The Art of Microcompromise

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“What do you want for dinner?” I asked my wife.

“I don’t know,” she answered.  “What do you want?”

“How about hamburgers?”

“No, I don’t want hamburgers.”

“What do you want then?”

“I don’t know…pasta.”

“I’m a little sick of pasta,” I said.  “How about pizza?”

“I’m really in the mood for pasta.”

Silence. Then:  “Okay, pasta.”


I’ve observed, both among my patients and my friends, that the issues which ultimately threaten to dismantle romantic relationships are almost always present from their beginning. These are typically issues that were overlooked or consciously ignored in the adrenaline rush of hope and desire that brooks no interference with the establishment of the relationship, but which lies waiting for the passion to cool—as it always does to some degree—to resurface as potential barriers to the relationship having legs in the long run.

The nature of these issues is as varied as people themselves and includes differences in approach and attitude toward: money, leisure-time activities, child rearing (or even whether to have children), religion, education, and preference of location. These are large issues, issues that become clearer as the relationship progresses, sometimes sending couples to therapy and sometimes to divorce court. Certainly other incompatibilities of personality and behavior can doom a relationship, but in situations in which both partners are generally emotionally healthy, these issues are what often do it.

It occurred to me recently when a friend told me about his impending divorce why our tolerance for large compromises we all make in forming romantic relationships diminishes with time: thousands upon thousands of small compromises eat it away. I call these small, daily compromises microcompromises.

These are compromises so small we hardly notice we’re making them, but which, were we alone, we wouldn’t be making at all. Things like: turning off a light we’d rather leave on, going to lunch at this restaurant instead of that one, turning left on this street instead of going straight and turning left at the next one, having pasta for dinner instead of burgers, and even the almost proverbial leaving up (or down) of the toilet seat when we’re done in the bathroom.

All lists like this are invariably filled with issues that strike even those who become frustrated by them as ridiculously small. Yet I wonder how much each issue is like an individual grain of sand, hardly noticeable at first as it falls on one shoulder or the other until more and more of them start piling up and begin not only to constrain our ability to move about freely as we wish but eventually to threaten us with metaphorical death by smothering. I wonder if there isn’t, for many of us, a gradually increasing effect of making these seemingly insignificant compromises that insidiously wears away at our ability to tolerate our personal space containing another person, perhaps even over time poisoning our ability to relate positively to our partner at all.

I think when this happens it does so because these microcompromises constrain our sense of freedom. Though not everyone requires the same degree of freedom, everyone seems to require some sense of autonomy. And because no two people always want exactly the same thing at the same time, when you live with someone else in your personal space either compromise or conflict invariably ensues. Even if one partner does consistently surrender their microneeds to the other, that person often develops a feeling of resentment over time, which can lead to a sudden explosion, or series of explosions, in which the other partner is shocked to learn of the frustration to which they’ve somehow contributed.


So what can we do to prevent the microcompromises we all make every day from poisoning our ability to relate positively to our partners and preserve the health of our relationships, while simultaneously preserving our all-important sense of independence and freedom to do as we wish?

  1. Recognize no one is absolutely free in any sense. Freedom is always a relative term. Even in America, the land of the free, our freedom is far from absolute. I can’t hit you because you annoy me, at least not without suffering consequences. To have any kind of relationship is to become constrained in some way, even if only with respect to our time, which our friends and family always desire. We could choose to live on an island (even literally), but we’d quickly learn just how dependent we are on social interaction for happiness. Recognizing that some constraint on our freedom is the price we pay for having relationships at all may help to mute the frustration with microcompromise those relationships require.
  2. Remember you chose your current relationship. If you entered into it with your eyes wide open (and that’s a big if), reminding yourself of this when you get frustrated with a buildup of microcompromises can help to restore a perspective of responsibility that can relieve frustration with microcompromise to a degree.
  3. Look upon your microcompromises as gifts. This, finally, is the strategy I find most helpful in battling my frustration with having to make microcompromises, the strategy that most effectively enables me to prevent the buildup of resentment. Rather than let myself feel I must compromise, I choose to view each microcompromise as a small gift I give my wife. Importantly, though, it’s my ability to refuse to compromise that enables me to retain the sense of freedom I crave. Which is why sometimes I don’t compromise. And when I don’t and my wife allows my microneed to supersede hers, I try to recognize her choice as a gift to me.  When I look at our interactions like this, as small gifts we continually trade back and forth (sometimes we even say to one another, “I’ll give you this one”) I’m amazed at how smoothly our relationship goes.

