Contrary to what we’ve been taught, the key to dealing with conflict in relationships doesn’t start with saying yes, giving in, or being kinder. The real art of compromise begins with not conceding.
With so many couples I see in my practice, they started out in their marriages by giving in to their partners, in the mistaken belief that love means pleasing your spouse. “Happy wife, happy life,” one chimes, while another might pride herself on being accommodating and flexible.
After a few years of trying to show love through capitulation, they are left empty and angry. Often, after this period of this false bliss, communication has devolved into fighting. Each side carries the feeling of, “It’s your way or the highway,” or “I’m not allowed to have needs.”
At this phase, the partners move into being very clear about what they want, but they’re no longer listening to what their spouse wants, for fear of having to give in. In other words, they started out too malleable, grew to be too tough, and now have lost the skills that allow people to live in the middle—speaking up for themselves honestly while also being loving.
1. Sit with the Problem
The solution lies in taking a step back. Instead of finding a way to compromise yourself or jumping in to find a middle ground immediately, step one to resolving problems is to just let them exist. Don’t try to find a solution yet.
2. Active Listening
Sitting with conflict doesn’t have to be passive, however. Instead, face each other and take turns having each partner state their needs completely, without caveat, without having to please the other or trying to hurt the other. After one has spoken, the other repeats what they heard, until each feels like their partner fully understands what they’re trying to say.
This means you hear the entire story without interrupting or changing the subject. Most people find it hard to hear their partner’s anger or pain without getting defensive, but it’s extra important here not to insist your point of view is the right one.
Another common struggle is when one partner misinterprets the other and, instead of checking in and asking for clarification, simply responds with more resentment.
Know how to soothe the reactions
People either react in heightened ways, like rage and fear, or in shut-down ways, such as losing focus, or dissolving in tears. Try to breathe, sit, really hear them instead of making it about your feelings. You’ll have your chance to talk, too.
Put aside your own feelings of righteousness
Have compassion and caring for what your spouse is experiencing. Bring yourself back to responding with love. At this moment, it isn’t about who is right. It’s about being friends who want each other to feel comforted.
The most important point in this exercise is that you don’t have to agree or compromise yourself. In fact, conflict resolution is about learning how to lean into not agreeing with your partner, and to feel connected and loved anyway. It is about how you compromise in a relationship without changing yourself.
The final step—a crucial one for building connection—is to look for ways both of you can feel satisfied. It’s a way you compromise yourself and your partner does too. Here, each person gives up something, and each ultimately feels that they gained something. Ask your partner and yourself,
“What can I give in here, while not compromising myself or backing down on what I ultimately need?”
If possible, take a few more days to consider it. This is the work that professional mediators do every day, with far more formidable opponents than your partner. There is always a non compromising middle ground, and it is far easier to negotiate and find when all parties are calm and compassionate.
4. Look at Your Partner’s Point of View
One of the key points in marriage researcher John M. Gottman’s book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work is the importance of accepting influence, or being swayed by your partner’s opinions. His formula is, think of their anger as showing you how important this is to them. Identify a reasonable piece of their request. Find a way to cooperate with that piece.
Here’s one example. Let’s say one partner wants the kids to eat no junk food but the other believes one snack a day is more reasonable. After fuming about it for days, they practice listening.
He says, “My parents didn’t let me eat candy as a kid, so when I went to a friend’s house, I’d eat Oreos for hours.”
You can say, “I understand that in your childhood, limiting snacks made you crave them more [honoring his point of view]. But I think giving kids daily access to sugary foods is unhealthy [not backing down]. Maybe we can make a list of slightly unhealthy snacks to indulge in and save real junk food for special treats [finding compromise].”
In the end, marriage is not about letting yourself give in and compromise yourself. It’s not about finding someone who can guess your needs without you saying them. It’s also not about finding someone who always wants what you want. And again, it’s not about showing love by taking care of someone or having them give in to you. It’s about having a partner who sits beside you as a whole, complicated being, and doesn’t give up any of themselves or ask you to.
Some of the keys of having a great marriage like respect and individuality are beautifully highlighted in the video by Awesome Marriages. Check it out:
By hanging on to what’s important to you, you show honor and trust for your partner, showing them that you believe they are reasonable and mature. And you show respect for yourself by not compromising yourself all the time and as someone whose opinion deserves to be heard.
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.
Vicki is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Los Angeles who specializes in anxiety treatment, adolescent therapy, and couples counseling. She believes in strengthening relationships through understanding each other’s backgrounds, learning how to turn to each other as friends and partners, and adding more fun to your everyday lives together. Years of experience in private practice and as an individual and group therapy leader have inspired Vicki to work from the perspective that we all have a natural tendency toward health. She works with and writes about depression, anxiety, couples issues, parenting and adolescents to find solutions for problems that can sometimes feel insurmountable.
(Vicki Botnick is also listed in Best Marriage Therapists in Tarzana)