Mick Jagger said it best when he first crooned, “You can’t always get what you want.” The act of compromise involves a give and take. You don’t always win, but you don’t always lose either. For some couples, compromise denotes a four–letter word; for others, compromise strengthens their romantic relationship.
Compromise means letting go of control and recognizing our partner’s needs and desires. If we remain committed to an open, honest relationship with the right chemistry, then compromise should be something we embrace, not something we shun. With that said, an important distinction exists between compromising certain needs and desires for the benefit of our relationship versus compromising our core values. Remember, our needs define things we strive for in our lives; they are vital and necessary; they support our core values.
Compromise provides balance in a romantic relationship. When two people care deeply for one another and share a mutual respect for one another, they can learn to compromise with one another. The notion of a fifty-fifty compromise implies a utopian state. No relationship maintains a perfect balance at all times, but couples should strive to give and take in equal measure. Compromise doesn’t frolic on easy street. It involves effort, commitment, and sacrifice. But compromise doesn’t have to be arduous either. If you practice open, honest communication, you can find a mutually beneficial approach to almost anything. Be receptive to your partner’s needs and try to see things from their perspective. The more you understand and appreciate one another, the easier compromise becomes. As Doctors Olson, Olson-Sigg, and Larson point out in The Couple Checkup, “Strong relationships strive for a balance of intimacy, loyalty, sharing, and independence. Happy couples strive to accommodate each other’s needs and make time for both individual and shared activities.”
We all have needs we must fulfill for ourselves. These might include exercise, eating healthy, attending religious services, volunteering, entertaining friends, and so forth. In other ways, we look to our partner to fulfill certain needs such as personal attention, evocative conversation, or a shoulder to lean on. Try to recognize and differentiate between needs you require yourself to satisfy and relationship needs that require your romantic partner’s involvement. Compromise can be a daunting task if we don’t know where we stand in terms of our needs being met and how far we’re willing to bend—or negotiate our position. The best way to keep our relationship in balance is to not let it teeter too far in the first place. If only it were that easy. In some ways it is. We always have a choice: give up a little to support the care and feeding of our relationship—or stand firm and pay more later when tensions mount and tempers flare.
In a June 2011 Psychology Today article, Dr. Mark D. White posed the question, “How much compromise is too much?” In his article, he asserts that small compromises are expected and manifest in our relationships. I concur. I also agree relationships should not require both persons to change who they are fundamentally in order to meet the needs of one another. Or as Dr. White explains, “Be careful not to give up too much of what is important to you for the sake of the relationship.”
Only you can define what’s important to you. Together you and your partner define what’s important to your relationship. This introduces the notion of cooperation, which some psychiatrists view as a polar opposite ideology to compromise. I disagree. I believe cooperation signifies an elemental component of compromise, not a mutually exclusive philosophy. To put it a different way, you can’t have one without the other.
In Keith Ferrazzi’s book, Who’s Got Your Back, the author promotes collaboration over compromise, where partners work together to develop a solution without requiring either partner to sacrifice or give something up. The notion of couples collaborating on solutions together to solve problems speaks to the heart of compromise. Romantic relationships represent partnerships of love and respect built on trust and intimacy between two individuals who share a common desire to share their lives together. Although occasional conflicts are inevitable, the strongest relationships involve a spirit of collaboration and compromise.
Where I depart from Ferrazzi’s motto of “collaborate don’t compromise” is the notion of not having to sacrifice something for your partner for the benefit of your relationship. By definition, compromise involves mutual concessions, and only you can decide how far you’re willing to extend your concessions. If you’re not willing to sacrifice something for the benefit of your relationship, then you’re not willing to compromise.
The Negotiation Fulcrum
Think of negotiation as a fulcrum, or the point about which a lever turns. Now imagine the fulcrum on a see-saw, a fixed point that remains stationary and allows one person to go up and one person to go down from either side. Observe the simple graphic in Figure 1, which depicts a relationship in balance with both his and her needs met in equal proportion with a fulcrum in the middle. In this instance, the needs are perfectly balanced. No compromise required. The fulcrum, or negotiation, remains in neutral, signifying a copasetic relationship.
