Example: Sara and Gabriel
Sara steps into my office with her partner, Gabriel. (**Please note, these are fictional names to demonstrate a common conflict experience between parters). They’ve been arguing about remodeling their house. Particularly, they’re having trouble reaching compromise about how big their kitchen and dining room should be.
Gabriel feels he “can’t please Sara and that she’s upset about the next steps even though they have agreed to save money by only making some part of the kitchen bigger.” If things were up to him, he “wouldn’t change the kitchen at all. It’s fine as it is. We don’t need to spend all that money.”
“The truth is,” Sara interrupts, “he’s only willing to make the kitchen just a tiny bit bigger. I compromise way more than him; I’m giving up so much because I know he’s worried about money, even though we both have great jobs and can afford it. So he gets what he wants, and I just need to be okay, I guess. I get resentful.”
Compromise doesn’t mean giving up core needs
What’s wrong with this picture? The couple tried to compromise, yet they feel unsettled. Sara is harboring resentment, feeling like she “lost” and Gabriel “got his way.”
According to Dr. John Gottman, the key to a good compromise is to first explore and decide what your core needs are on the issue and where you can be more flexible. A core need is a “must have,” not a “would be nice to have.” It ties to your values, your identity, and wellbeing. It’s possible that Sara gave up what’s very important to her, hence the resentment she feels.
Compromising doesn’t mean giving up core needs. It means developing awareness about the things you can be flexible with, and meeting your partner halfway. It’s just as important to be truthful with yourself and realize what areas are inflexible for you. The idea of a healthy compromise is “we both give something up so we both can win.” The compromise will rarely feel perfect, and that’s okay.
Barriers to compromise
Sometimes before we can successfully compromise or find a temporary compromise, we need to better understand each other and the problem. According to Dr. John Gottman’s research, 69% of what couples argue about is unsolvable. These perpetual problems stem from differences in our personalities, upbringing, core needs, etc. Sometimes this can get in the way of compromise.
In the above example, what’s the significance of having a large kitchen and dining room for Sara? What’s her dream, wish, and longing behind her complaint? What would having the kitchen and dining room of her dreams give her?
At first, Gabriel thought it was about having materialistic, nice things, which goes against his values. Upon further exploration, he discovered that Sara values communal spaces because she grew up cooking and sharing meals with her family. The kitchen and dining room hold deep meaning for her. The holidays, she remembers, were especially comforting as her extended family would join. For Sara, the dream here is to recreate this fond memory, to continue this tradition with her own family. She didn’t realize this at first, and by agreeing to partially change the kitchen, she didn’t realize her core need wasn’t met.
For Gabriel, financial security matters a great deal. During our session, he shared with Sara that his family often struggled with finances while he was growing up. This experience caused him considerable anxiety, so he promised himself he would do anything he could to achieve financial security as an adult.
This powerful exchange shows why it’s so important to create a safe, supportive climate where you and your partner can share your core needs and explain why they’re important to you. Once there’s greater sense of understanding, you can move on to compromise. The goal isn’t to solve your perpetual problems, but to understand each other more deeply and search for some small area within that problem where you might be able to compromise.
3 Steps to compromise
1) Write down the core areas where you cannot yield; your “must haves”. Keep this list short.
2) Now explore and write down areas of greater flexibility. This list should be longer than the first. We want to explore all the possible ways we can meet our partner halfway.
3) Communicate your flexible and inflexible areas, explore what you agree about, what your common goals are, and how you may reach a temporary compromise. You can re-evaluate your compromise later on and make necessary adjustments if needed.
It’s more important to be loved than to be right. It’s also essential that we don’t abandon ourselves by giving up on core needs. Instead, we want to create a safe space where we can share our stories and hear our partner’s.
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