I have always thought of myself as an agreeable person, possibly to a fault. In almost every realm of my life, I’m a people pleaser. That is, except one: my dating life. While I bend over backwards to keep from even slightly inconveniencing my friends, my Uber drivers, and even perfect strangers, I somehow find myself staunchly committed to standing my ground in the confines of my relationship. Maybe it’s because of my unflailingly feminist mother. Maybe it’s because I give too much in all of my other relationships. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent the vast majority of my life single. But the fact of the matter is learning to compromise was one of the greatest hurdles I had to overcome when I started dating my boyfriend three-plus years ago. And I’m embarrassed to admit that we didn’t really figure out the whole compromising thing until about a year into our relationship.
“Compromising sounds so easy, but it’s been really interesting for me throughout my 20 years of practice to see how hard it is for some people,” says relationship psychotherapist Laura F. Dabney, M.D. “Compromise is really the end goal and to get there, there are a few steps that a lot of people trip up on.”
Step 1: Accept your feelings.
In particular, Dabney suggests considering if you’re having trouble admitting that you’re feeling either angry, sad, or needy. “Most people who come to see me with relationship problems have unconsciously refused to acknowledge or admit those emotions,” says Dabney. Fessing up to how the situation at hand is making you feel — no matter how embarrassing doing so might seem — is imperative if you want to be able to successfully compromise with your partner.
That said, getting to the bottom of what you’re feeling about a certain situation is easier said than done for many of us, myself included. If you’re seeking clarity, Dabney suggests journaling with this purpose in mind. Interestingly enough, the answer will lie in the words you find yourself hesitating to jot down. Let’s say you really don’t want to drive with your partner and their friends to their college reunion this weekend. You may feel comfortable writing about the things their friends do that bother you, like the fact that they’re always referring to old inside jokes you’re not in on. But, as easy as it can be to rag on their crew, you might find yourself hesitating to admit in writing that their actions bother you because they make you feel angry, needy, or sad. As you journal, be on the lookout for any feelings related to the situation that you sense just under the surface but are avoiding putting down on paper.
“If [you] can’t admit to those feelings, then [you] can’t get to the compromise,” says Dabney.
Step 2: Take winning out of the equation.
Before you even enter a conversation about compromise with your partner, you need to get out of your head that there’s going to be a winner and a loser. You are on the same team; you’re not fighting against each other. “The idea is to accept the other person’s feelings,” says Dabney. “A lot of people mistake that for caving. It becomes a black or white: either you win or I win. They fight the compromise because they — and these are the people who argue a lot — are each trying to get the other person [over to] their side.”
Let’s go back to the college reunion example. If you go into the conversation determined to convince your partner that their friends are the worst and that neither of you should attend, you are probably not going to arrive at any sort of agreement. By focusing on trying to prove that you’re right and your partner’s wrong, all you’re going to do is “get into endless, pointless arguments that lead you down this path of hurt feelings because there is no right or wrong,” says Dabney.
If you’re having a hard time taking winning completely out of the equation, family therapist Kathryn Smerling, Ph.D, suggests remembering that reaching a compromise is a win in its own right. “People have a difficult time because they don’t realize that they will get something back if they compromise. Compromise can be transactional — I’ll give you that and do this for you and you do this for me,” she explains. For instance, if you agree to spending this weekend with your partner’s friends, they might very well be more inclined to spend the next weekend with your friends.
Step 3: Begin the conversation with a pen and paper in hand.
In order to understand where your partner is coming from and find a solution that actually works for both of you, you need to be clear on where each of your priorities lie. In the college reunion road-trip situation, maybe spending quality one-on-one time with your partner is your main priority. Meanwhile, maybe they’re super eager for you to bond with their friends.
To be extra clear on each other’s points of view, Smerling suggests you both physically write (or type) out all of your priorities with regards to the topic you’re currently disagreeing on. “What’s really important to you and what’s not? What are you going to make a big fuss about, and what are you going to let go? Once you have that priority list, you will see that your partner may have a different priority list,” she says. In that case, you may be able to accommodate some of their priorities and vice versa.
It’s vital that you and your partner find a way to empathize with each other’s viewpoints before even bothering to try coming to a resolution. “One of the reasons that people [have trouble with] compromise is that they can’t see things from a multiplicity of perspectives,” says Dabney. “[You] really have to be able to see things through someone else’s eyes.”
Step 4: Get creative.
Once you and your partner have made a good-faith effort to understand each other’s points of view, it’s time to start brainstorming. That means one of you has to make the first “what if” suggestion.
In the case of the college reunion, maybe you suggest just the two of you drive there so you get your alone time with your partner before having to spend the weekend surrounded by their friends. Maybe they suggest driving there with their friends but shortening the trip so that you drive back just the two of you, meaning you get some alone time and less time with their crew. Be careful not to dismiss your partner’s suggestions.“You have to keep that empathy and keep that idea in mind that you’re just putting ideas on the table,” Dabney says.
On the other side of the spectrum, you also don’t want to be too eager to agree with whatever your partner throws out there just to put an end to the conversation, a move that often leads to resentment. If you find yourself tempted to do this, Dabney suggests taking a short break from the conversation. “Just say, ‘I’m getting tired. I just need to table this. Let’s try again tomorrow,’” she instructs.
In order to stay motivated through what are sometimes difficult conversations, Dabney recommends remembering what you could potentially gain from arriving at a compromise. A successful compromise could result in a totally new situation you and your partner are both legitimately excited about.
What if you can’t reach a compromise?
Let’s say you’ve been brainstorming this college reunion situation ad nauseam and still have no real solution in sight. Dabney recommends retracing your steps. “Is it that you’re unable to empathize with your partner’s viewpoint? If that’s not the issue, take a step back further. Is it that you’re unable to admit to certain feelings and thoughts that you have? Working backwards to find where you’re stuck helps break it down a little bit and find out what’s holding you back.”
In the moment, reaching a compromise may feel like a tedious and frustrating task, but it’s an absolutely vital skill to develop if you want your relationship to move forward. “All successful relationships require compromise or else you butt heads,” says Smerling.
Sometimes the topic you need to compromise on is as small as a weekend away. Other times the issue can be much bigger, like one of you wanting to live in New York while the other has a job offer in Paris. But either way, going through these four steps can help bring you and your partner closer to finding a solution that works for both of you.
If compromising is consistently difficult for you and your partner, it might be time to involve a third party. “There’s no shame in getting help,” says Smerling. “There are ways of reframing and re-looking at things. If you can look at it with a different lens, you may not see it that way. [Going to counseling] is the way to preserve your relationship, not destroy it.”