Figure 1: Relationship in Perfect Balance
Now look at Figure 2 and pretend one person’s needs and desires weigh more than their partner’s, causing an imbalance where one side is favored more than the other—an untenable position due to the fixed, unmovable nature of the fulcrum in the middle. In this case, our fulcrum represents a stubborn, unmovable position in our relationship, derived from minimal, if any, effort to compromise. In terms of satisfied needs, one partner gets more, and one partner gets less.
Figure 2: Relationship Imbalance Without Negotiation
But if we adjust our fulcrum position—signifying our willingness to negotiate—then we can change the mechanical advantage of our see-saw—working toward a compromise—and allow the heavier side to move up a bit and the lighter side to come down, resulting in a more balanced position without sacrificing our core values or highest priority needs. In Figure 3, we see the effect of negotiation and how both sides can balance their position in spite of the apparent disparity between his needs and her needs. Of course this doesn’t happen by magic, and in this example, his needs are sacrificed to some extent.
Figure 3: Rebalanced Needs After Negotiation
Our weights—or needs and desires in this analogy—don’t have to be significantly compromised to keep our balance in check because our moveable fulcrum—our willingness to negotiate—performs this function for us. Notice I said significantly compromised, implying that at times, we have to be willing to sacrifice some part of our needs and desires to reach a compromise.
When we avoid negotiations and ignore each other’s needs altogether, we infuse a negative compromise, resulting in an out-of-balance relationship. Instead of striving for a fifty-fifty position, our relationship maintains a sixty-forty, seventy-thirty, eight-twenty ratio, or thereabouts, where one partner enjoys most of what they want—with their needs consistently met—while the other partner settles for less—with their needs consistently unmet.
Now consider Figure 4 drawn to demonstrate a win-lose position through negative compromise. Note the yellow and red sections along the bar. In Figure 4, the loads are balanced—i.e., both his and her needs appear to be met—but in reality, the negotiation has gone so far left or right of center, that one person must sacrifice—i.e., move their fulcrum—an inordinate amount to achieve a balanced position, or compromise.
Figure 4: Poorly Balanced Needs
According to Herbert Kelman, a Harvard psychologist who specializes in negotiations, “The process of negotiation itself restores cooperation between conflicting parties. Solving their problems together transforms their relationship. This requires each side to be able to understand not just the other person’s point of view, but their needs and desires as well. This empathy makes each side better able to influence the other to their own benefit, by being responsive to their partner’s needs to find ways in which both parties can win.”
Romantic relationships are fluid. They have their ups and downs. In human relationships, conflict is inevitable. Partners represent different genders, behavior patterns, beliefs, and personality styles—causing relationships to become discordant at times. In the beginning of a new romantic relationship, disparities can be workable, but only to a certain extent. Eventually, the twenty percent partner in an eighty-twenty relationship will start to feel slighted. The chemistry might persist, but the excitement from the new relationship will diminish when the twenty percent partner starts to resent the constant absence or suppression of their own needs. Eventually, when the see-saw doesn’t balance, it breaks.
Whether you’re in search of your next relationship or enjoying the early stages of a new one, you must learn to gauge your willingness to compromise on your own needs and desires before approaching a compromise situation within your relationship. I call this personal compromise.
