The Art of Compromise
He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot, will be victorious.
- Sun Tzu
Couples are often advised to “choose their battles.” That is to say, know which issues are worth fighting for and which aren’t really important. The logic is that you should save your strength for the things that really matter.
Unfortunately, not all conflicts have clear winners. In some instances, both parties may have reasonable but contradictory claims. You can go ahead and fight it out … but neither of you will be victorious. In such situations, you and your partner must be able to compromise. Otherwise, your relationship will reach a stalemate, with neither of you being able to move forward.
Being uncompromising on ethical matters makes you a strong person. Being uncompromising in an intimate relationship, however, is sometimes less noble. The issues that cause conflict in a relationship often stem from selfishness. It is natural to be primarily concerned with your own aspirations, ambitions and interests. However, when you commit to another person, you are committing to look out for their interests as well.
Here are some common areas of conflict for couples:
Areas of Compromise
- Career—Whose career takes priority? Should one of you stay home with the kids? Who should be the primary breadwinner?
- Finances—Is your breadwinner making enough dough? Who manages the budget? How should the money be spent?
- Sex—How often should you have sex? What sexual behaviors are expected, desired, or forbidden?
- Housework—How should chores be divided? Are you doing your fair share?
- Personal Ambitions—Which dreams get to be pursued? What lifelong goals need to be put on hold?
- Parenting—How many kids do you want? When will you have them? How will you discipline them?
- Social Life—Who gets to go out? When, where, and with whom?
- Family Obligations—How much time do you spend with your family? How do you respond when they meddle in your relationship?
Striking a fair balance between your partner’s desires and your own is challenging, but not impossible.
How to Compromise
Identify what is driving you
Humans are competitive by nature. Before you pick a fight, make sure you understand what is really motivating your reaction. If you are being prompted by an important difference of opinion, so be it. But if you are disagreeing simply for the sake of disagreeing, check your impulses. Weigh the strength of your feelings against those of your partner. If you know your partner feels more strongly about the matter (and has a legitimate point), yield some ground.
Understand that compromise is not surrender
People often resist compromising because they think of it as defeat. But compromise is not surrender. Compromise is a truce. Truces are established between two parties who recognize that there is no definitive way to prove a winner, without massive carnage.
A truce does not require you to believe that your partner’s claims are actually superior to your own. You simply need to understand your partner’s worth—that he or she deserves to be spared hostile, prolonged and unproductive warfare. You can acknowledge the validity of your partner’s feelings or opinions without having to actually agree with him/her.
Define your terms
We usually have a little wiggle room in our personal objectives. Decide where you are willing to bend. Be willing to give up something in order to gain something significant.
Be careful what you bargain with
Be sure the conditions established in your bargaining are fair and relevant to the issue at hand. Otherwise, your negotiations can turn ugly. For example, sex is generally understood to be part of the marital contract. Nevertheless, some couples use sex (or the lack thereof) as leverage in conflict. But withholding sex from your partner merely to get your way is manipulative. And it is a tactic that can backfire, in a big way.
Don’t be hostile
Compromise is often best described using military terms. To successfully negotiate with your partner, however, you cannot approach him/her as your enemy. A hostile attitude only makes the situation worse.
Know what to never compromise
While relationships require flexibility, there are some things you should never compromise. You should never be forced to act against your core values, conscience, or dignity. And even in the fiercest disagreement, your physical well-being should never be in danger. These are the non-negotiables of a healthy relationship—protect them diligently.
Constantly warring with your partner weakens your emotional reserves and damages your relationship. If you see compromise as weakness, you will be unlikely to practice it. But refusing to compromise can undermine your chances of lasting love. If you view compromise as an intelligent and humane way to resolve conflict, however, you are much more likely to embrace it as a useful tool.
Sometimes it is worth “losing” a battle to win the war. In this case, the war you are fighting is not against each other, but for each other—to secure the prize of a healthy, mutually-supportive and lasting relationship.