Compromise. It’s a word people often use when doling out relationship advice. We hear that it’s necessary but that too much compromise can lead to resentment. So, how can you make a willing sacrifice without losing yourself?
As a relationship therapist, I see my clients navigate compromises constantly. I commonly hear couples differ in their stances on important topics like children, monogamy, sobriety, marriage, level of contact with exes, and where to live. Topics like these can certainly bring up challenges and, at times, mean a fundamental incompatibility that can lead to the end of a relationship. But they aren’t always automatic deal breakers.
Some topics may be impossible for a couple to compromise on. At other times, there may be situations where one person chooses to sacrifice for the relationship. When we sacrifice unwillingly, it’s a straight shot to resentment. But it’s possible to intentionally choose to compromise within a relationship.
It is hard to imagine a relationship existing without compromise, but how do we know the line between healthy compromise central and resentment alley?
Compromise in pop culture
There are countless pop culture examples of couples struggling to compromise for each other.
In The Sopranos, Tony Soprano’s involvement in organized crime often leads to conflict with his wife, Carmela. She struggles with the clash in their values and the moral implications of their lifestyle, but Tony is unwilling to compromise and leave the criminal world, leading to ongoing tension in their marriage.
In The Office, Jim and Pam’s career goals sometimes clash. For a while, Pam follows her passion and goes to art school in another city. Later on, Jim’s pursuit of his career dreams in Philadelphia and Pam’s desire for stability in Scranton lead to difficulties in compromising on their individual goals.
What is a willing sacrifice?
One of my wise couples therapy supervisors, Delyse Ledgard, introduced me to the term “willing sacrifice” in the context of a strong relationship.
I found the term was so helpful in conceptualizing healthy compromise that I wanted to break down the process into digestible steps. I hope this can serve as a check-in tool when asking yourself: can I make this compromise authentically, or is this asking too much of myself?
Accept the tough reality that relationships will never be 50/50 all of the time.
In order to receive, one person needs to be giving. There will be seasons where one of you is giving, and the other is receiving more than the other. It’s necessary to move away from a scarcity mindset of scorekeeping towards a viewpoint of generosity. Whenever you give in your relationship, it’s not just your partner who benefits. Your relationship does, too.
Distinguish your hard limits from your preferences.
There’s an obvious difference between letting your partner pick where to eat for dinner and whether or not to get married. That said, it can be easy to get stuck in relationship patterns where you’re compromising too frequently or not enough.
It can be helpful to clarify within yourself the things vital to your well-being (hard limits) and nice-to-haves (preferences). For example, it may be a hard limit that you visit your family once a year. You may prefer to see them at Christmas, but be willing to discuss a different time to accommodate your partner’s needs.
Will this compromise leave you feeling depressed, resentful, or withdrawn?
One of the best ways to distinguish a hard limit from a preference is to imagine how you would feel if you were to go through with a particular compromise.
If you imagine that you would feel ongoing depression, resentment, or the need to withdraw, that’s typically a sign that you need more negotiations and conversations with your partner or that what they’re asking of you is too big of a sacrifice.
See the relationship clearly. What’s possible?
It’s essential to be honest with yourself. If you choose to make a particular sacrifice in a relationship, are you doing so with a clear understanding of who your partner is?
In other words, don’t fall in love with potential. Don’t agree to a compromise if you’re hanging on to the notion that your partner will change their mind or you’ll convince them otherwise. Take your partner’s words at face value. If they say they don’t want kids, believe them. If they can’t give you a clear answer after many years of discussing the same topic, you need to treat this as a “no.”
Is there enough good here that this compromise feels worth it?
Reflect on your relationship needs (e.g., security, intimacy, emotional support, etc.) to assess how well you think they’re being met. While you’ll never get all of your needs met all of the time in a relationship, it’s vital to assess whether what you’re giving up feels worth what you’re gaining from the relationship.
Long-time sex advice columnist Dan Savage would ask: Are the issues you’re facing in your relationship worth the price of admission for being in the relationship?
Grieve what you wanted to make room for what you have.
It’s vital to let yourself feel the emotions that come with letting go of one version of how you thought things would be in your relationship. You need to grieve what your relationship can’t be to make space for what it is.
To avoid grieving is to force yourself into a compromise. You need to willingly, with open eyes, mourn what you’re letting go of to be willing to move forward in creating the most authentic version of your relationship.
The Final Word
To have the most authentic and intimate connections, you need to talk about the topics that are important to you. The skill of negotiation will serve you well — to be able to talk about what you have the capacity to give and what you do not.
It’s not easy to wade through differences without shutting down or attempting to control the other person. Your wants and needs will never 100% overlap with your partner’s. The more you can willingly give to your significant other, the more opportunities you have to feel satisfied with your connection.
Erin Davidson, MA, RCC, CST
Erin Davidson (she/her) is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and Certified Sex Therapist working in private practice in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is a firm believer in the healing power of pleasure and being kinder to ourselves. Erin is the author of two books Break Through the Breakup and Thriving in Non-Monogamy. She is most proud of her new fluffball Marv who recently graduated top of his class in puppy preschool.