I’m going to break some conventions here, but, despite being a therapist, I’m a fairly opinionated person. I know there’s this idea out there that therapists nod politely and ask “how does that make you feel?” That style has never really fit for me, though, either personally or professionally. I’ve got strong opinions on books, movies, and why Pink Floyd being the best band of all time isn’t actually an opinion, it is a provable fact (I am sometimes prone to hyperbole on less significant topics). But yeah, this is one of those opinions that I think people struggle with because it has somehow permeated our cultural norms: I hate compromise. I hate it for individual clients, I especially hate it for the couples I work with, I hate it in family settings. Hate is a strong word, but I really feel that I need to convey something beyond strong dislike. Compromise is no good. Stop doing it, stop suggesting, stop reading books that talk about it.
Why is compromise so bad? Well, plainly put, compromise is two people not getting what they want. Right? Like, by definition, person A has their ideal, person B has a different ideal, and each gives up a little bit until some middle ground gets found. It’s built on each person not getting what they want, and it’s implied that each person needs to give something up in order to make it work. Yuck, pass on all of that. Compromise also lends itself to couples keeping track of who gave up what, who gave up more, who did this last year, blah, blah, blah. Keeping track is super unhelpful and, based on our brain’s many cognitive biases, is also often incorrect. So, we’re left with two people who angrily, regrettably have given up more than they want in the name of some sort of functional agreement that will likely circle back because compromise runs on a negative feedback loop. You wanted a third kid so I want a sports car and you took that trip without me and your sibling borrowed money and hasn’t paid us back so I am entitled to recompense! It’s gross, and it doesn’t work, especially in the context of a long-term relationship.
Well, what to do instead? My short answer is to say yes to both things. That is the starting point, at least, if not where problem-solving always ends up. But, if we start by saying yes, and then working backwards to how that can even be possible, we tap into an entirely different communication pattern, one based around collaboration and problem-solving, not one based on keeping track and some odd notion of equal unhappiness. Well, my partner wants two kids and I don’t want any, how can we say yes to both? We can’t obviously, but compromise doesn’t lend this problem anything useful either. We end up with one kid and two unhappy people, or like a kid and a dog maybe? Compromises usually don’t even out along an average, and they’re usually not logical! So, in some cases, saying yes to both won’t work, at least not right away. But by approaching it from each partner wanting to give the other partner what they want, by wanting to say yes as a starting point, we can work backwards and have a much different discussion about why each person is desiring what they want, what is meaningful to them, and we can still engage in a problem-solving communication pattern. Some heavy topics and high-level desires shouldn’t be given up on in the name of a fake sense of fairness. Fair is not a paradigm I ever use in therapy, it just isn’t useful.
Research shows that most couples, even happy, healthy couples have a handful of disagreements that they cannot seem to resolve. Those couples, unlike the unhappy/unhealthy crowd, don’t get bogged down in the disagreement. Their time is filled with mostly positive interaction, and when they disagree, they are quick to get back on track doing positive things for their relationship, even if the disagreement is unresolved. Because very little matters more than your daily interactions in a relationship. Again, some exceptions exist, this is a two page blog, not an exhaustive treatise on the topic. But getting in these two habits, starting from a point of wanting to say yes and getting back on track quickly, will combine to make a huge difference in a relationship. If this is a thing you struggle with, head over to the contact page and reach out, I love doing the messy problem-solving while balancing healthy boundaries and good communication.