Unlikely Fact Number Three:

Compromise Doesn’t Work.

Imagine you just got a craving to eat Chinese food and you ask your partner if he or she would like to join you.  Your partner says she’s really in the mood for a big fat juicy hamburger.  So you compromise and you both go to an Italian restaurant where you share a pepperoni pizza.  It’s a solution not likely to make either of you especially happy. When we compromise in this way we typically end up with two equally dissatisfied people.

And that is the problem with compromise.  It almost never results in either party to the agreement feeling particularly gratified with the result. Built into the nature of compromise is the inevitable guarantee that both parties will wind up feeling somewhat disappointed. Nonetheless many of the couples I see in my practice will often propose that the major problem in their relationship is that they are unable to compromise.

In fact, what I have learned over the years from working with such couples is that just the opposite is often the case. That is, the truth is not that they can’t compromise, but that they are likely to compromise too quickly and too often.  These couples do not realize that there is often a better and more satisfying solution to many disagreement than compromise.

This is not meant to argue against the real possibility that for individuals who find themselves in certain business settings, for example during contract negotiations between labor and management, a compromised resolution may well be the best that either party can hope for.

However compromise is rarely the best solution when it comes to disagreements between family members or close friends.  Why is that?  Because unlike the union representatives who have no reason to assume that management is looking out for the best interest of their workers and because unlike management negotiators who are likely to be suspicious of labor’s commitment to their primary goal of running a profitable business, we can assume that our friends and loved ones do, in fact, have our own best interests at heart.

Because of this belief in the good will of our friends and relatives, we might not need to compromise in those situations in which we might otherwise be expected to “give a little so that we can get a little.”  Maybe, if we are loved enough, we can get all that we want instead of having to settle for less than we want.  Another way to think about this is by realizing that we ourselves might be willing—dare I say might even be happy—to forgo our own preferences in order to ensure that someone we truly love or care about gets something that is really important to him or her, at least some of the time.

What then is the alternative to compromise?  Quite simply, it’s the willingness to “fight” for what we truly believe in while at the same time being open to hearing and supporting our partner in what he or she is asking for.  When we no longer insist on compromise as a way of getting some of what we want, we open ourselves up to the possibility of offering our partner a genuine gift of getting all of what he or she wants.  In short, the alternative to a begrudging compromise is the gift of giving to our partner, without resentment and with a generous heart, not some, but all that he or she desires.

Let me illustrate the point I am making with the following example.  A couple came for therapy asking for help with a unique problem, one with which I had never before been asked to help. In all my years as a professional psychologist, no one had ever before come to my office asking for assistance in choosing an automobile.  It’s not quite like it sounds.  This couple was not asking for my expertise in helping them to choose between the safety features of a Toyota Prius versus the handling and performance qualities of a Ford Mustang. What this couple wanted was a mediator who they hoped could help them to agree on a reasonable compromise concerning their two very different automobile preferences.

A relatively happily married couple who had been together for about eighteen years, they were individuals of limited means.  The one and only car they owned had been driven over 100,000 miles and was constantly needing more frequent and more expensive repairs. The only reasonable thing to do, they had decided, was to trade in their not so slowly dying car for another vehicle.  Along with the money they would get from their trade-in and the money they had already saved, they now had just enough money to place a down payment on one, and only one, new car.

However, there was a problem. The wife who was a quite talented and committed  gardener wanted to buy a station wagon which could be used to haul mulch and other such gardening supplies and which according to her was the most practical choice they could make. The husband, on the other hand, was pushing for a tiny two seat roadster that had no back seat and a trunk that could barely hold two gallons of milk. His main reason for choosing that car was because he “really, really liked it.”

“Dr. Bass,” Sharon, said to me, “you need to convince George  that he is being really shortsighted and selfish. I love gardening and he loves to do woodworking. Buying the kind of vehicle he wants to buy would prevent both of us from pursuing our hobbies. I would have no way of transporting my plants and George would have no way of hauling the lumber he uses for his cabinet making projects.”  All George could say in rebuttal was, “But I really, really like the roadster.”

Variations on this conversation had been going on for months before they first saw me.  As their last resort they came to my office wanting me to help them to come up with a reasonable compromise.

But I surprised them when I said that I did not think that any compromise they could devise would be likely to work. Any compromise, rather than being a victory for one of them, would instead feel like a loss to both of them.  I then told them that their problem is not that they had been fighting over this for too long a time but rather that they had not been fighting for what they believed in convincingly enough, or assertively enough.  I told them that rather than trying to find what I suspected would turn out to be an unsatisfying compromise, they should instead go home and fight harder at trying to convince their spouse to agree to their own preference or desire.

“But that’s just what we’ve been doing,” they both exclaimed simultaneously. “No you haven’t,” I insisted. “You’ve both been too focused on coming up with a “reasonable compromise” rather than actually standing up for your convictions.  As a result you’ve both been unable to convincingly argue for what each of you wants. So stop being so reasonable and start fighting for what you really want. Your homework is to go home this week and convince your spouse to give you the gift of giving you what you want.”

The following week they arrived at my office looking even more demoralized than they had at our first meeting.  They said they tried to do what I suggested but that all that their attempts seemed to do was to entrench them even deeper into their own positions thereby making compromise even more difficult and less likely.  I reminded them that the goal was not to compromise but was instead for one of them to get what he or she really wanted.  After more discussion I sent them back home with instructions to continue the homework I had assigned to them after session number one.

I’m not sure who was more relieved, my clients or me, when they arrived the following week in my office with two of the broadest smiles I had ever seen.  They asked me to look out my office window so that I could see their “new” 1982 Porsche 911 two seater.

After many minutes of “oohing and aahing” with them over the beauty of the automobile I turned to Sharon and asked, “What happened?”  She proceeded to tell me about how after more than three hours of what up to then had been a very logical conversation about the pros and cons of buying this or that particular car, George began weeping.  For the first time he shared with Sharon how for his entire life he had always done the responsible thing. Although he had wanted to take time off and travel with some of his friends between high school graduation and the beginning of college he did what Mom and Dad said was the only responsible thing to do and went straight on to college.  He went on to share a number of other examples of his always choosing the responsible path.

During that conversation he had confided in Sharon his many regrets about the responsible choices that he had made over the years. He shared how since the first time he had seen a ’82 Porsche he knew that was the car he had to one day drive. And as Sharon listened to George she realized not only that George really did want that car much more than she wanted her practical station wagon, but even more importantly, Sharon realized that she wanted George to have this car.

“No,” she said, “not only do I want George to have the car of his dreams, but I want to be the one to give him his dream.”  Sharon shared with both of us that she was certain that she was happier giving him the gift of the car than she believed he could ever be in receiving it.  She felt both loving and magnanimous at the same time.

And best of all. They demonstrated to themselves—and to me—the truth of Unlikely Fact Number Three:  Compromise doesn’t work.

Click for Unlikely Fact Number Four