Compromise, of course, is an important part of caring relationships. But people-pleasers are quick to abandon what they want or need in order to make others happy. We tend to sacrifice and compromise, sometimes without realizing we’re giving up what’s important to us. In fact, what we think is compromising, may actually be conceding. In this guest post, Nicole Perry sheds some light on the subtle difference between boundaries, compromising, and conceding, and helps us find a healthy balance between meeting our needs and other people’s needs.
A few months ago I was facing some tension with an acquaintance (caused entirely by his unwillingness to hear my very reasonable “no” to his request) when I caught myself in a dangerous thought.
The stress of having tension between us was really getting to me, and I found myself thinking, “maybe I should just compromise, after all, to make it easier”.
In other words, maybe I should just say yes to his request, in order to escape the tension and stress that had arisen as a result. And then, here comes the epiphany. I was about to say yes simply because someone I barely knew had guilt-tripped me about saying no. That wasn’t compromising. That was conceding.
What is a compromise?
My mind was blown. And I started to wonder – have I been using the wrong definition of compromise for my entire life? My thoughts started racing, and I actually had to look up the definition of compromise on the spot (or, Siri looked it up for me). As it turns out, a compromise is when both sides give a little in order to find a mutually acceptable arrangement.
Conceding, which is what I was doing, involves losing so that the other person can win. It means to surrender or yield something to another. The first truth about conceding in this situation is that I would have gained nothing – absolutely nothing – by giving in.
Are you conceding rather than compromising?
But was that a good enough reason to say no?
Many of us who’ve been socialized as female are taught that other people’s needs and desires are more important than ours. We’re taught that our role is to keep things running smoothly and make sure we do everything in our power to reduce tension.
For many women I work with, this means being the one to silently give up your own wants and desires, or never name them in the first place. Directly or indirectly, we might have been taught that talking about what we want is selfish, rude, or (*gasp!*) unladylike. And while some of us might not consciously think about it this way, those deep-seated beliefs often play out in our most important relationships. For example, in an intimate relationship, have you ever….
- Tried to solve money problems on your own because it makes your partner uncomfortable to talk about, and you don’t want to “add to their stress”?
- Decided not to ask for emotional reassurance during a difficult time because you don’t want to seem “too needy”?
- Given up on an important goal of your own in order to step into a caretaker role?
- Stopped initiating sex or talking about your own sexual wants and desires because you don’t want you partner to feel insecure?
- Let go of a spiritual practice that was important to you because it wasn’t a fit for your life with your partner?
- Given up practices that nourish you (like movement, classes, or time spent with friends) in order to “prioritize the relationship” (especially without discussing it or asking for some give and take)?
- Put your career goals aside in order to support your partner’s?
Is it okay to say no?
Of course, we all have experiences at times in our lives where we give up some of what we desire for the greater good of the relationship, or because it fits a larger, long-term goal. (In other words – compromise!) The difficulty is when we consistently concede within a relationship context that isn’t a give and take. As women, we often do so because we’ve been socialized to think everyone else should come first. We’ve been taught to feel guilty when we say no and made to feel as though just because we can do someone a favor, we should.
I’ve gotten to a place in my life where I’ve recognized it’s okay to ask for what I need, and it’s okay to say no. I’m not going around creating unnecessary tension, but I’m not going to do myself a disservice just to make someone else happy.
A mutual give and take only happens when both people are willing
Now, some people might be thinking, I might not gain anything materially in the example I started with, but perhaps I would gain some goodwill with this person, and in the future, they’ll be more likely to go out of their way to help me. It’s a nice thought, but it turns out to be rooted entirely in wishful thinking.
In my own life, this wishful thinking has mostly shown up in my relationships with men, both close to me and not so close. I remember as a teen and young woman giving a lot to relationships with men, with the very naïve belief that everything I gave would eventually be returned in kind, and that we were all working toward a reciprocal connection. It turned out what they really wanted was for me to keep giving in the way I was giving without question.
I think a lot of us can get caught up in the wishful thinking that eventually all our giving will be returned in kind. So let me reiterate about the scenario I first described – the other person was guilt-tripping me for saying no. I was now dealing with tension and stress because I said no. Does that sound like the kind of person who is going to be appreciative if I make a sacrifice? Someone who is going to want to be generous in the future? I can tell you from experience both in my own life and in the lives of my clients, it isn’t. I’ve made sacrifices before, in the hopes of building a relationship of goodwill and reciprocity. It doesn’t work unless both people are willing to be generous and make compromises that are mutually beneficial.
So the next time you catch yourself thinking of making a “compromise”, ask yourself: Is there mutual give and take here? Is this a relationship of reciprocity? Or am I just giving in because I’ve been taught that other people’s needs are more important than mine?
About the author:
Nicole Perry is a Registered Psychologist with a private practice in Edmonton. Her approach is collaborative and feminist at its heart. She specializes in healing trauma, building shame resilience, and setting boundaries. She can be found at www.