Compromise in Couples: What Gets in the Way?

A stone wall cuts through the country-side, while stormy clouds hover above.Lots of people hope for compromise in their relationship. Compromise is great when it happens; there is an easy flow, and both partners feel happy with the results. Nobody feels like they are losing, like they are being taken advantage of, or that their needs don’t matter. It doesn’t even feel like compromising—it’s just being happy together.

But what gets in the way of this delightful experience? Does it just happen naturally? Do you need to have logical conversations about it? Does it come from being forceful about getting your point across? Do you have to give up your needs?

Compromise Versus Conflict

Do you believe compromise should happen naturally? Do you think it means a relationship can’t work if it isn’t easy? Do you think about leaving relationships when they get difficult?

Let’s take a moment to look at this experience. Perhaps you feel really bad when conflict starts. You want to get away ASAP. You don’t like the feeling of someone being unhappy with you, criticizing you, wanting you to change. You have no experience of conflict being productive. Maybe conflict means someone is going to go crazy on you, demand something from you, or manipulate your feelings.

If that’s the case, it makes a lot of sense that you’d want to avoid conflict. When compromise doesn’t flow, you might conclude that this isn’t the relationship for you, or you become a stonewall and stop talking.

If there’s enough love present for you in the relationship you might want to think about your avoidance of conflict. Maybe it doesn’t have to be as bad as it has been in the past. If you acknowledge how it was and how you have come to protect yourself from these bad experiences—by heading out of town—you’re half way to a more mature, balanced approach to conflict.

Logic Versus Compromise

Does your mate get upset when you bring logic and rationality to the conversation? Do you say to yourself, “I’m just trying to solve the problem—why is he/she getting so upset?” Look at yourself honestly. Does your logical tone have an argumentative, forcing element to it?


Maybe the conversation gave you an uncomfortable feeling—maybe your gut got tight and you got a brief, but powerful sinking feeling. In Internal Family Systems (IFS) that is called an Exile. It could be that you used logic as a way to try to make that feeling go away (in IFS that’s called a protector). Honesty might work better than logic. Consider saying, “When you said I wasn’t helping enough around the house, I felt bad, and part of me wants to fight you using logical sounding arguments.” Pure logic rarely leads to vital, mutually satisfying compromise.

Forcing Your Point Versus Compromise

We’ve all been there: the conversation is going smoothly, and all of a sudden we find ourselves trying to ram our points home. What happened just before you changed your tone? If you can be honest, you’ll probably find an Exile. Maybe an old feeling of no one listening or caring about your feelings came up. Or you felt an echo of an old feeling of not fitting in with the group, not measuring up.

If you notice a moment when you’ve started to force your point, you might be able to choose what you want to do, rather than charging forward with an attitude which you know will not help you get to compromise. Can you imagine yourself saying, “I don’t want to admit it, but a part of me feels just like I did when the other kids wouldn’t choose me for the team. And another part wants to force you to agree with me so I don’t have to feel that anymore.”

My Needs Versus Compromise

Do you find yourself defaulting to a subservient, submissive, surrendering position, and then getting resentful, depressed, or maybe angry? Do you think someone else’s reality is more valid than yours? Do you have Exiles (walled off parts of  yourself) who had this experience when you were young? Maybe powerful people made you agree with them, and the cost of fighting was too great.

You can acknowledge those young Exiles, find them in the rooms, porches, and yards where they live, re-playing their bad experiences. You can let them know you see them and understand them, and that they aren’t alone anymore. IFS teaches that direct contact between you and your parts opens up surprising, fresh possibilities. They may come to trust you, rely on you for help, and even stop flooding you with their bad feelings. If you can do that, you won’t have to rely on surrendering. You might find it safe and productive to speak up for what you believe, then watch to see how your partner responds.

Compromise Happens

Compromise happens naturally when you recognize the protectors that have come out to help you, and the Exiles behind them. It will be a fluid, fun, mutually supportive, brainstorming experience, and you’ll find solutions you never could have imagined beforehand.

© Copyright 2010 by Mona R. Barbera, PhD, therapist in Providence, Rhode Island. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Marcia

    Marcia

    May 18th, 2010 at 6:21 PM

    Whenever I hear about compromise in couples,I am reminded of what my mother told me when I was about to get married-She told me that now that I’m getting married,things are bound t change and that me and my husband-to-be wold not e exactly the same people we were while we dated…it was bound to change.She also said that I should not expect him to change according to my convenience because like i am because of what he is and it will be no fun o ask him to change.She told me that he will and should understand the same about me…

    Two decades down the line,this still holds good and my mom’s advice still guides me n my marriage :)

  • cheryl c

    cheryl c

    May 19th, 2010 at 4:47 AM

    there are too many couples who think that the concept of compromise is a great thing until the time comes for them to put it into action

  • William Hambleton Bishop

    William Hambleton Bishop

    May 26th, 2010 at 10:01 AM

    good article – I believe that honesty has something to do with all this… Have you ever traveled out of the country and noticed how much more direct certain cultures are? I often wonder if this country’s excessive use of euphomisms (saying things the “nicer” way) effects our ability to articulate ourselves with honesty and clarity… in other words, compromise is a bit easier when a feeling/concern/desire is stated a bit more directly. – I believe that attachment theory can be applied here… if we acknowledge and learn to accept our vulnerabilities surrounding losing relationships perhaps we could free our selves to state what compromises we would benefit from.

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