Compromise Is Key in Marriage. Here’s How to Do it Right.

Learning how to concede is an art. So is knowing what concessions to make. Here's how to do it properly.

by Graham Techler
A couple sitting on the bed while talking

Marriage is all about communication. Marriage is all about compromise. These two axioms are almost clichés at this point. But they’re true — because they work. How do they work? That’s where things get messy.

The notion of marriage itself is compromise, which sounds much bleaker than it is. When you get married, you’re literally taking stock of what you want from life while your partner takes stock of what they want from life, and you meet in the middle to figure out how to make all those things work together — because that’s what you’ve both decided is most important. The path up that mountain is mighty steep, but it becomes more manageable when couples create some shared handholds.

“It’s a good idea to have an agreed-upon understanding of what it means to compromise about important issues,” says Catherine E. Aponte, Psy.D, and author of the forthcoming book A Marriage of Equals: How to Achieve Balance in a Committed Relationship. A good place to start early is to agree on how you’d prefer the other person approach you with any issues that come up.

“When you have something on your mind, give your partner a heads-up to give him or her time to think about the issue,” says Dr. Aponte. “Set a time when it is convenient for you both to talk.”

The first real roadblock you might hit is in finding a way to express your concerns to one another. This is where clarity becomes critical, as you don’t want your partner to focus their emotional energy on a counterargument to something you didn’t suggest — then you’re really off to a bad start. It’s about taking a beat to think about what you want before bringing it up.

“Being able to be clear about your specific take on a situation and being able to clearly state your wishes or concerns is important to finding a workable compromise,” says Dr. Aponte. “Each of you wants to be able to express what you want to happen. Each of you is willing to explain why what you want to do is important to you. Each should give the other the opportunity to express his or her preference, without interruption.”

At this point in an ongoing compromise, personal agendas naturally emerge and work against the attitude you need in this situation, which is that every concern of your partner’s is a concern of yours.

“You may inadvertently ‘privilege’ your position, i.e. imply that what you want is in some way more important than what your partner wants,” notes Dr. Aponte. “By listening attentively and respectfully, you honor what the other thinks is important. The best outcome of this kind of discussion is a win-win action plan that is responsive to the stated concerns.”

But the process of compromising doesn’t end once an agreement has essentially been reached, especially if it was a situation in which one party has clearly gotten their way. “In a case like this,” says Carrie Krawiec, LMFT at Birmingham Maple Clinic, “the one that gets their way must also ‘compromise’ by giving gratitude, a sincere apology, and/or whatever the other partner needs to prevent resentment and hostility from the partner who had to change a philosophy about themselves in a dramatic way.” In any healthy compromise, that gratitude is what allows for the possibility of even more successful compromises down the line. What might those compromises look like? We’ll quickly run through some common scenarios.

How to Compromise When Planning Vacations

A common point of contention between couples, the compromises involved in planning time away from home unfortunately don’t end once you’re out the door, but you can put your best foot forward when planning. “In this instance,” says Michelle Fraley, relationship expert and owner of Spark Matchmaking & Relationship Coaching, “I would recommend that the couple both jot down what would make their ‘ideal’ vacation (climate, travel time, transportation, and available activities) and then choose the top one or two factors from each list and attempt to develop travel ideas from there.” It might seem like a lot of work, but it will make sure your priorities for the trip are aligned before any specific plans are made.

How to Compromise on Where to Spend the Holidays

Much like planning vacations, this can be tricky, especially if there are calls to be made between several sets of immediate and extended family. “Extended family can make emotions run high, which can make compromising more difficult,” says Fraley. “If it’s a question of which family to visit over the holidays, hosting so that all can attend could be a great option or choosing one family to visit over the holidays while committing to visiting to the other relatives on the next available opportunity or next holiday.”

How to Compromise When Dividing Household Labor

From cooking to cleaning to grocery shopping to child care, this is a situation where you and your partner might want to break out another chart to make sure things are handled fairly.

“In cases with logistical and practical issues,” says Fraley. “I may ask each partner to write down the top five chores they feel they excel at and the five that are more of a struggle for them. Then the couple can use that list to make a fair compromise on chores. Maybe each partner takes their top two and then they randomly assign the others.”

How to Compromise About How Social You Should Be

Socializing as a couple is different from socializing by yourself, and you might find less of an instinct to be social in a pair than you do on your own. Which parties are you going to go to? What events will you host? How frequently? “Again, the art of compromise in this situation really comes down to open communication,” says Fraley. “Being honest as to which activities and events you really enjoy, tolerate, or actually dislike. Sometimes our partners may be unaware of our dislike of certain social events or people.”

How to Compromise About ‘Me Time’ vs. ‘We Time’

We can’t thrive without a healthy mix of both. But getting the balance right is a compromise that couples will have to find through trial and error. “A healthy compromise might be: ‘We can spend some time together right now, but later I would like to spend some time by myself,’ ” says psychologist George Ball. “Or a reversal of who has their need fulfilled first. This way, both partners have expressed what they need, realized that they are coming from different sides, and meeting in the middle.”

Let’s take a more specific example of “me time” that might qualify for compromise. Say one of you wants to go away for the weekend for a bachelor or bachelorette party, and the other is more reticent about the idea. “I’d have each member brainstorm the potential problems with going away,” says Krawiec. “Is it the cost? The semantics of child pick-ups/sports? Fears of bad behavior? Then I’d have the couple choose which of those problem areas to tackle first. The person who disapproves should be thinking about what they would need in terms of concessions to get comfortable as opposed to just a flat no.”

The steps to a delicate compromise in this situation can be pretty straightforward. Identify the shared goal: If you’re worried about how much this will cost then focus just on the budgetary issues and brainstorm solutions. “Here every idea is a good idea,” says Krawiec. “Let every idea out on paper. In the case of money, it may be to sell something or give up a golf outing later in the season, use money that comes from a personal savings not a shared family pot or commit to taking a certain amount of cash and not charging things.” Once it’s done and dusted, write it down. Put your name to it, or whatever you feel is best. One way or another, the important thing with a lasting compromise is that you make it clear you’ve heard each other. After that, the rest is a snap.