Is compromise in relationships really the ‘win-win great thing’ it’s been made out to be?

If you’re in a continual state of compromise in your relationship, there’s something wrong says Dorothy Black.


It’s often said that relationships need compromise. Hell, I’ve said it a few times myself. But since little baby Cupid’s done some good work on me and my friend circle of late, and at least four of us have found ourselves skipping around town with new love partners, I’m starting to question this whole ‘compromise’ malarkey.

As a long-term single I haven’t really had to concern myself with the practicalities of compromise. For me compromise was choosing a Lindt chocolate ice-cream when I couldn’t decide between Lindt chocolate or frozen yogurt. Being single means never having to take anyone’s needs into consideration but your own.

If you’re in a continual state of compromise, there’s something wrong

Now, as my mates and I ping-pong stories of new love across the coffee table and Whatsapp groups, I’m reminded about this particular interpersonal learning curve: compromise.

Except, I think we’ve all got the concept of compromise twisted.

I always thought of compromise as this kind of wavelength that hums throughout your relationship. But if you’re in a continual state of compromise, there’s something wrong. It’s so close to that old hand-me-down, ‘Relationships are give and take’, that we think of that as compromise. But give and take is about an equal input – and sharing of – emotional vulnerability and effort. It’s giving, not giving in; it’s receiving without sacrificing in return; it’s a conversation about solutions – and it’s always a win-win.

At best, a good compromise feels like a solution that hopefully errs more on the side of win-win than a win-lose, but more often feels like the latter

Compromise, on the other hand, is supposed to be a singular action, a concession to a problem of opposing needs raised in a conflict situation. At best, a good compromise feels like a solution that hopefully errs more on the side of win-win than a win-lose, but more often feels like the latter.

You know: ‘I need to holiday in South East Asia, but you want to holiday in Europe; so we go to New York, a place we both want to go to’. Or: ‘I can’t stand your folks, but you want me there, so I’ll stay for an hour and you can stay the afternoon.’ Nobody’s really getting what they actually want.

And what happens when compromise becomes a way of acting or a way of being? When an expectation is created that one person in the relationship always concedes their needs to the desires and behaviour of the other party?

What happens when we start compromising stuff we really shouldn’t, like our personal safety, sense of self, values, needs and wants? I ask this, because I feel like we’ve become very comfortable with this as a ‘normal’ relationship culture.

I’ve seen this happen so often, especially with women: J who stopped wearing miniskirts because her loving boyfriend didn’t approve and though it was slutty (she subsequently picked up 20 kgs and lost all her guy friends); S who started pretending she didn’t really want physical affection because her husband ridiculed her for needing it; E who stayed with her fiancé even after he pushed her around and screamed at her a lot (she didn’t pay him enough attention you see, and was ‘too busy with her hobbies’) … women compromising their individuality, desire and safety for the sake of their partner’s opinion and the ‘relationship’.

If you’re compromising yourself past your limits of comfort, you’ve probably never set any boundaries

Of course, it’s not just women who are nudged into this wavelength of continual compromise. Men suffer the same at the hands of women bullies who operate as if their needs are more important than their partner’s and manipulate to get their way under the guise of ‘compromise’.

Oddly, I’m not about to solely blame the person with the greater power balance as being the prime evil in this equation. Because if you’re compromising yourself this far past your limits of happiness, or even just comfort, it means you’ve probably never set any boundaries. And setting and sticking to boundaries for yourself is your responsibility.

I suppose when we talk about compromise in relationships I’m starting to think of it as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I want to ask: What exactly are you expected to compromise? And why? If you’re talking about finding mutually beneficial win-win solutions, that’s one thing. But compromise as a relationship culture? Isn’t that just a kind of abusive interpersonal system?

This column was first published on Women24…