Personal compromise defines which, if any of your needs or desires you are willing to compromise versus those you are not. Unlike your core values and beliefs that are cast in stone, your lower priority needs and desires have a certain elasticity to them. Meaning, in the right circumstance, you may be willing to concede certain lower level needs and desires to effect a compromise. In one personal example, I have a need for at least seven hours sleep, due to my work demands and exercise routine. If I’m on a date, and I’m enjoying the company I’m with, I will ignore my seven hour rule and stay up later than I prefer to. That said, I’m only willing to compromise so far on this need for seven hours of sleep, because ultimately, my overall physical and mental health, which I consider a high priority need for myself, requires sufficient rest to achieve. If I’m involved with someone whose biological clock prompts them to stay up late every night, I might forgo my seven hours on occasion but not routinely. Over the years, I’ve come to accept this personal compromise as one I’m willing to make for the right person. In another example, I love the ocean and water-centric activities, but I’m willing to compromise my desire to spend time on the water for someone with whom I share a nice chemistry with but who happens to prefer dry land. I’ve defined for myself, the lower priority needs and desires I’m willing to compromise on so long as doing so does not negatively impact my higher priority needs and desires. I encourage you to think about this and decide where you might be open to personal compromise. If you don’t define where you’re willing to give and take, you’ll have a hard time making compromise work in your relationship.
Conflict Management Styles
In the words of William Ellery Channing, “Difficulties are meant to rouse, not discourage. The human spirit is to grow strong by conflict.” When I cycle in gusty weather and have to struggle through every mile in conflict with Mother Nature, I tell myself strong winds make strong legs. In our romantic relationships, our approach to conflict resolution should focus on productive negotiations with a spirit of love and respect to resolve differences rather thanclinging to preconceived notions of how our relationship should appear. Or to paraphrase my cycling analogy, conflict can actually strengthen our romantic relationships if we approach it the right way.
In terms of conflict management, each person brings different personalities and past experiences to their romantic relationship. They also bring their own behavioral perspective to conflict resolution. In a perfect world, we should always strive to air our disagreements in an open forum to encourage a healthy discussion with active listening, or authentic listening, defined by authors Stone, Patton, and Heen in Difficult Conversations, as “listening because you are curious and because you care, not just because you’re supposed to.”
If you find the perfect world, let me know, and I’ll book a flight. Until then, we can only work with what we have. Mahatma Gandhi said, “True strength does not come from physical capacity, it comes from an indomitable will.” In this case, our indomitable will to maintain a meaningful and lasting romance through more proficient conflict management starts with a willingness to learn and adapt what we learn without prejudice. So far, we’ve touched on the concept of balancing our needs through negotiation and personal compromise. Now let’s go a little deeper and examine conflict management from personality and behavioral perspectives.
Personality Perspective on Conflict Management
Personality traits represent our unique ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving, which influence how we respond to any given situation. Within this context, several theories represent multidimensional constructs describing the psychological type of individuals. Research in the field of personality theory associates personality with the quality of our social interactions and social relationships. Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, developed three dimensions of normal behavior types to explain how normal, healthy people differ from one other. According to Jung, people think and act differently from one another in a manner he categorized with the following personality types:
- Introverted/Extroverted—describes how people prefer to focus their attention and derive their energy.
- Sensing/Intuitive—describes how people prefer to take in information from the world.
- Thinking/Feeling—describes how people prefer to make decisions.
Studies suggest introverted people prefer accommodation or avoidance and extroverted individuals prefer competition or collaboration. Studies also show how personality attributes like dominance, authoritarianism, aggressiveness, and suspiciousness increase tension in a conflict situation. Conversely, personality attributes like trust, open–mindedness, and equality instill a more manageable conflict situation.
Behavioral Perspectives on Conflict Management
From a behavioral perspective, our conflict management styles will vary from person to person, but according to behavioral scientists Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann, we respond to conflict in one of the following five ways:
This Thomas-Kilmann model of behavioral conflict management also identifies two conceptually independent dimensions of interpersonal behavior associated with each of the conflict management styles, namely: assertiveness—defined as behavior intended to satisfy a person’s own concerns, and cooperativeness—defined as behavior intended to satisfy another’s concerns. The following graphic correlates each conflict management style to a range of assertive or cooperative interpersonal behaviors. As the figure indicates, the compromising conflict management style strikes a balance between assertiveness and cooperativeness.
Conflict Management Styles
Competing (assertive, uncooperative)
According to the Thomas-Kilmann model, individuals who exhibit a competing style respond to conflict in an assertive and uncompromising manner. This conflict management style attempts to gain power at the expense of the other individual in a “win-lose” approach.