Being open to compromise is a strength in a relationship because is indicates an ability to be flexible in your thinking and a capacity for empathy or consideration of your partner’s feelings and emotional needs. These qualities are very important in preventing disagreements from developing into impasses. In developing a genuine openness to compromise it is useful to start with the idea that your partner’s feelings are as important as your own. Part of the commitment of a long term relationship or marriage is to establish a sense of trust and a feeling of safety in the relationship. On a day to day level trust is created by both people respecting and responding to each other’s feelings and needs. Just as your opinion or point of view is not more objectively true than your partner’s (it is after all only an opinion), your emotional need for a certain outcome in a disagreement is not more important than your partner’s.
Realizing this perspective can motivate you to work out a compromise that meets your partner’s needs, as well as your own. When concern and consideration for your partner’s feelings are important to you, then reaching a compromise feels like an active choice you are making for yourself, rather than a feeling that you are being coerced to give in.
Another factor that makes reaching a compromise essential, is recognizing that you and your partner need to feel satisfied and comfortable with decisions that you make as a couple. Either you both win or nobody wins. It is possible to wear your partner down through being stubborn and relentlessly debating an issue, going into a rage, or becoming silent, withholding, and pouting. However, if your partner gives into you to avoid dealing with how difficult you can be, then you end up finding that what your have “won” really is not worth it. Your have distanced your partner, he or she is unhappy and probably resentful. It is very hard to be happy in a marriage by yourself. Happiness and a sense of well being is really a mutual experience in terms of how stable a relationship feels.
More importantly, if you develop a pattern of getting your way most of the time through being too difficult to deal with then you are sowing the seeds for major problems in the future. No one wants to feel like an unequal partner in a couple, and over a period of time resentment and frustration grows and your partner can drift away. In developing compromises that genuinely work for both people, a good place to start is to acknowledge the positive and valid points in what your partner is expressing. He or she will reciprocate and do the same for you. This then provides the beginning of a compromise when you can combine what are reasonable and constructive points on both sides.
The ability to compromise is one of the most important skills a couple can develop in order to have a happier marriage. This usually involves working on changing patterns of interaction as a couple, as well as each partner working on his or her individual issues. Many people approach a discussion with an attitude of either winning or losing. This kind of mind set blocks a constructive discussion in two ways. If you feel you have to win you are going to pressure you partner to agree with you. You will be so focused on getting your way and making the best arguments you can that you will not be open to listening to your partner’s suggestions or ideas, much less his or her feelings.
The idea of losing a discussion may be so intolerable that it makes you feel very angry or insecure in anticipating that possibility. In this case you are going to be so worried and defensive about being controlled by your partner that you are not going to be able to listen in an open or reasonable way to what she or he is saying. In addition, when people feel very anxious they often can’t think clearly, and this can get in the way of you expressing your thoughts effectively.
Developing a frame of mind that is open to compromise involves acknowledging several factors. Perhaps the most difficult is really recognizing that you are not always right. We all know intellectually that we are not right all of the time. Emotionally, however many of us are fueled by the feeling during an argument that we are right and it is not fair for the other person to her his or her way. Giving up the conviction that you are right can feel scary if you think it represents a loss of strength and protection. What you get in return greatly outweighs any sense of strength you may get be believing you are right. Realizing that you have a point of view which needs to be taken seriously, but that it is only one of several possible perspectives, gives you a much greater ability to be flexible in discussions. You can listen to your partner and change your opinion without feeling anxious about losing control or being powerless. It is a relief to realize your partner has valuable ideas to contribute in dealing with different situations. It actually makes you feel more secure to realize you are not alone in handling decisions in your life, but you have someone to rely on and help you.
Being open to changing your mind is not a weakness, it is a strength when you are more flexible, realistic, and mature.
In previous posts I have explained the importance of a couple giving itself the time and space to discuss an issue before making a decision. All too often couples put pressure on themselves to reach a decision in one conversation. This usually results in both people feeling they have to convince their partner to agree with what they want. It also makes each partner defensive because they don’t want to feel controlled or pushed into something they do not want to do. This type of pressure and anxiety blocks open listening and communicating. When a couple can have a mutual understanding that they are going to discuss an issue and they do not have to make a decision, then people can speak more openly about their thoughts and feelings. This is very valuable in clarifying what is important to each person.
