The 4Cs of a Meaningful and Lasting Romance: Chapter 5.2: The Promise in Compromise

Personal Compromise

Whether you’re in search of your next relationship or enjoying the early stages of a new one, you must learn to gauge your willingness to compromise on your own needs and desires before approaching a compromise situation within your relationship. I call this personal compromise.

Personal compromise defines which, if any of your needs or desires you are willing to compromise versus those you are not. Unlike your core values and beliefs that are cast in stone, your lower priority needs and desires have a certain elasticity to them. Meaning, in the right circumstance, you may be willing to concede certain lower level needs and desires to effect a compromise. In one personal example, I have a need for at least seven hours sleep, due to my work demands and exercise routine. If I’m on a date, and I’m enjoying the company I’m with, I will ignore my seven hour rule and stay up later than I prefer to. That said, I’m only willing to compromise so far on this need for seven hours of sleep, because ultimately, my overall physical and mental health, which I consider a high priority need for myself, requires sufficient rest to achieve. If I’m involved with someone whose biological clock prompts them to stay up late every night, I might forgo my seven hours on occasion but not routinely. Over the years, I’ve come to accept this personal compromise as one I’m willing to make for the right person. In another example, I love the ocean and water-centric activities, but I’m willing to compromise my desire to spend time on the water for someone with whom I share a nice chemistry with but who happens to prefer dry land. I’ve defined for myself, the lower priority needs and desires I’m willing to compromise on so long as doing so does not negatively impact my higher priority needs and desires. I encourage you to think about this and decide where you might be open to personal compromise. If you don’t define where you’re willing to give and take, you’ll have a hard time making compromise work in your relationship.

Conflict Management Styles

In the words of William Ellery Channing, “Difficulties are meant to rouse, not discourage. The human spirit is to grow strong by conflict.” When I cycle in gusty weather and have to struggle through every mile in conflict with Mother Nature, I tell myself strong winds make strong legs. In our romantic relationships, our approach to conflict resolution should focus on productive negotiations with a spirit of love and respect to resolve differences rather than clinging to preconceived notions of how our relationship should appear. Or to paraphrase my cycling analogy, conflict can actually strengthen our romantic relationships if we approach it the right way.

In terms of conflict management, each person brings different personalities and past experiences to their romantic relationship. They also bring their own behavioral perspective to conflict resolution. In a perfect world, we should always strive to air our disagreements in an open forum to encourage a healthy discussion with active listening, or authentic listening, defined by authors Stone, Patton, and Heen in Difficult Conversations, as “listening because you are curious and because you care, not just because you’re supposed to.”

If you find the perfect world, let me know, and I’ll book a flight. Until then, we can only work with what we have. Mahatma Gandhi said, “True strength does not come from physical capacity, it comes from an indomitable will.” In this case, our indomitable will to maintain a meaningful and lasting romance through more proficient conflict management starts with a willingness to learn and adapt what we learn without prejudice. So far, we’ve touched on the concept of balancing our needs through negotiation and personal compromise. Now let’s go a little deeper and examine conflict management from personality and behavioral perspectives.

Personality Perspective on Conflict Management

Personality traits represent our unique ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving, which influence how we respond to any given situation. Within this context, several theories represent multidimensional constructs describing the psychological type of individuals. Research in the field of personality theory associates personality with the quality of our social interactions and social relationships. Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, developed three dimensions of normal behavior types to explain how normal, healthy people differ from one other. According to Jung, people think and act differently from one another in a manner he categorized with the following personality types:

  • Introverted/Extroverted—describes how people prefer to focus their attention and derive their energy.
  • Sensing/Intuitive—describes how people prefer to take in information from the world.
  • Thinking/Feeling—describes how people prefer to make decisions.

Studies suggest introverted people prefer accommodation or avoidance and extroverted individuals prefer competition or collaboration. Studies also show how personality attributes like dominance, authoritarianism, aggressiveness, and suspiciousness increase tension in a conflict situation. Conversely, personality attributes like trust, open-mindedness, and equality instill a more manageable conflict situation.

