go along with this, but I need you to support me on that.” Again, the key is speaking up.


Pre-compromising is common when both partners are conflict-avoidant and accommodating. Before saying what he wants, Jack is culling through Abby’s possible reactions, and Abby does the same. For example, they are deciding what to do on vacation. Jack would like to go to the beach, but rather than saying that, he first mentally sorts through what would be acceptable to Abby—not the beach because she thinks it’s too boring or hot—so instead, he drops the beach and proposes a choice B—go camping at a park. Similarly, Abby, who would love to go to New York City but does the same—thinks that Jack will complain about the congestion or cost, and so instead, suggests they go camping. And they meet; both say they want to go camping, and off they go.

Is the vacation OK? Sure, it’s OK, but they are both living on B or C lists and not really getting what they each wanted. While this pre-compromising may work for years, this watered-down approach to decisions and life accumulates at some point. When they hit some developmental milestone—a quarter-year, 7-year-itch, or midlife crisis—and are fed up with watering down their wants, they rebel.

What these coping skills have in common is that they are childhood-based and no longer work in adult life; while they may continue to reduce anxieties, the consequences build up. The antidote is to upgrade to a healthier version of compromise—a win-win where you both, as adults, meet in the middle. Here’s how to get there:

Decide on what you want rather than what you should do. Instead of thinking in terms of the “good enough” vacation, think about what you ideally want; rather than going on autopilot and thinking about how to avoid conflict, take the risk of deciding what is important to you. Knowing what you want rather than what you should do to prevent conflict is a step toward defining and seeing yourself as an adult.

Meet, be clear, and say what you want. It's time to sit down together. Pick a time that allows you both to be your best selves—not 11 p.m. or after you’ve had three beers.

Avoid pre-compromising. Be bold, get it on the table, and avoid the temptation to water it down. Jack says he wants to go to the beach, Abby to the city. Not only are they being clear, but they are doing now what they couldn’t as children, which in turn helps them heal old wounds.

Don’t be a bully. If advocating for yourself is new for you, you might be tempted to overdo it and be bullish. Step it down a few steps without slipping into giving in or passivity. Stay in your rational brain; think about how you might handle this type of situation at work.

Think outside the box. If you are both on different pages—Jack and Abby can’t agree on where to go on vacation—it’s time to think outside the box: a staycation, a new destination that neither would consider, wrapping both ideals somehow into one trip. Jack may decide on a separate trip with his brother, while Abby will go to New York with her friend and then go camping together. Or, they will split the time—a couple of days at the beach and a couple in the city, and then they will both go camping.

Aim for a win-win compromise. Win-win means that you both feel heard and are willing to adjust your ideas—not out of anxiety or habit or scoring points and being a martyr—but out of caring for others and still feeling that you’re being heard. Because the devil is always in the details, make sure you both map out precisely your new game plan.

Try and fine-tune. Jack and Abby do the research and find they can’t afford what they thought would work. Or they start their plan, but midway find that it’s not working. Plans look good on paper but undoubtedly need to be tweaked or changed once you have boots on the ground. Expect it, adjust, and keep the same attitude.

Moving through relationships and life is a matter of compromise but not giving in. The skills are knowing what you want, advocating for what’s important, and then being willing to make concessions so the other person feels heard and respected.

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