However, there does come a time when a decision has to be reached in a relationship. I will focus on some approaches that help to make the shift from a discussion phase to a decision making process. There are three general types of decision making patterns; consensus, compromising, and accomodating.
A decision that is a mutual agreement which arises from a give and take discussion that combines both partner’s ideas is going to be the strongest kind of decision. This is because both people feel they have contributed to a plan and so they can support the decision, and each other, more easily. What is essential for developing a consensus is an open dialogue in which both people feel heard and understood by having their feelings and ideas respected. In order for this to occur both partners need to use the listening skills discussed in the first post of this blog. Using active listening is particularly important because this communicates a sense of giving attention to your partner which is a key for him or her to feel understood. Focused listening can also lead to asking useful questions that help develop a clearer, mutual understanding. You may need to ask a question when you realize you do not really get the point your partner is trying to make or how he or she is using a certain word. This is one those points in a conversation in which a give and take that starts out clarifying what your partner means, leads to you adding a suggestion or idea, and then this develops into a real collaboration on how to deal with a problem, challenge, or new situation facing your relationship.
It is important that after listening and validating what your partner feels about an issue that you are clear in expressing what is important to you and what you want. When you listen openly and respectfully to your partner he or she will reciprocate this to you. Sometimes in order to avoid a conflict people are not clear either about what they really want and expect in a situation or about what they feel strongly against. It is important to express what is important to you and what would really be difficult to live with in order to arrive at a genuine consensus.
It is important in a relationship to be able to balance understanding and validating your partner’s feelings and thoughts with being able to assert your own emotional needs. Asserting yourself encompasses a range of behaviors that include: expressing what you want or expect from your partner in a clear, direct and matter of fact way; being able to be firm when necessary to indicate that something is important to you even when you know your partner disagrees; expressing your annoyance when you feel your partner is doing something unfair or repeatedly does not take your feelings into consideration; showing your anger at those times when you feel your partner has intentionally hurt you or has let you down in an important way.
Having a range of options in using your assertiveness gives you a flexibility for dealing with different issues that have different levels of meaning or importance to you. There is not one ideal or optimal way to be assertive. It is necessary to give yourself room to make mistakes in order to learn through trial and error. This will eventually help you to find a way of being assertive that feels both reasonable and genuine for you.
Most of the time it is more effective to express what you want and need from your partner in a low key, direct way. This usually comes across as a combination of expecting to be taken seriously and being non-threatening at the same time. Asserting yourself clearly and calmly is much easier to do earlier in any given discussion than later on before anxiety and tension builds up on both sides. Many people worry that expressing what they want or feel will lead to a conflict so they hold back and restrain their thoughts and feelings. What often happens though is that they get increasingly frustrated and this leads to the very thing they were trying to avoid. Anger comes out in a way that is usually critical, aggressive, and blaming. This makes your partner defensive and much less likely to be able to listen openly to what you are saying or wanting to respond positively.
The more you practice being assertive the more comfortable you will be doing it and the more spontaneous and effective you will be. There is a big difference in being assertive and being aggressive. Assertiveness comes from being able to validate yourself. Aggressiveness is often impulsive and reactive and reflects an insecurity that is expressed in overcompensating. Instead of increasing conflict in a relationship, assertiveness can resolve misunderstandings or tensions before they escalate to conflicts.
It is essential in a marriage or long term relationship that both people feel they have input into how they live day to day, as well as in making major decisions. For this to happen there needs to be respect for each other’s opinions. Two heads really are better than one. In terms of avoiding or resolving impasses when they occur, acknowledging the validity of the other person’s point of view decreases tension dramatically. When your partner feels heard and understood by you he or she does not have to keep fighting to get their point across. Instead he or she will relax and become more open.
What may be surprising is that when you are the one who is giving validity to what your spouse is expressing, you also will feel a decrease in tension and a sense of relief because you stop feeling that you have to defend being right at all costs. Suddenly, you feel less distant from your partner and no longer feel you have painted yourself in a corner by being stubborn. When there is an impasse someone has to make the first move to repair the rift. Rather than making yourself feel weaker by giving in to your partner, you will find that when you validate his or her thoughts and feelings that your wife or husband will reciprocate and meet you half way by acknowledging that you also have reasons and needs that make sense. This is often experienced as “getting back on track” with each other and being able to continue a discussion more openly which leads to a positive outcome.
