We’ve heard it, we’ve learned it, we’ve lived it: compromise is one of those necessary building blocks at the core of every healthy relationship.
Whether we’re talking about resolving a literal conflict, or something slightly gentler like joint decision-making, compromise is the thing that makes room for a true sense of balance and shared voice to take root in a partnership. That ability to mutually bend-but-not-break in a way that lovingly bolsters and supports another person is a skill that leads to flourishing, balanced relationships that reflect the priorities, values, and desires of both parties.
While differing needs and priorities in a relationship create the potential for a power struggle, compromise is what allows partners to stand together at the helm with shared sense of ownership of the trail they’re blazing together.
Luckily, us natural softies are hardwired for empathy, compassion, and helping – all of which are key pieces of the compromise equation. But as we all know, navigating the waters of compromise while maintaining a sense of equilibrium and avoiding resentment isn’t always as straightforward as it seems.
Sometimes, we can start to wonder whether a scenario that calls for compromise is asking too much of us. Have you ever been faced with a dilemma where you’re being asked to compromise – to change, or give something up, or maybe even take something on – in a way that feels somehow in conflict with your core beliefs, needs, or sense of self?
When it comes to compromising in our relationships, the lines can get blurry, and it can be tough to make out the line that separates the necessary, healthy, ‘normal’ kinds of concessions we can expect to make in relationships from a more compromising, unbalanced type.
So where is the line between ‘healthy compromise’ and ‘compromising ourselves’ – and how do we know which kind we’re facing?
There’s a word I’ve come to love recently, both for its poetic meaning and its many applications: consonance. The dictionary defines it as, “agreement or compatibility between opinions or actions.” In other words, finding harmony between what we believe, and what we do. Connecting the dots between how we think and feel, and how we act.
The other thing I love about this word? It is literally the opposite of dissonance. I was first introduced to the word ‘dissonance’ – and specifically, the idea of cognitive dissonance – via an amazing therapist a few years ago. Cognitive dissonance, I learned, is that uncomfortable twinge we feel when we experience inconsistencies (or even contradictions) in our thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially related to our behavioral decisions.
Ever told yourself you were on board with someone else’s ideas or plan, because you didn’t want to ‘cause trouble’ or ‘rock the boat’ – even if it directly contradicted your needs or values in some way? Ever tried to change your own mind or beliefs, to try and justify a decision you might not be totally comfortable with? Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort you likely felt in those scenarios that told you, whether you were ready to hear it or not, that something was out of alignment.
Consonance, to me, means living in a state where the outside matches the inside. Where the things we do and say and share with the outside world match the things we think, and believe, and feel in our core. For me, that’s what harmony feels like.
So what does it mean, then, when compromising in a relationship means asking ourselves to ignore whatever internal alarms are going off, so that we can meet the needs of our partner? What happens when being flexible for the sake of someone we love starts to feel less like healthy give-and-take, and more like stepping into a character someone else is asking us to play?
The truth is, the type of compromise that starts to evoke panic, storms of self-doubt, or even a crisis of conscience is worth questioning. Because while it can feel heroic or meaningful to make big sacrifices for someone we love, it’s also worth considering whether making those sacrifices will cause us to miss an opportunity.
Sometimes, the task of saying ‘no’ when too much is being asked of us carries a hidden opportunity: to deepen our roots, to grow as a person, to build self-trust.
In those moments when we flee from conflict and bury the inconvenient truths about the things we want and need in order to serve someone else, we miss the chance to make a meaningful connection between our decisions, and our strongly-held beliefs. We miss the opportunity to make our outward-facing decisions match our internally held needs, desires, and sense of self.
And the truth is, those are the types of decisions – the ones that align so deeply with our internally-held beliefs and values, even when they scare us a little (or a lot) – that have the potential to build unshakable self-trust. Trust that we can do hard things; trust that we have opinions that matter; trust that our voice is worth being heard.
So in those moments where we’re being asked to compromise in a significant way, we need to ask ourselves (possibly over and over again): With this decision, am I moving closer or further away from the truest version of myself?
Odds are, your gut will chime in right away with an answer, even if it might not be the one you wanted or expected to hear. However, if that question feels too big, try running it through a different filter. Look at the prospective compromise from a few different angles, and be wary of any that ask you to:
Ignore your intuition, in order to preserve harmony in the relationship
Rely on the hope that eventually, you’ll feel ok with this choice (even if it’s not sitting well right now)
Allow someone else’s priorities to be an architect of your life
- Talk yourself out of the things your gut is doing its best to tell you
So in that spirit, I’d challenge you to seize the opportunity to pause next time a close relationship calls for compromise, and to consider deeply which choice your core is calling on you to make.
Sure, what follows may be a challenging or uncomfortable conversation with yourself and/or someone you love – but what an empowering opportunity to leverage the beautiful, powerful blend of the strength in your convictions and the softness in your compassionate wisdom to speak honestly and unapologetically about a thing that carries real weight for you. And when you do, notice how it feels to give real weight and voice to your needs, desires, or beliefs.
Did it ground you? Scare you? Did your voice shake? Did you feel pride? Notice it, all of it. And I’d even encourage you to write it down, to help you process the experience and remember how it felt, particularly the next time you find yourself in a similarly challenging situation.
Situations that call from compromise will continue to show up across our relationships – sometimes we’ll need to bend, and other times we’ll need to dig deep to find our roots and hold our ground. But in any case, it’s important to remember that something somewhere inside us knows when we’re being asked to give too much. Our job is to pay attention, to honor that voice, and to remember that love alone is not reason enough to make every concession that asked of us.
Because truly, the relationships that honor and acknowledge the wholeness of who you are as a person without trying to change or diminish you will naturally fill your emotional tank in a lot of ways – and when our tanks are full, the task of making reasonable compromises doesn’t feel like panic, or an identity crisis, or soul-level exhaustion. It feels healthy, balanced, and most importantly, not like a threat to your identity.