By Jonathan Shippey, LMFT, Certified Gottman Therapist
Q: What things should you compromise on in a relationship and what should you never compromise on?
A: The need for compromise is built into the very essence of being in a relationship. We know that couples will always have conflict, and compromise is one of the most effective ways for couples to manage their conflict in order to increase trust and understanding with each other. But before addressing your specific question about when to compromise and when not to, there are some challenges to our ability to compromise.
What most couples don’t know is that on many topics, compromise will fail if you try to start there. One of the pivotal findings from John Gottman’s research is that not all conflict is the same, so different kinds of relationship conflict require different approaches by partners, with you first needing to discern what type of conflict you are having at any given time.
The Gottman Love Lab studies found that more than two thirds of relationship conflict is perpetual, arising from problems that have to do with fundamental diﬀerences between partners: diﬀerences in personality or needs that are fundamental to their core deﬁnitions of self.
These are issues without resolution that couples will be dealing with for the duration of their lives together. They continue to talk about the same issues, occasionally making some progress, but then, after a while, the problem with their differences reemerges. In each case, the discussion is an attempt to establish a dialogue with their differences, which, admittedly, will never go away nor fully be resolved.
As Dan Wile, Ph.D, the developer of Collaborative Couple Therapy, says, “When choosing a long-term partner… you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems.” Spenders partner with savers, punctual people get with time-flexible folks, atheists and Christians fall in love and marry, and the tidy ones find themselves unable to resist to the charms of the less neat!
When you find yourselves entering into conflict that seems to be emerging from a perpetual difference between you, rather than approaching it using a problem-solving technique like compromise, I encourage you instead to start first with dialoguing about your diﬀerent subjective realities.
When these differences come up in my therapy office, I tell my clients, “We cannot get to the room called Problem-Solving, until we first hang out in the room called Understanding.” Ask questions like, “Tell me how this difference of ours impacts your core values or dreams of us and our life together?” or “What is the most important aspect of this difference that you want me to understand about you?” or “What matters most to you in this?”
If you seek understanding and acceptance of each other whenever these perpetual differences arise in your lives together, you can work your way together to a place of bemused paradox that communicates, “Baby, I love you exactly as you are, and for God’s sake, would you please change?”
If you try what most couples do instead, which is to approach such a fundamental difference by trying to compromise, Gottman research reveals that there’s a very good reason this approach won’t work: most people cannot yield on fundamental differences.
Behind each person’s position lies something deep and meaningful — something core to that person’s belief system. It might be a strongly held value or perhaps a dream not yet lived. If you cannot establish a dialogue and understanding, the perpetual differences lead to gridlocked conﬂict, and gridlocked conﬂict eventually leads to emotional disengagement and loneliness.
To not feel accepted and understood on a core difference, when something truly matters to you, is to feel fundamentally rejected by your partner. When people feel criticized, disliked, and unappreciated, they are unable to change. Instead, they feel like they have to dig in and protect their personality and sense of self from the attack and onslaught they are experiencing.
But when a relationship is safe enough and one partner clearly communicates that he or she wants to know what’s underlying their partner’s position, partners can open up and talk about their feelings, dreams, and needs. Once you’ve connected enough to where you each feel understood, where you can each say, “You really GET me!”, then, and only then, can compromise begin.
If I feel understood by you and I know that even while I may irritate the hell out of you at times, you still find me acceptable and lovable, I will gladly begin to accommodate and yield on all kinds of aspects of our life together.
And yet, there are limits to compromise and acceptance. Some things are unacceptable. No one should have to accept abuse or violence, nor should anyone have to accept betrayals of the relationship contract. It is everyone’s individual right to decide what aspects of life together are unacceptable. We call these non-negotiables.
But the vast majority of differences become acceptable once you understand that there is a way to dialogue through your differences. Doing so enables you to find solvable aspects of your perpetual differences and enter into compromises that feel peaceful and livable.