Healthy Compromise in a Relationship

Published 11/24/2021

Being in a healthy and fulfilling relationship means learning how to compromise effectively. Compromise is about more than practicality; it’s about balance and equity in a partnership. Balance of respect, power, desire, and values.

It can take a lot of effort during relationship challenges to compromise in an effective way. Paying attention to you and your partner’s feelings, desires, opinions, values, while at the same time building trust and not placing either of yourselves in the wrong through blame and shame is a lot to hold together. Compromise doesn’t have to be a daunting challenge. In fact, it can be one of the things you hold most important to the happiness and health of your bond.

What is Compromise in a Relationship?

For us to talk about healthy and unhealthy compromise, we must first define compromise and its role in relationships. As defined by Merriam-Webster, compromise is “a way of reaching agreement in which each person or group gives up something that was wanted in order to end an argument or dispute.” In relationships, compromise means finding the middle ground between each person’s desires while having mutual respect for each others values, core beliefs, boundaries, and feelings.

Compromise usually means being asked to do one of the following:

  • to change (yourself, schedule, expectations, behaviors, etc..)
  • to create space
  • to give something up
  • to take something on

There are times when compromise isn’t that big of a deal. When a compromise leads to us having to do or stop doing things, it might feel irritating, inconvenient, or disappointing. This is a normal thing, part of being a human being: that sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do.

But other times, the impact of these asks feels bigger — and that can be a sign that it’s somehow in conflict with your values, your needs, or your sense of self.

Never Compromise Your Deal Breakers

Deal breakers are behaviors, values, and/or characteristics of a potential long term partner that you fundamentally disagree with. Deal breakers are typically rooted in your core beliefs, values, and boundaries. While some deal-breakers can be flexible during compromise, others are not and shouldn’t be. Compromising over a rigid deal breaker to avoid conflict can quickly lead to other conflicts and personal turmoil in the long run.

Sometimes you can tell when a compromise has put a core belief on trial because we experience cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is that uncomfortable twinge we feel when we experience inconsistencies or contradictions between what we think or believe, and what we do.

Healthy vs Unhealthy Compromise

A healthy compromise consists of two individuals with different perspectives coming to a mutual solution. This involves both partners losing something in order to gain benefit from being on the same page with one another. Partners should talk about their desires and express what they want the most out of the compromise and develop an answer together that feels fair and respectful of one another. In other words, a solution that everyone is OK with.

Unhealthy compromise in a relationship can break down trust, support, and connection over time at various rates. Unhealthy compromise happens when one or both people are giving in to the point of building resentment. In other words, things feel skewed. It may be that the relationship is starting to reflect one partner’s priorities, desires, and values more than the other. When one partner is not having their vision for the relationship validated, resentment can start to bubble under the surface.

Examples of Compromise in Relationships

When it comes to compromise, it becomes less about the matter at hand and more about how you are working together. With any relationship, the people in it build a pattern of communicating. These patterns can be effective in low-stakes situations but cause absolute upheaval in higher-stake situations.

Unhealthy Compromise

A common situation is having to choose where to go for dinner when both partners want something different. There are multiple ways to go about this. Concession, or an unhealthy compromise, would be when one partner gives in and goes with the other partners choice in order to avoid conflict. Sometimes, this happens and things move on, other times it is indicative of a pattern of concession which can build up over time as resentment and distance in the relationship. This is how imbalance builds in the relationship.

Another solution would be not going out at all. This could be a result of both partners being stuck in an all-or-nothing place where a compromise isn’t an option due to avoiding conflict or other underlying relationship strain. Now neither partner has received anything they wanted and had none of their needs validated or feelings heard and respected.

Picking out a place to eat may not seem like a big deal, but if these patterns are applied to other situations, like choosing where to live, how to manage finances, or whether or not to have children, they can cause a lot of harm.

Healthy Compromise

I will say again that deciding where to go to dinner may not be high stakes, but the pattern is what is important. How you reach the compromise is vital.

One answer that has become more available in the pandemic is takeout, if you are both okay eating at home. Getting take out from the place each of you wants dinner from and eating together at home gives both of you the choice of food you want and the satisfaction of meeting that expectation.

Aiming for a third option can be a healthy solution. Take this with some caution because compromise on a third option for dinner and concession to a third option for dinner are not the same. Compromise comes from a place of mutual okay-ness. That you are both okay about the choice, say agreeing to pizza for the evening instead of either of your two options. Concession is an imbalance of this and leaves you feeling worse. Settling for pizza because compromise is not available.

Tips for Reaching Healthy Compromise

You have to give-give for a win-win

It is all about balance. Balance of adjustments and sacrifice. To compromise you have to be prepared and willing to put something on the table to be changed. If the give-give is only one person giving and the other doing nothing, this builds resentment and anger. Being able to show willingness to compromise and not just ask for compromise shows fairness and respect for your partner.

Calm and open communication

Don’t compromise when you are angry. If you or a partner is feeling angry or frustrated, this is not grounds for a good compromise. Take a break if needed. Calm and open communication paths are important to listening and considering each others perspectives.

Negotiate Up

Compromise can feel a lot like a subtraction of needs. Compromise is a place of negotiation in your relationship. While talking about what you can give for the compromise, you also talk about what you will gain from the compromise. Negotiating up, focusing on what you can gain from a mutually acceptable solution can help balance the feeling of subtraction.

Clarify your priorities

We may not know why our partner is more flexible in areas and dig their heels in the sand in other areas. Not knowing why can lead to arguments comparing different compromises. “You did __ for ___, why can’t you do ___ for ___?”

Here is a simple exercise to learn about each others flexible and inflexible values and priorities:

Do not do this activity in the midst of a conflict. It is most impactful when done in a time of peace where you are both calm and receptive to one another.

  1. You each have a paper where you draw a smaller circle in the middle and a larger circle around it. A donut shape on a paper. The small area is your inflexible area and the larger outside area is your flexible area.
  2. The inside oval will contain the ideas, needs, and values you absolutely cannot compromise on, this can include your deal-breakers. The outside oval will contain the ideas, needs, and values you feel more flexible with. Fill them in.
  3. Share this activity with your partner and ask each other some of the questions below that feel good to you:
  • Can you help me to understand why your “inflexible” needs or values are so important to you? 
  • What are your guiding feelings here?
  • What feelings and goals do we have in common? How might these goals be accomplished?
  • Help me to understand your flexible areas. Let’s see which ones we have in common.
  • How can I help you to meet your core needs?
  • What temporary compromise can we reach on this problem?

Accept Help

Learning to compromise takes practice. When we feel like we are sacrificing parts of ourselves as an individual for the sake of the relationship, our safety, trust, and fulfillment can be on unstable ground.

Trouble communicating our desires and feeling balance in your relationship can be helped by seeking a relationship counselor for support. When we learn how to compromise in a supportive environment and reap the benefits in our relationship, compromise won’t feel negative or scary but rather a vital part to the happiness in your healthy relationship.

Laura Richer, Seattle Therapist

Laura Richer, Seattle Therapist

Laura Richer is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and coach. Located in the Queen Ann neighborhood of Seattle, she is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and has been practicing in the state of Washington since 2011.

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