It’s been said the key to a healthy relationship is compromise, and that the right ratio of compromise is 50-50. But I disagree. There are times when my wife needs 100% of her needs met and I compromise completely, and other times when I need 100% of my needs met and she returns the favor. The key to a healthy relationship (or one key, at least), it seems to me, is a recognition that microcompromises are gifts that need to be exchanged rather than demands that need to be wrung from the other person. If both partners can approach their relationship this way, when large compromises need to be made, pent up resentment is less likely to be present to interfere with clear, compassionate thinking that brings a couple to the best decision for both partners.

In the end, we did have pasta that night. But then we had burgers two nights in a row.

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  • What has always amazed me is how easy it seemed to compromise with my sisters, and even my parents while growing up, and how difficult it sometimes seems to do so with a couple. And I guess the feeling underneath is the idea of “gift” you are talking about here. I’ve always wanted to make my sisters happy, but that never seems difficult because they want me to be happy too. It is the same at the beginning of a relationship, when everybody is ready to compromise and do so gladly. The trick is not letting it unfold into a quest for power…

  • When these kinds of small decisions come up & I don’t have a really strong opinion (such as my husband & I always split an entree when we go out to dinner so a decision about what to order needs to be made), I retain “veto” power. He makes a choice, but if that choice really doesn’t resonate w/me at all–like his first choice was a cheeseburger & I was in no mood for a burger—then I have “veto” power & he has to make another choice which I can then agree to or not. Usually it takes only one more choice, but sometimes two.

  • This is a wonderful post—especially your idea of treating microcompromises as gifts to each other. I’m sending it off to both my married kids!

    I think that one of the reasons our tolerance for things that bothered us when we first got married diminishes over time is that slowly but surely, our desires take center stage in the relationship. In the blush of first love (which can last several years), it’s much easier to let go of our desire to be in charge or our desire for our partner to behave this way or that way because those desires seem trivial in the context of this new love we’ve found. But as the relationship becomes more “routinized,” those desires start to surface and, for me at least, they were mostly in the form of changes I wanted to make to my husband. I wish I had your insight about “little gifts” back in those days. It could have saved me from a lot of suffering.

    But now (almost 45 years of marriage), he and I have both learned to give those gifts (I just hadn’t put a name to it until I read your post). There was a turning point 10 or 15 years ago where we just began to respect and appreciate the other’s differences and saw that, for one thing, it made our lives together more interesting. The need to control the other vanished into thin air. Now we enjoy letting the other one make decisions that affect both of us (those little gifts again).

    Thanks again for this illuminating post, Alex.

    Toni: I think you’ve got it exactly right. Once your relationship becomes “routinized” as you say, it’s hard to continue to sublimate your own desires to those of your partner consistently (or even at all). I’m encouraged to hear turning points like you describe can be reached even after 30 to 35 years of marriage that makes them easier. You hear so much about people divorcing after all that time, often, I suspect, because of their inability to make microcompromises with a happy and giving heart. I work on this all the time, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.


  • It would be nice if people could see compromise as a gift vs. an extorted concession. Sadly, resentment builds and goodwill vanishes ever so imperceptibly, leaving behind a volcano of emotion which says “NO!” when a large decision looms.

    I often wonder how friends become enemies, and perhaps it is through these reluctant microcompromises. Perhaps they weren’t truly friends to begin with.

