How Couples Can Learn to Compromise and Save Their Marriage

By Terry Gaspard, LICSW

What is the meaning of the word compromise? It’s a settlement by which each side makes concessions. And while this doesn’t sound romantic, if you decide you want to save your marriage, you have to learn to negotiate – which is the essence of compromise.

Negotiation is about diplomacy and is a tool that will help you and your partner get on the same side; and to become intimately connected. Over time, productive arguments can actually help couples stay together. Happy couples learn ways to have fruitful disagreements – more like discussions than arguments and they don’t hold onto recycled anger or feelings of resentment.

During a recent couples counseling session, Brad, 59, and Elizabeth, 58, discussed their difficulty negotiating where they want to live as they’re contemplating selling their family home and downsizing after their two children have moved out.

Brad and Elizabeth argue about this topic often and Elizabeth even threatened to move out recently during a disagreement. Like many couples, they are stuck in a gridlock and aren’t willing to listen to each other’s point of view.

Brad put it like this: “I’m fine staying in our home because I’ve done a lot of work on it and the prices of new homes are crazy. But Elizabeth wants to move closer to our daughter who is expecting a baby soon and she wants a smaller house to take care of.”

Elizabeth explains, “It’s always been hard for us to negotiate because we’re both stubborn and dig our heels in. We started counseling too late because we’ve been arguing about where to move for a over a year and it’s getting exhausting. We never learned to negotiate because Brad is used to me giving in.”

The State of the Union Approach to Compromise

In a recent article for The Gottman Institute’s website, Kyle Benson expands on the “State of the Union” strategy, a technique couples can employ to improve communication and keep potentially hard to solve problems from coming between them.

The essence of the Dr. John Gottman’s State of the Union concept revolves around a weekly meeting in which “each partner will be given a time to speak and a time to listen as [they] work through the different stages of your disagreement.” Built upon Gottman’s four decades of relationship research and the insight that “how you and your partner fight directly influence how emotionally connected and passionate your relationship is,” the State of the Union draws substance out of structure.

In order “to help couples successfully navigate issues,” the State of the Union employs a deliberate approach to communication that begins with a “pre-conflict warm-up,” which sees partners offer observations on each other’s positive qualities and behaviors. The goal is to remind couples “that you are fighting for each other, not against each other.”

Next, couples agree on an “area of tension” between them that will remain the focus of the conversation until each has had a chance to offer their perspective and unpack their feelings. The exercise is as much about listening as it is articulating one’s own point of view.

This kind of measured, structured, compassionate mode of communication allows both partners to be heard and to facilitate a solution to the problem in that week’s State of the Union. The aim is to help couples understand each other and arrive at a compromise.

But solving the problem at hand through compromise can only be achieved when couples openly “identify [their] core needs.” Indeed, “problem solving fails when partners are not open to being influenced or when one partner gives up too much.”

Writer and researcher Kyle Benson details the finer points of the strategy, writing that “Dr. Gottman recommends drawing two ovals on a piece of paper, a small one and a big one around the smaller one. He calls this a compromise bagel. Fill in the smaller oval with the needs you cannot live without. These are your inflexible areas… Next, in the bigger oval, list aspects of your position that are negotiable. These are your flexible areas. This doesn’t mean compromising on the need itself. It means being open to shifting some of the specifics about the need, such as timing, location, or methods to achieve your goal.”

Benson rightly points out that “sometimes compromise isn’t possible in a relationship. This happens when one partner’s dream is the other’s nightmare,” but he’s also quick to make clear that “in the majority of relationships, Dr. Gottman’s blueprint does lead to a compromise that works for both partners.”

In the end, the fruits of the State of the Union can create not only open, productive dialogue between partners, but can bring solutions into focus that previously seemed unclear or impossible. As with so many of the insights gleaned and tools developed from Dr. Gottman’s body of research, the State of the Union’s success is possible to couples who are dedicated to improving their relationship and ready to do the hard work to make a more fulfilling future together.

Following the suggestions below will help you build empathy for your partner, manage conflicts, reach compromises, and achieve positive engagement. Try these for one week and then discuss progress with your partner over coffee or eating lunch at your favorite restaurant to avoid rushing!

5 Ways to Compromise with Your Partner:

Before you practice the exercise below, you and your partner need to write down one issue that is important to work on. It’s important to identify the areas that both partners can be flexible about and those that are a challenge to consider worthy of compromise. For instance, a core need for you might be sitting down to a family meal on Sunday, but you’re okay with take-out in the den on Friday night.

  • Establish common goals that you and your mate can agree on. Be sure to discuss any feelings you share on the issues you’re discussing and identify your “core needs.”
  • Use the “Compromise Bagel” approach developed by Dr. Gottman outlined above.
  • Practice empathy by trying to imagine yourself walking in your partner’s shoes. Show willingness to help your partner meet one of their personal goals or dreams by asking how you can help them.
  • Listen actively without making evaluative comments or asking too many questions. Reply to           rather than reacting to your partner to avoid defensiveness. When your partner identifies an inflexible area of a need, ask for more clarification about why it is important to him or her and include their feelings, beliefs, and values on this issue.
  • Write down one compromise that honors both of your needs, wishes, and dreams.

Compromise is an important tool to strengthen and preserve a marriage. Discussing concerns that arise with a partner in a timely and respectful way will help couples become better at repair skills. Even happy married couples have stresses in their marriage; they have disagreements, frustrations, and anger. However, they don’t let anger build into resentment because their dedication to one another is solid. Their strong connection along with the knowledge and skills to deal with the challenges of marriage are vital in achieving a “we’re in this together” mindset.

Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and Her book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website. Feel free to ask a question here.

Terry’s forthcoming book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, will be published by Sounds True in February of 2020.