Beliefs about married people and how they differ from single people are so widely shared that they are like a conventional wisdom that is just accepted rather than questioned. By now, many of those beliefs have been tested and found wanting – either exaggerated or just plain wrong. For example, the best studies show that people who get married do not become lastingly happier or healthier. They do not become more connected to other people, either – instead, they become more insular.
One of the widespread beliefs about married people has not been the topic of all that much research. That’s the one that insists that couples are more compromising. The idea seems to be that if you are married, or if you are in a long-term committed romantic relationship, you have to be compromising. There is no way to be in a serious romantic relationship if you are not. So, too, the argument goes, if you are a solo single person, then you are less compromising. Without that permanent partner in your life, you have never learned compromise the way coupled people have.
But is this really true?
Compromise is needed when two (or more) people have different goals that cannot all be met, or not all at the same time. If one person gets what she or he wants, then the other person does not.
It is astounding that some people think this description only fits people who are in a committed romantic relationship.
Anyone who has ever had a job that involved other people knows that not everyone is on the same page at all times. Different people have different values, preferences, goals, and ideas about how to accomplish particular tasks. Sometimes several coworkers all want the same vacation time or the same plum assignment when only one person can have it.
Anyone who has ever grown up with a sibling or a parent knows that not everyone can get what they want all the time. Desires conflict. Someone gets what they want when they want it; others don’t. Same for anyone who has ever had a friend. Two people may be the closest of friends but there will still be times when their preferences diverge and only one person’s wish can prevail.
But is it the case that the compromises that married people face are more daunting than the ones faced by, say, coworkers or friends or siblings? Suppose, for example, one person in a couple can only pursue their chosen career in a particular location but the other can only do the same in a different location, far away? Or the other person just doesn’t want to move, or doesn’t want to move to that place?
Although that sounds like a dilemma unique to married couples, in fact, it is not. Close friends can feel torn in the same way, when one of them has an opportunity in a different place, but is pained at the thought of living far away from the other. These kinds of examples don’t come to mind very often because we don’t think of friends as deeply important to each other – we only think of romantic couples that way. But if you read memoirs of friendship, or if you know pairs of close friends, or if you have had such friends in your own life, you know what this is like.
Another example of people who are not romantic partners but need to compromise in life-changing ways are siblings who have a parent who needs sustained help. Perhaps the parent has become seriously ill or is no longer able to care for herself or himself. Someone has to be there for the parent in a big way. Research shows that among grown children, the single ones are more likely than the married ones to make the enormous compromise that can be involved in caring, long-term, for a parent.
Although more research is needed, it is far from obvious that married people are more compromising than single people. In at least one domain in which research is available (caring for parents), it is the single people who are more likely to compromise, often in a very big way.