Compromise is always present in relationships. It may pull us down, but it can also be a good reconciliation exercise when there are differences that cannot be resolved in any other way.

At times, it’s important, and compromise is our ally. At other times, it acts to our disadvantage. Every time, however, it challenges us to think critically and establish the ‘right price’ in the negotiations we engage in with ourselves and with those around us.

The art of negotiation

Throughout our lives, circumstances and social norms train us to be open to collaboration. From childhood we learn that we are not entitled to everything, and that we must abide by the rules. It is also during childhood that we become acquainted with methods that help us win the case when what we want goes beyond the scope of things that are allowed. We learn to insist, argue, or manipulate, but also to adjust our desires to the given situation. We learn to yield when our parents do not let us go to the park or watch TV unless we finish what is on our plate. In other words, we learn the value of compromise.

A compromise is that negotiation process between two camps who agree to give up certain plans, desires, or ideas in exchange for an agreement which satisfies both parties. It is the bedrock of social cooperation, through a series of attributes that are deeply rooted in human behaviour. The very structure of the brain allows us to take into account the needs of our fellow man, to understand their intentions and emotions, through so-called “mirror neurons” responsible for empathy.

“Us versus them”

What makes us accept or reject a compromise? Studies show that individual and situational factors, as well as oxytocin or serotonin levels in our bodies, influence our willingness to reconsider a defining position. The happier we are, and the more in love we are, the better our chances of trying to be in sync with those around us.

On the other hand, the assumption that our dialogue partners will not reconsider their opinion decreases this willingness. Research has shown that there is a tight connection between the resistance to compromise and preconceptions regarding another’s openness towards collaboration.

An American experiment conducted in 2018, based on the analysis of the interaction between Democrats and Republicans, emphasized the fact that, regardless of their political stripe, people who are convinced that the members of the opposing party will discredit their ideas, refuse to get involved in debates and reach a compromise.

The way we ascribe certain characteristics to others becomes distorted if we do not relate to them individually and objectively, and instead move the action into an “us versus them” type of context, says Mina Cikara, the initiator of the experiments conducted at Harvard University.

The secret of successful relationships

If interacting with a person outside our group makes us inflexible and reserved, communicating with someone close to us “tames” our spirit. Family, friendship, and couple relationships are the proper setting to exercise our negotiations skills. Therefore, strong attachments come to represent a real threat to individualism and stubbornness.

Starting from this idea, many claim that the secret to a successful marriage lies in the spouses’ capacity to constantly harmonize their expectations and needs, in order to maintain a desirable balance. The truth, however, lies somewhere in the middle.

On the one hand, the art of negotiating efficiently creates a strong relationship, where conflicts are extinguished by resorting to the virtuous middle ground, satisfactory to both parties. On the other hand, sacrifices that place the common interest above the personal—although they betray a solid commitment—may conceal feelings of dissatisfaction or emotional distancing between partners. Even if they maintain the integrity of the couple, not all compromises bring happiness—in some cases the price paid is considered way too high compared to one’s own estimate of the exchange.

Making a compromise, and being compromised

The same thing applies to other areas of life: not all compromises bring happiness. We know that the term “compromise” also has a negative connotation, reflected in the action we undertake when we give up personal standards, beliefs, or values out of a need or desire to receive something in exchange.

We often hear lines like: “They compromised for money,” or “They compromised their family for their career,” or “They compromised their honour for material benefits.”

These situations capture the idea of someone voluntarily sacrificing an important part of their value system at the expense of questionable advantages. The essence of an unhappy compromise consists exactly of the attack launched at our integrity and authenticity, as well as at the deep interests that define our existence. Its effect is the accumulation of colossal fears and frustrations.

Compromise: the biggest piece of cake

German economist Ludwig Erhard says that compromise is the “art of dividing a cake in such a way that everyone believes he has the biggest piece,” referring to the idea of an advantage that may accompany the concessions made. In reality, a good compromise must not substantially disadvantage anyone in reaching a mutually beneficial outcome.

How do we tell a healthy and an unhealthy compromise apart? There are a few guiding principles that can help us sift through the options that precede the final decision.

First, in any compromise we make we must remain true to our personal values. By ignoring our life principles for the sake of pleasing others, or conforming to certain requirements, we risk losing our moral compass—and even ourselves.

Besides allowing us to be at peace with ourselves, a healthy compromise does not force us to:
– ignore our basic needs;
– put up obstacles in the way of our personal development;
– stray from established objectives;
– endanger the relationships with those around us;
– let ourselves be exploited or exploit others;
– become collateral damage;
– live with permanent dissatisfaction.

In any relationship, compromise is inevitable–between parents and children, husbands and wives, and best friends and colleagues. However, to justify its presence, it must not only be inevitable, but also useful. It must put an end to unending discussions and a lack of harmony. It must encourage empathy and cooperation. It must improve the relations between people without disadvantaging anyone, and without hurting and weighing the soul down with heavy burdens.

Genia Ruscu has a master’s degree in counselling in the field of social work.