Sometimes a positive discussion is when you and your partner feel listened to and understood, but you both realize that you need more time to thing things over so that you do not reach a clear or definite resolution.
People often assume that if they discuss an issue with their partner and disagree that they are permanently stuck in an impasse. The feelings of frustration and anxiety that get triggered when you feel stuck fuel the pressure that you and your partner put on each other when you disagree which only reinforces the impasse. Time is an important factor in communication that is usually overlooked. The more important an issue is, the more time it generally takes to resolve. This is a process that involves speaking with each other, going away and thinking about what the other person has said, reflecting on your own thoughts and feelings, and going back to discuss the issue more. There is something about giving an issue time that allows people to digest what each other is saying. Over time both people tend to get less rigid in their own position and see the validity of the other person’s perspective.
Change happens both consciously and unconsciously, and time is a key element that allows things to evolve. Time does not change things by itself, people have to make the effort to reach a common ground by working at being direct and open with each other. However, in addition to consciously attempting to decrease the triggers that lead to impasses, the mind also works on things in an unconscious way. Thoughts percolate in the back of our minds even when we are not actively focusing on an issue. The old saying “let me sleep on it” is a recognition of this process.
Time as an important factor in effective communication is interrelated with the idea of having a discussion phase before moving to a decision making conversation. Even when you give yourselves a chance to just discuss your thoughts and feelings, and then move to making a decision, you may find that you still disagree. Sometimes a temporary impasse is unavoidable. It makes a huge difference if you view an impasse as temporary or a sign of a permanent rift.
This is where using time as a factor that can work for you rather than against you comes into play. Giving yourself more time, as an individual and as a couple, decreases the pressure to push for a premature and forced resolution. You can use time as a framework to say to each other “we need to give ourselves more time to reach an agreement, eventually we will be able to sort this out”. Having more time gives an individual a sense of additional freedom and mental space to clarify his or her feeling, and gives a couple a more positive experience in reaching a decision.
My blog is going to start summarizing and consolidating the different skills and concepts for resolving impasses that I have discussed so far. I have two goals in doing this. The first is to pull together a group of essential skills that can provide a useful approach for managing and negotiating conflicts in a relationship. Using these skills will lead to a constructive, positive resolution of conflicts more of the time.
My other goal is to provide a more general framework that can help each member of a couple to be more aware of the individual issues he or she needs to work on in order to decrease being defensive, withdrawn, and overreactive. This is the area of internal work that will help the marital relationship function better, as well as helping you feel more grounded and secure as a person.
Discussion verses Decision
Most couples assume when they sit down to talk about an issue that they have to come to a decision. This expectation puts pressure on both people and a discussion can switch very quickly to being a debate which both sides feel they have to win. When people feel they have to win they stop listening to one another and become entangled in an impasse. The pros and cons of a particular situation start to get lost and other motivations get stirred up which block being able to resolve a problem.
Losing an argument can have different meanings for different people. Some people feel humiliated if their idea or plan is not accepted and used. Other people feel they are being controlled if they don’t get their way. They may feel resentful toward their spouse and not remember the many times they have had an impact on the relationship. Still other people experience losing a discussion or argument as a sign that they are not treated seriously in the relationship and this reinforces feelings of being unimportant and powerless. All of these individual ways of responding to not being able to get your way in a discussion often fuel reactions of anger and opposition to what your partner expresses.
A fairly simple way to decrease the possibility of getting stuck in the quicksand of these kinds of standoffs is that when you sit down to talk about an issue there is a mutual understanding that the first discussion will be to share ideas and feelings with each other, not to make any decisions. This takes pressure off of you individually and as a couple. No one has to worry about getting pushed into something he or she does not want to do, or of having the stress of feeling you have to convince your partner that your way is right.
You and your partner will feel more relaxed by not having the expectation that a decision has to be made. This will enable both of you to listen more openly to each other and express yourselves in a more spontaneous way. A discussion that can be relatively open and non-defensive leads to a genuine give and take. In general this makes it possible to recognize the validity of each other’s ideas. When you feel that your concerns have been listened to and you can see the validity of your partner’s point of view, you have accomplished a lot as a couple in a discussion. This is a good place to end a conversation. You will have laid the ground work to reach a constructive decision later because you be able to use the ideas of both people in the couple.