I’ve been listening to a lot of stand-up comedy in my car lately, and I’ve noticed a disturbing trend: Marriage is getting a bad rap. This may not actually be a new trend, and some of it is truly hilarious, including Aziz Ansari’s argument that marriage is an insane proposal. But last night I heard a guy dedicate ten minutes to why married people are insufferable. That was immediately followed by Tom Papa, “The Marriage Ref,” doing a whole bit about how the only way to survive marriage is to lie—all the time. I get that relationships are fertile ground for laughs, but it’s almost as if comedians believe that marriage is the place that relationships go to die.
That’s not cool. Don’t get me wrong, marriage—or any long-term committed relationship—requires sacrifice. In fact, one study found that “a hallmark of satisfying and long-lasting relationships concerns the extent to which partners are willing to sacrifice their own interests and desires for one another.” But sacrifice doesn’t mean martyrdom. In order for sacrifice to be meaningful, it must be perceived as authentic and generous. Ultimately, both partners need to learn to give (and to receive) on behalf of the relationship. This is called compromise.
Compromise is a necessary element of any healthy relationship and, unlike sacrifice, it assumes that both partners are willing to “yield to win.” John and Julie Gottman have done a lot of work helping couples master the art of compromise, which begins with the basic premise that both partners accept that the relationship is more important than the conflict and that common ground is more important than individual sacrifice. Once that foundation is established, compromise becomes a matter of assessment, attunement, and agreement.
The first step in compromise is understanding your own position on the issue at hand. I mean really understand. A lot of couples come into my office unable to deviate from their fixed position without understanding what their position really is. Take some time to do a thorough assessment of your core needs with regard to the issue. Make a list of the needs that are truly inflexible. This list should be made up of things that feel as critical to your view as your bones are to your body. Once you have made that list, make a second list of the more flexible areas of this issue—these are your muscles, which are important, but not as important as your bones.) Compare your lists. Maybe you need to move items from one to the other, or scratch some off, but you should at least do yourself and your partner the favor of a thorough assessment.
Once you and your partner feel good about your lists, it’s time to compare notes. The goal is to deepen understanding of your respective positions. Find a time to discuss your lists. Ask for clarity about why the inflexible issues are so important. Ask about the feelings and experiences that guide your partner’s point of view. Ask how you can help meet your partner’s core needs. Attunement begins with an awareness of emotions—positive and negative, your partner’s and your own. It requires curiosity: Ask open-ended questions. It deepens connection through empathy. Remember you’re working with someone you love. Compassion must precede solution. It is critical that you understand and acknowledge your core needs together so that your attunement can lead to agreement.
The Gottmans call this process, “getting to ‘yes.'" Agreement is defining together the compromise that honors both needs and dreams. As you compare lists, identify the areas where you agree. List out your common goals. Brainstorm about how those goals can be accomplished. The definition of compromise is that neither partner gets exactly what they want. But by exploring your flexible areas, and by acknowledging that the relationship is more important than the issue, I believe you can find a solution that honors both partner’s needs and dreams. Getting to yes is a creative process and both partners will likely have to sacrifice, but neither needs to suffer. Remember: When both partners yield, the relationship wins.
If I’m honest, I agree with Aziz Ansari. Marriage is an insane proposal. You have to be a little mad to sign up for a lifetime of for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. I don’t know who said it, but I recently read, “Marriage lets you annoy one special person for the rest of your life.” I think there’s a little bit of truth in there—and it made me laugh. Don’t get me wrong, marriage is serious business. And sacrifice is required. But I think it depends on the kind of sacrifice you’re making and whether the relationship has enough authenticity and empathy to leverage that sacrifice for good.