Many popular psychologists, such as Dr. Phil, preach that compromise is the key to resolving relationship conflict and essential to building sustainable relationships. They view compromise as a “win-win” solution where both people get some of what they want. However, counsellors who hold this perspective tend to act more like arbiters than counsellors, pressing people to compromise regardless of the psychological issues that fuel people’s conflicts in the first place. When this approach is unsuccessful, when people who are unwilling to compromise or don’t carry out the agreement reached, counsellors are apt to treat the parties to the conflict as resistant or unreasonable instead of treating their approach as inadequate.
For example, let’s say you and I are planning to meet for a cup of coffee around noon. You say you’d rather meet at 11:30am; I respond saying that 11:30am is a bit early for me given my schedule and I’d prefer noon. If you and I have no strong feelings or reasons not to compromise, we may decide on 11:45 am. Win-Win; no problem.
On the other hand, when conflicts involve longer-term issues, tensions, or unsatisfying patterns of behaviour people are more resistant to making compromises or carrying out the compromised agreement. For example, if we’re trying to find a time to meet for our cup of coffee but in the past I have either cancelled several times or shown up late regularly, you will be more hesitant to make any agreement with me. We have a history of tension and unresolved conflict making you now appear resistant and unreasonable until the longer-term pattern gets addressed. If this longer-term issue does not get addressed and we’re pressured into compromise anyways, we should expect me to continue the same pattern or you to express your frustration by not carrying out the plan. The compromise model will be ineffective in this case.
We can also readily witness the ineffectiveness of the compromise-model for resolving conflict when it comes to addressing the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Those who follow the compromise model might say, “Can’t we get both sides to make a geographical solution, draw acceptable boundaries, and create a basic compromise?” When the parties resist, they will apply pressure to get the parties to compromise. Then, when their solution is resisted or fails to be carried out as agreed, mediators will lay blame on either the Israeli’s or Palestinians, but not on the inadequacy of their solution! In this case both parties have deeper reasons for not compromising and what mediators think is a “win-win” solution feels more like a “lose-lose” solution to the parties.
I regularly witnessed another example of this problem in my years practicing divorce law and working to resolve the issue of custody and parenting time with parents whose longer-term conflicts were never resolved (that’s why they were separating/divorcing). If the court twisted one parent’s arm saying, “You will deliver that child two days a week. I don’t care whether you like it or not.” I came to expect that parent to get into “traffic delays” or have another “good reason” to not carry through with the “agreement” to deliver the child to the other parent on time.
Simply put, the compromise model of conflict resolution rarely succeeds or sustains when conflict involves a long-term relationship with longer-term patterns of behaviour, issues of values, or deeper background tensions have been established. However, these are exactly the kinds of conflicts that are most important to resolve.
Towards a psychological understanding of conflict
In my experience as a therapist and attorney, individuals who are resistant to compromise do not need more pressure to compromise, but instead more support for their resistance. For example, let’s return to the conflict we have about choosing a time to meet for coffee. If you have always been willing to make reasonable compromises but I have regularly failed to carry out our agreed times to meet, then you have a good reason to not go along with the resolution. In addition, if I’m regularly not following through on our agreements, I too may have good reasons to not go along with the compromised agreements. If a counsellor were to support your resistance by saying, “I bet you have good reason to not agree to a compromise, please say more about this.” You might describe our prior history. In addition, if the counsellor said to me, “It appears you’re regularly unable to show up at the appointed time, I bet you have good reasons for that to be true,” I might say, “I have been orienting my schedule every day for the last ten years around other people and what they want. I’m tired of it!” Going further to resolve this conflict would mean helping me not agree so readily to meet at times that don’t really work for me and helping you be less agreeable to meeting times when you are not convinced I will show up on time. In short, a psychological solution is the exact opposite of the compromise solution—we need support for our resistance to compromise and encouragement to be less agreeable!
Going deeper: Thinking about gender and sexism
Focusing on getting people to compromise runs into further difficulties where long standing social biases have existed. For example, many counsellors suggest that couples need to practice listening more to each other. If one or both of these parties to the conflict are women, they may have a history of being expected to, or pressured into, listening to others. In this case, the resistance a woman exhibits may not only be to her partner, but to a history of sacrificing her voice, intelligence, and needs for others. In that case, furthering the woman’s psychological development may require supporting her to speak up more, not listen more. This point was brought home to me by a woman who was resistant to listening more to her husband when, upon supporting her resistance she said, “I’m tired of listening and sitting there making everyone feel good. Now it’s time for me to speak.” Supporting her to speak up more will not only be good for the longer-term sustainability of her relationship but the culture at large that has marginalized women’s intelligence, viewpoint and voice. Again we see that pressing a person to be more compromising is not an effective or sustainable solution; instead a psychological viewpoint is needed.
To be sustainable, resolutions to relationship conflicts need to support people’s resistance so that that the individuals and their relationships can grow and both people can learn more about each other. In this way, relationship conflicts are not merely problems to resolve; like arrows, they point to the next step on the paths of relationships.