Compromise in Relationships
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | September 16, 2020 (edited 9-24-2021)
Compromise in relationships allows for connection and autonomy to co-exist.
From the magical beginnings, bonds form, and dreams materialize. Relationships grow from enchanting origins, where protections lower and vulnerability ceases. However, this illusion fades and reality returns. Our loving and dotting partner’s blindness is cured, and dreadfully our imperfections are now seen. When flaws are exposed, vulnerabilities come back to life, shaking security. Individual differences rock the harmonious bonds. All relationships reach these crossroads. We must transverse this juncture if intimacy is to survive.
Conflict is inevitable. Disney’s portrayal of “happily ever after” is quite deceptive. The ignorant believe harmony is a product of a perfect union. Early harmony is a temporary and biological ceasefire embedded in our DNA that has blinded young lovers throughout human history. Love, however, is only blind for a moment. True harmony comes through compromise, adapting to differences.
"I simply do not think that yelling, swearing, threatening or belittling will get you to the place you want to be faster than kindness, understanding, patience and a little willingness to compromise."
Autonomy in Relationships
Healthy relationships maintain some of the early naivety, continuing to positively translate a partner’s actions, giving lovers room for error. Once positive bias is lost, relationships spiral downward. But complete blindness misses glaring realities. We can’t ignore everything; couples must establish acceptable remedies to address differences.
Personal wellness demands autonomy. We can’t enjoy the richness of living while only existing as an inferior appendage to someone else’s life. We face a notable dilemma: a need for others and a need for autonomy. Jordan and Margarete Paul wrote, “there are two feelings we want to avoid at all costs and that all our protections stem from an attempt to avoid feeling these two feelings. These feelings are loneliness and helplessness” (2002, Location 132).
Many partners act from an implicit threat, “If you don’t like what I do, then you will not love me anymore.” The threat dampens desires for autonomy. Fearful lovers abandon themselves to preserve a union. They justify this sacrifice as a necessity for love and expect their partners to do the same “if you really love me, you would….” The threat of abandonment isn’t without merit. Some partners, the unhealthy ones, will reject significant others that assert freedoms.
Narcissistic partners constantly feed abandonment fears. They prefer a servant to a healthy autonomous partner. Anxious lovers also fear partner autonomy, reacting to interpersonal conflict with protective venom, squashing their fear through attempts to manipulate.
See Autonomy in Romantic Relationships for more on this topic
Lack of Compromise and Manipulation
When autonomous action is disallowed, we invite deception. A hidden autonomy may preserve some self-efficacy, momentarily soothing stings of helplessness. However, this is a fool’s game. Deception prevents confrontations, promoting autonomy of sorts while imprisoning the deceiver to the lie. The secret prevents rejection but magnifies loneliness—the nagging feeling of not being known. The lies drive a wedge, preventing closeness, forcibly separating hearts, and killing intimacy. Deceptive adaptations belong to the sociopaths; we must seek something better.
Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks wrote, “The drive for approval, and to avoid disapproval, dominates the relationships of co-dependents” (1992, location 271). The health of a relationship depends on breaking control and approval programming. Our wellness, a flourishing life, relies on a healthy integration of connection and autonomy—not sacrificing one for the other. Compromise is the key.
Compromise is an agreement that settles a dispute, achieved by each side making concessions.
A compromise sets the stage for future compromises. A healthy foundational compromise considers the wellness of both partners before decisions are made. Autonomy still exists. Healthy couples maintain sacred personal space, establishing a sanctity of self, designating personal areas that are unbudgingly protected. However, the right to protect personal space comes by willingness to sacrifice in other areas, often leaving a few cherished possessions at the altar of the relationship. Not every transaction is an implicit this for that compromise, but the overall composition of healthy relationships displays an array of autonomy and willful sacrifice. A beautiful balance of give and take.
Sometimes compromises are unhealthy. The most destructive relationships demand killing of the autonomous self; victims give up autonomy for the wondrous blessing of demeaning abuse. Insecurity is a beast. Operating under the fear of abandonment, prospective lovers readily sacrifices everything hoping to quench their unrelenting thirst for security.
The concept of compromise seems fundamental, but the practice is demanding, and, for some, impossible. A partner’s autonomy conjures frightening demons of insecurity. When security is only achieved by constant approval, partners must walk to the inflexible lines of the other’s approval. We envision compromise as mutually fulfilling, which they often are, however, sacrifices also hurt. If everything offered for the relationships was painless, the accommodations can scarcely be called sacrifice.
Compromise is not Always Painless
A common misconception is that anything given for the relationship should be painless. “I want you to give me what I want because you want it too.” This presupposes that relationships have set standards of common desires. Expecting partners to want all the same things is unrealistic and, frankly disrespectful to partner’s willingness to sacrifice something of worth.
A compromise gives something up—occasionally something cherished. Perhaps, for some, the sacrifice is the security of control. We give up attempts of manipulation for the possibility of something much greater—intimacy.
A compromise gives something up—occasionally something cherished.
A man and woman sat across from me in a car wash waiting room. Thumbing through a magazine, an advertisement for a vocational degree caught the woman’s attention. “I could do this,” she enthusiastically said pointing to the advertisement. With disgust, her partner scowled, “why would you go back to school?” He then quickly turned his attention back to his magazine. Dejected, the woman resumed her aimless page turning.
Relationships dominated by fear routinely trigger powerful emotions. The slightest drift from predictable norms ignite a cascade of feelings, begging for immediate resolution. Compromise is quickly rejected for more immediate paths to emotional numbing.
We have a fundamental choice to continue suffering or change. Alan E. Fruzzetti wrote, “change requires a lot of effort and often a lot of compromise, and therefore, it involves a certain amount of pain (adjustment pain, sadness over loss and change, and so on). Fruzzetti continues, “of course, change also can be quite invigorating and fulfilling. But with every new excitement, by definition, something previously cherished is lost, at least in a way” (2006, location 2495).
Interrupting behavioral patterns isn’t simple. Change impacts both partners. Moving away from the comfortable and predictable patterns of agreed upon norms, even when those norms are hurtful and destructive.
Validating Our Partner's Wants and Desires
Fruzzetti suggests we respond to a partner in validating ways without giving up self-respecting boundaries. We do this by remaining mindful to the involved emotions. Respecting both our fears as well as our partner’s. From the stability of understanding, we can better address concerns, without delving into attacks on character. “You are so selfish. You never let me do what I want!” Emotional outbursts such as this always sperate. By sticking to the facts and explaining our position, we soften the impact an autonomous stand. We, in turn, offer the same privilege to our partner when they desire something not particularly of our liking.
Relationships aren’t all or nothing—with only leave or stay options. We all can choose to move forward, just one small step at a time. Sacrifices of autonomy are serious; we shouldn’t remain numb, willingly suppressing the self. We must seriously contemplate the critical decision to quietly turn the pages on our dreams. Instead of placating fears, bowing to needs for approval, we should pause, evaluate, and proactively respond. Many partners are not the beast we believe them to be. Our negative bias may paint them differently than they truly are. Our partners may surprisingly welcome change, work with new compromises and protecting boundaries.
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Fruzzetti, A. E. (2006). The High-Conflict Couple: A Dialectical Behavior Therapy Guide to Finding Peace, Intimacy, and Validation. New Harbinger Publications; 1st Edition
Hendricks, G.; Hendricks, K. (1992) Conscious Loving: The Journey to Co-Commitment. Bantam; Reprint Edition
Paul, J; Paul, M. (2002) Do I Have to Give Up Me to Be Loved by You: Second Edition. Hazelden Publishing.