The Trouble with Compromise

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Pat LaDouceur, PhD, helps people dealing with anxiety, panic, and relationship stress who want to feel more focused and confident. She has a private practice ...Read More

Holidays are supposed to be meaningful, relaxing, and connecting, but they’re often stressful. It’s easy to get caught between travel, family obligations, your own wishes, and tricky negotiations with significant others.

If you try to do it all and make everyone happy, it can feel like you’re paddling down a river too fast, with no directions and no guide. You end up frazzled and exhausted. Anxiety is a natural response when you take on too much.


How do you navigate the events, activities, and the pull of parents and partners?

One way is compromise. You do a little of this, a little of that, like selecting samples from a menu. But often it’s unsatisfying. When you skimp on everything, you don’t get to really settle into anything.

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You end up calling it a “good” holiday when you barely miss the biggest rocks and branches. Why compromise doesn’t work

The real trouble with compromise is that it’s tried too soon. It’s the last step is solving a problem, not the first. Before you can compromise, you have to change the way you think about the problem.

For example, my client Sara liked to celebrate in a big way. She liked the people, the decorations, the gifts, the feasts. Celebrating made her happy.

Her husband Mark was the opposite. He had a stressful job, and was desperate to spend some time alone. He told Sara that her plans were superficial, that he wouldn’t participate in holiday commercialism. Instead, he planned for a week by himself.

They tried to compromise on the the details – how much decoration, how many events, when Mark would go away. But feelings were strong, and they argued in circles.

Problems have layers

Anyone who spends time navigating rivers knows that the ripples and eddies on the surface are only important because they point to what’s underneath – a pile of rocks, or a barely submerged log.

In the same way, arguments are never about what they seem to be about. Sara and Mark argued about social events and family expectations, but the real issues were deeper.

On another layer, they were arguing about values. For Sara, holidays were about connecting with family and community. For Mark, they were about of solitude and renewal. When I helped them to start talking on this level, they found common ground – and the conversation became more respectful as well.

Rivers are always changing

Underneath values there’s a deeper level yet. Sometimes you have to pay attention to what is essentially the shape of the river – the big events that shape your values. It’s a challenge to understand the significance of these events, and a bitter one to navigate them with someone else.

Sara’s values were shaped in part during her teenage years. Her mother had been depressed, and Sara vowed not to follow in those footsteps. As an adult, she always chose the path of most energy, and of connecting with people.

For Mark, the key events were more recent: he had yet come to terms with the death of his father two years a prior. He needed time to sort through his memories, as well as his role in giving emotional support to his mother.

It’s how you work together that matters

Struggles at this deepest level are part of being human. They touch on basic needs and loyalties, fears and wishes. They’re often difficult to share.

But when they’re not shared, smaller events like whether or not to host a gathering take on a symbolic significance that far outweighs their real importance.

When you shift the conversation, when you’re genuinely talk on this deeper level, the argument fades away. That’s when you’re a team – sharing your honest differences, and supporting each other.

Learn to read the water

The next time you get caught up in a tricky holiday negotiation, pause ask yourself these questions.

  • What is the important issue, principle, need, or value this problem taps into? Are there any other ways, besides the one you’re suggesting, to get that need met?
  • Is there anything else, perhaps a challenging past event, that’s adding energy to how you feel? Do you need to spend some time sorting this out – on your own, with your partner, with a therapist – before you can get to negotiation or compromise?
  • What’s your backup plan? Events rarely follow the smooth path you imagine, and every plan is only a starting place. Once you know where you can compromise, changing course can be easy and smooth.

Pulling together

When Sara understood Mark’s real struggle, she wanted to support him, to help him take the time he needed for himself. As Mark learned what holidays really meant to Sara, he was able to more easily join her in celebrating – in a low key way. At this point they could compromise. The more they understood, the easier it was to find common ground.

Arguments, it turns out, aren’t about the issue at hand. They’re symbolic. Disagreements still happen. We all have our own styles, personalities, and habits. But when values are acknowledged and deeper needs understood, arguments fade.

Surface ripples give clues about what lies underneath. To reduce holiday stress, learn to read the water. Only then can you compromise in a way that works.

Keep Reading By Author Pat LaDouceur, Ph.D.
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