This is the fourth of a five-part series on effective methods for resolving conflicts in relationships, based on the work of Dr. John Gottman, one of the country’s foremost researchers on the dynamics of relationships. This week the subject is the importance of being willing to compromise. When Gottman writes that like it or not, the only solution to most conflicts in relationships is to find some compromise, I suspect that a lot of readers just roll their eyes. This idea may seem so obvious as to be nothing more than an empty platitude.
But in practice, many couples don’t find it at all easy to compromise with one another. It’s certainly true that sometimes issues arise in relationships in which essential values are at stake, and if that happens we may have no choice but to take a stand and refuse to compromise, even if doing so threatens the survival of the relationship. But the vast majority of conflicts with partners don’t involve disputes over basic values. Usually they’re about differences in personality styles, preferences, attitudes and opinions, in which neither party is “right” or “wrong.” Yet, over the years I’ve interviewed couples for whom simple discussions about taking out the garbage, where to go on vacation, or whose turn it is to walk the dog have become momentous struggles, as if some life and death issue depends on the outcome. What’s really going on when such basically inconsequential issues become pitched battles? Why, in practice, is compromising such a threatening thing to do for so many of us?
If you find yourself resistant to compromise in your relationship, an important the first step might be to do some self-examination to find out what the resistance is about. In my professional work I’ve found that a surprising number of people seem to hold (more or less unconsciously) the completely irrational idea that even to acknowledge the reality or validity of their partner’s opinions, needs, or feelings is to discount their own. Some people seem to experience not getting their own way at all times as a defeat and a humiliation. If you hold ideas like these, than any disagreement is liable to become a struggle, because you’ll view any argument through the lens of winning versus losing instead of asking yourself how you can find a resolution with which you can both live. Most of us long to share our lives with others; we dream of merging in love with a life partner. But when we finally do find our “soul mate” and then discover that this person doesn’t see eye to eye with us on everything, we can experience the differences as affronts, even betrayals.
It will probably surprise no one to learn that Gottman’s research found that the tendency to treat disagreements as threats to the ego and tests of wills is far more common among men than among women, so that difficulties with compromising can be especially challenging for gay male couples. One of the conclusions I’ve come to over the years in counseling male couples is that gay men tend to be men first and gay second. What I mean by that is that we aren’t really as different from straight men as many of us would like to believe. When conflicts arise in our relationships, many of us immediately resort to our male conditioning; instead of being solution-focused, we focus on winning.
The willingness to compromise arises from a fundamental commitment vital to the health of any relationship, and that is to let your partner influence you. In other words, when a conflict occurs, instead of waiting for your partner to see the error of his or her ways and change, be respectful of your partner’s needs and feelings, open-minded enough to consider the other point of view sincerely, and humble enough to acknowledge that your way isn’t the only way. Most importantly, cultivate a willingness to yield. Instead of seeing yielding as a sign that you’re weak, or “whipped,” reframe it as a sign of strength – as an expression of open-heartedness, generosity, and good-will; and as a way of honoring your partner.
The irony is that those who cultivate these attitudes typically feel more powerful in their relationships than those who don’t. When Gottman studied men who were violent toward their partners he found that, because they consistently refused to compromise, their partners simply withdrew from them and found ways of manipulating them or working around them. These men felt isolated, ignored, and ineffective; and their violence was, in part, a response to their resulting sense of powerlessness.
That is why Gottman often offers this slogan to his couples: yield to win. Of course that doesn’t mean yield as a cynical strategy so that you can ultimately defeat your partner. It means that the capacity to yield increases rather than decreases self-respect; that it strengthens rather than weakens love and intimacy; and that it creates a home life that is peaceful and harmonious rather than hostile and conflict-ridden.
Next time: Be tolerant of each other’s faults