There are many ideas about what is needed to make a relationship work. One popular belief is that it is about compromising. We can’t always get what we want, the logic goes, so we need to give a little in order to get a little. Sounds reasonable enough, doesn’t it?
But in many relationships the issue is actually that we are compromising too much – not too little. Want to know why? Then this blog post is for you…
An Unhappy Compromise:
Meet John and Mary:
John prefers to spend more time with his wife Mary and wants them to do activities together outside the house. He frequently suggests they go to the park, go fishing, or take a road trip. Mary, on the other hand is a type-A personality with a stressful job. She prefers to spend more time alone preparing for her presentations at work and reading books about her field of specialty.
Mary often feels annoyed with John’s last minute requests to spend more time with her. She doesn’t really want to go out on a weeknight, when she had planned to read a book. And yet, what does she do? She compromises.
When John asks her, all gooey-eyed, if they can go watch a new movie that just came out in the theaters, Mary does not have the heart to tell him no, so she goes along with the plan. However, she is really quite distracted and annoyed throughout most of the movie, thinking about all the things she is not getting done for work the next day
When John jokes with her, she doesn’t quite respond in the warm-hearted manner he had imagined, and after the movie she has hardly anything to say about it.
John tries hard to ignore these facts, but by the end of the evening he feels rather insulted. The great evening out he had so looked forward to did not turn out as he had imagined.
John starts to feel somewhat alone and rejected, and tells himself “we are just not connecting like we used to”. In the sadness about the state of his marriage, John now begins to withdraw emotionally, and when Mary finally picks up on it, it is already too late.
When Mary asks “what’s wrong?”, John says “nothing” in the curt kind of manner that communicates “I don’t want to talk about it”. Later, when Mary begins to discuss her work, he makes a few sarcastic remarks that insinuate that Mary focuses too much on work and does not have her priorities straight.
By the end of the night, both John and Mary are not in good moods and they end the night with their backs turned toward each other, thinking about how wronged or unappreciated they feel by their partner.
So what went wrong?
Without their partner knowing it, both John and Mary had compromised. Mary had gone out when she really had preferred to stay in. John, on the other hand, unbeknownst to Mary, had settled for going to see a movie, when what he really had wanted was to feel less lonely and more connected with his wife. The result was that neither really got their needs fulfilled.
John’s fantasy of him and his wife having passionate conversations about the movie afterwards, and connecting like they did when they were first dating, ended up becoming just another proof of how distant they have become.
Mary’s desire for a husband who supports her and takes her commitments at work seriously, also was not fulfilled. Instead she got proof, that John really does not care about her work and that she is facing the outside world on her own.
When compromises turn to resentments:
Most long-term relationships are filled with the casualties of too many compromises like these. We often don’t share our inner thoughts, feelings, and wishes in a direct way, but end up compromising in ways we really don’t want to. Over time, these compromises make us resentful at our partner, and get us stuck in a status quo where both of us are compromising and neither of us are really happy.
Why do we compromise?
The number one reason why couples end up compromising too much is that they don’t feel entitled to their feelings, wishes, or thoughts. Mary, for example, may feel guilty for wanting to spend time alone, since she thinks she is “supposed to” want to spend time with her husband. This of course means she cannot communicate her feeling to John, but is forced into a compromise she does not want to make. John, on the other hand, thinks he is not supposed to feel lonely. He feels ashamed to admit to his wife that he needs to feel closer to her and thinks she would lose respect for him as a man if he did. John is therefore forced to ask his wife to join him in some activity, when what he really wants is some confirmation that his wife still loves him, is interested in him, and wants him around.
Do we compromise too much?
The problem with John and Mary is not that they compromised. The problem is that they were already compromising too much. They never really talked about their real needs, desires, and longings, but were already too afraid, ashamed, or guilty to bring these to the table. Because neither was really asking for what they wanted, neither really got what they wanted. Even when a compromise was made, it still didn’t address the real issues, and was thus never really acknowledged by either partner as giving them what they wanted.
How to compromise effectively:
To compromise effectively, you must know what your partner really wants, and they must know what you really want. This can only be known if both you and your partner feel comfortable confiding your real thoughts and feelings in each other. Creating an environment where both partners can feel accepted even when they communicate thoughts and feelings that may seem wrong, childish, selfish, and so forth, is thus the best pathway to a strong relationship where both partners can get their needs met.
Want to read more?
If you would like to know more about how to compromise effectively or how to be able to communicate what you really want or need, I have found couples therapist Dan Wile’s book After the Honeymoon to be an excellent guide. Reading this book will make you rethink many of your strategies for making your relationship work.
About Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., psychologist and couples therapist in Houston, Texas. I help couples live better lives together without compromising who they are. To read more about my approach to couples therapy, visit my website.