Compromise Is Temporary, But Closeness Is Unstoppable
Whether they are in crisis or have just hit a bump in the road, the couples that walk into my office for therapy are anxious to get their relationships back to stasis. Grappling with conflicts involving sex, co-parenting, co-habitating, communication, infidelity, open relationships, and how to endure a major crisis or life change, couples are looking to me to take the reins and help steer them to higher ground.
It’s because of this privileged and important position that I often decline to help couples come up with a compromise. At a glance, wanting to find a fair, cooperative way for both people in the relationship to get their needs met seems like a lovely idea. Yet more often than not, compromise is a temporary band aid that eventually falls off.
The long-lasting way to navigate needs and conflict in a relationship is to work on getting close. Conflicts that couples come into my therapy office with are often a symptom of a deeper problem: ways that they are missing each other, talking past each other, not seeing each other, and/or being triggered by each other. I’d rather help a couple get better at resolving conflict in general than to compromise and resolve this short-term conflict itself. If a couple leaves my office with a better understanding of each other and the way their closeness functions, they can resolve any conflict. It makes them unstoppable.
Compromising Is A Skill To Be Built Upon
When we’re kids, learning how to compromise is a foundational lesson in frustration tolerance and an introduction to being aware of others’ needs. It is a building block for more sophisticated concepts that come later in life, like empathy and closeness.
As useful as an understanding of compromise is earlier in life, it can begin to lose some of its utility as relationships develop and have a need for more sophisticated skills. If a couple is having a conflict about their sex life or delegation of labor around the home, it would be quite easy for them to find a “compromise” and a meeting in the middle of sorts, and would usually look like some version of “partner x should do more.” Partner x should be open to having more or different types sex, partner x should be helping out with the kids more, etc.
The most interesting place to go with these conflicts is to ask why these things are not happening currently and to follow the questions that the partners have for each other. For one partner, it might be: Why are you not doing more around the house? Are you aware how left alone I feel and how burdened I feel? Can you feel my pent up frustration? For another partner, it might be: Are you aware of what is on my plate? Are you aware how much it pushes me away when I can feel how frustrated you are with me? Couples need to get to a place where they can ask these questions to really truly move the conversation forward.
Closeness Is A Moving Target
If you need couples therapy or if you have a conflict, this does not necessarily mean that you are not “close” to your partner. When you are with someone, especially in a long-term committed relationship that spans years and decades, you, your partner and the relationship are constantly evolving and changing. There’s no stasis. Knowing your partner, what they want, what they need, what they are raising in you and visa versa, is not always the same thing as it was in earlier stages of the relationship.
Because of this, closeness is a moving target. We may need to get to know our partner in new ways throughout the lives of our relationships, and that’s the incredibly exciting thing about people and about love. We grow and change, and our love can grow and change, even many years in. If a couple finds a compromise and an “easy fix” early on to a conflict, they never end up engaging in the process of getting to that new place of close.
What does it take to get close?: Stay Curious
Rather than acting from a place of knowing, which can be a barrier to closeness, couples need to be curious. “Knowing” is often a state that I see couples walk into my office in. When we are hurt, it is easy to shut down as a protective mechanism and assume the worst in our partners, such as they intended to hurt me. It doesn’t come naturally to move close to and be curious towards someone who is causing us pain.
Especially for couples who have been together for a long time who do really know each other quite intimately, it can be hard to remember to stay curious, and can be easy to lose the closeness. But, the act of getting close, of being curious about your partner, is half the fun. I often joke with my couples that “this is where good sex comes from” many years into a relationship. It comes from this very process of seeking to discover each other over and over again.
This doesn’t mean we toss compromise out altogether. Sometimes in compromising, connection and closeness can spring forth. For example, if a couple’s compromise is to try new things in the bedroom, it certainly can organically inspire more closeness and connection. And giving more attention and energy to your partner and the relationship is undeniably a great thing. But that doesn’t always happen, which is why starting with asking more questions and leading with more curiosity is usually the way to make more long lasting positive change in a relationship.