  • Well done! I like how you have described microcompromises as gifts. That is incredibly insightful. I like also, how you focus on needs as well. Getting our needs met—large and small, in my view, is absolutely key to being happy in life.

    Well done, Alex.

    Kevin: Thanks. Glad you liked it.


  • When I was considering marriage, I asked my grandmother what had made her marriage to my grandfather so successful and long lasting. She said that marriage is not 50/50. Each partner has to be willing to give 100%, because some days you just can’t give anything.

  • Hi Alex,
    How nice to think of compromises as gifts. I find I can by stubborn without realizing it sometimes—and worse yet, stubborn for no real reason—and that thought just shines some new perspective on it for me.
    Thank you!
    Jill MacGregor

  • I’m a great fan of your blogs. I always enjoy reading it.

    I had a bad relationship with my gf almost like 3 years and finally broke up like 3 years ago. Now that I got a new gf 3 weeks ago. Everything is great so far, but when I’m having a trouble with her, I will keep your post in mind and solve it healthily. I appreciate!!

    JS: All the best.


  • Also—don’t “keep score!” Like I backed down on this & I’m keeping track of “how much I’ve had to give in/up.” Do not take the attitude that you had to sacrifice so many things. Either do it willingly w/love or don’t do it! (Married 36 yrs. to high school sweetheart!)

    S.G.: Sage advice.


  • My entire relationship with my ex-husband, both before and during the marriage, involved many many microcompromises. In the beginning, I made these with a full and generous heart and maybe without even noticing that they were piling up. At some point I realized I didn’t even know what I wanted anymore. The gifts had been given but not acknowledged or appreciated. I don’t think partners must compromise “equally” but I do think that compromises when not acknowledged and appreciated are corrosive. And that is a large part of why we are “ex.”

    Susan: I completely agree.


  • What a great post! I just recently discovered the need to think of these sort of small compromises as gifts. It just dawned on me a few months ago that I was thinking of what I wanted because I was always upset about him thinking about what he wanted. It was like an exhausting game of tug-of-war.

    Sometimes I would even think “It’s okay that I think of my wants and needs first sometimes because I think of his wants and needs first at other times, equally.” And I just thought, “If I compromise to make him happy, it should be because I want him to be happy, because I love him. Not because its his turn to be happy” and “I know he loves me and wants me to be happy. Maybe if he’s not defending his happiness and I’m not defending mine then we can both be happy.”

    Its always back to old cliches. “You get what you give.” The joy in a relationship is in the giving. Its nice to be loved, but at the end of the day you’re with this person because you love them. If you’re both giving 24/7 then you’re both being given to and compromises become something you genuinely want to do, because their joy is your joy. It works itself out. Wonderful post.

    Sarah: Thanks. Wonderful comments, especially your thought about couples not needing to “take turns” being happy in a relationship.


  • This is indeed a wonderful post, and the responses add depth to the thought. I’ve been married twice. The first time was a 33 year marriage that ended in divorce. We made many many compromises on both sides—often not so micro. I think that we were too immature (in our mid-20s) when we married to know ourselves well, and when we grew up in the following few years, we were much further apart in our basic values than we’d realized. My second marriage ended three years ago in my partner’s death. That was a very successful partnership, and I think what helped it to thrive and survive was the continued desire by each of us for the happiness of the other. Within that desire, the gifts of microcompromises truly made us happy—delighted that we could contribute each day to the other’s greater enjoyment of life. As I contemplate my approaching third marriage, at age 72, we both are feeling happy to be affirming publicly our love for each other, and we both occasionally feel a moment of panic—”What if….?” I thank you for the post on microcompromises. It reminds me of what does make a relationship happy over the long term. Thank you!!!!


  • […] led me to wonder how often relationships fail because of compromised autonomy—how often the microcompromises we must all make to keep our relationships healthy paradoxically sow the seeds of their destruction […]