The Art Of Microcompromise, Redux

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


Photo: ralphbijker

“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—perhaps because they’re constrained by a Good Guy contract—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.

Next week:  The Importance Of Good Influences

8 comments to The Art Of Microcompromise, Redux

  • Annie

    This makes so much sense. . . I think this would serve all young couples well. I know it will help this older couple. Thanks!


    I had such a great surprise when I saw Happiness in this World in my email. I so look forward to your articles and what you have to say, which, in my opinion is always right on the money. You talk about personal relationships, but I really focused on how much I have to compromise at work. I am willing to do this because I realize it is good for my health, prosperity and compassion.

    So thank you for “The Art of Microcompromise.”


  • Ariel

    If you had burgers two nights in a row, you won the microcompromise game.

    Ariel: I know, right?!


  • Marsha

    What a great reminder! I remember sitting with a therapist, complaining that I didn’t have a choice; I couldn’t fulfill this or that desire because I was married and because I had kids. The usually mild-mannered therapist must have heard that too many times that day because she snapped back, “But you do have a choice. You always have a choice.” And I got it! It was my choice to stay with the marriage and the kids! I could choose to walk away—many do. Knowing it was my choice made all the difference in curbing the resentment. Eventually I made different choices (no to the marriage, yes to the kids). Choosing to gift a partner (or whoever) with compromise is a wonderful way to think of choices.

  • Ana

    Great reflection! realistic, practical and pedagogical! The term “microcompromises” is so “visual” and helpful. Thanks, Dr. Lickerman. I sent it to my daughter, just divorced. Very important to have this in mind, old or young couples.

  • Nancy

    My mother maintained that “it’s the little things that matter, not the big ones” when it comes to maintaining a marriage. My mother was right. The big decisions my wife and I make together, no matter how tough, with a feeling of unity and accomplishment. But the little compromises, day in and day out, are what cause us to resent each other. We have learned to give each other the time each needs for freedom from compromise. And we have both learned to accept the gift from each other: learning to take the compromise-free time without feeling guilty about doing so was more difficult than granting the time to each other.

  • Gem

    Why not both? She can have the pasta, and you can have the pizza. Life is much more complicated than that…

  • Caroline Driver

    I really needed this. I am aware in myself that I have lots of little resentments that have built up over the years my partner and I have been together. And we don’t argue, because I am terrified of confrontation (another story), but I just know that if we ever did get into an argument, I would be guilty of that woman thing of dredging up all the old resentments, all the little things that have pissed me off, that’s he’s most likely forgotten if he was ever aware of them at all, and it would get out of hand. So many microcompromises, all sitting in the bank. And doubtless he has many of his own. It would get ugly.

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