Instead of giving in, butting heads, or walking away, figure out that one specific thing you are so unwilling to let go of.
When my partner and I couldn’t agree on Mexican or Thai for dinner last weekend, she suggested a collaborative solution. “Let’s compromise,” she said sweetly. I failed to hear what followed because my mind went immediately to the truth as I saw it: I wasn’t going to get what I wanted. Regardless of what the person suggesting a compromise intends, it always brings back childhood memories of having to let someone else ride in the front seat this time, or gagging through meat loaf tonight so we can have mac and cheese tomorrow. Compromise usually sounds like a good idea, but for many of us, it has mostly served as a way to temporarily end the argument.
Truthfully, if we understood better what compromise entails, we could use its basic principles to manage conflicts more easily. Formally, compromise means to settle a dispute by making mutual concessions. Right there, when we see the word “concession,” we start to mentally walk away. If I have to give up something, that’s not much of a solution, is it? But, if we dig a bit deeper—and admittedly, this is easier before or after an argument than right in the middle of it—it’s possible to approach compromise differently.
The first important step is to figure out not just what each person wants—but what specific element they’re each holding on to, what exactly feels so hard to concede. In other words, when my partner and I are disagreed about where to eat dinner, more than just Yellow Chicken Curry, I wanted a quieter place than the Mexican restaurant she was proposing. So right there, I knew I was clinging to quiet and easy. She only really likes two or three things on the Thai menu, so her big goal was variety.
Sometimes it helps us to stop talking for a minute to visualize our needs. Where to eat is not a serious problem, obviously, and her willingness to get Mexican to-go so we can eat it in the quiet of our home is an easy compromise, but the same approach can work with more complex problems.
Let’s say we’re arguing about how we each spend money. My partner might want to live on a strict budget, while I want to buy things impulsively, within reason. Money is an ongoing source of struggle in many relationships, and how we manage that struggle can help make the topic more manageable going forward. But simply relying on our traditional sense of compromise—we’ll do it your way this month and my way next—isn’t feasible. A better approach would be to start with what it is we’re each holding on to: in this case security for my partner and freedom for me. Now we’ve moved the conflict from one of apparent impasse to each of us helping the other figure out how we can get what we need. An obvious possibility in this case is to build a modest “mad money” category into our monthly budget for me to spend when I feel like it.
Not all conflicts can be managed with compromise, but you can make a good stab at most of them if you start early, before you’ve been through years of difficult conversations, resentments, mistrust and presumed slights. It also does wonders to tell the truth from the beginning about what you really need and want. Compromise is just one useful relationship tool, but like hammering a nail with the end of a screwdriver, it works much better if you use it right.
Writer Ginny McReynolds is a retired community college English instructor in Northern California. She blogs at Finally Time for This: A Beginner’s Guide to the Second Half of Life.