Behavioral Perspectives on Conflict Management

From a behavioral perspective, our conflict management styles will vary from person to person, but according to behavioral scientists Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann, we respond to conflict in one of the following five ways:

  • Competing
  • Collaborating
  • Compromising
  • Accommodating
  • Avoiding

This Thomas-Kilmann model of behavioral conflict management also identifies two conceptually independent dimensions of interpersonal behavior associated with each of the conflict management styles, namely: assertiveness—defined as behavior intended to satisfy a person’s own concerns, and cooperativeness—defined as behavior intended to satisfy another’s concerns. The following graphic correlates each conflict management style to a range of assertive or cooperative interpersonal behaviors. As the figure indicates, the compromising conflict management style strikes a balance between assertiveness and cooperativeness.

Conflict Management Styles

Competing (assertive, uncooperative)

According to the Thomas-Kilmann model, individuals who exhibit a competing style respond to conflict in an assertive and uncompromising manner. This conflict management style attempts to gain power at the expense of the other individual in a “win-lose” approach.

Collaborating (assertive, cooperative)

The collaborative approach to conflict resolution seeks creative solutions by identifying primary issues in an effort to understand the other person’s perspective. This conflict management style encourages mutual respect and trust to help build a healthy relationship through a “win-win” approach.

Compromising (intermediate in both assertiveness and cooperativeness)

The compromising style demonstrates a willingness to surrender some goals while convincing our partner to do the same. The Thomas-Kilmann model labels this a “lose-lose” scenario where neither partner’s needs are met. I would argue this personality type leans more toward a “win-win” outcome, through balanced assertiveness and cooperativeness. As the previous figure on conflict management styles illustrates, a compromising conflict management style offers a balance between concern for one’s own needs and concern for those of others.

Accommodating (unassertive, cooperative)

The accommodating style emphasizes relationship preservation over meaningful conflict resolution with one partner discounting their own needs in an effort to gain accord. This conflict management style can work against our own goals, objectives, and preferred outcomes.

Avoiding (unassertive, uncooperative)

The avoidant style advocates the intentional disregard for conflict by withdrawing from the conflict itself rather than addressing the issue straight on. This conflict management style expects the problem to resolve itself or disappear altogether.

Research shows we are capable of using all five conflict management styles but that we tend to use some styles more effectively than others, and therefore tend to rely on these more than others. Furthermore, research shows that conflict management styles are not mutually exclusive. We typically employ a particular style as our dominant style in a given situation, but we also adopt other styles depending on the nature of the conflict and the circumstances surrounding it. Collectively, our behaviors toward conflict resolution develop from a combination of personal characteristics, requirements defined by a given circumstance, and our behavioral disposition toward conflict.

In addition to behavioral responses identified by conflict management styles, we also employ physical, emotional, and cognitive responses to conflict, which I address in the next segment.

Physical, Emotional, and Cognitive Responses to Conflict

Physical Response to Conflict

Our physical response to conflict includes irregular breathing patterns, rapid heartbeat, increased perspiration, hunched shoulders, body tension, and altered facial expressions. We communicate these physical responses nonverbally and involuntarily. These physical reflex actions often meet with heightened anxiety and a diminished capacity for articulating our position in a calm, rational manner. Our physical response to conflict also influences our emotional reactions.

Emotional Response to Conflict

With emotional response to conflict, our feelings can span the gamut from elation to despair or placation to anger. Our range of emotional responses correlates to the level of conflict or perceived conflict from our point of view. Where some people fly off the handle in a stressful situation, others maintain poise and calm. This explains, in part, why some people function well in law enforcement or emergency rescue occupations while others find themselves more suited to less stressful work environments. Our partners read our emotional responses either directly, by observing our physical reaction to conflict, or indirectly through the negative vibe we give off. But unlike our physical responses, which signify our mood through body language, facial gestures, or tone of voice, our emotional responses can send mixed signals. Are we sarcastic or sincerely irritated? Simply tired or mad as hell? Engrossed in the conversation’s content or bored out of our skull? The high potential for misinterpretation can make a confusing situation worse, especially for couples with poor communication skills. The trick is learning to gauge our partner’s emotional response and engage them accordingly.

Cognitive Response to Conflict

Our cognitive response to conflict portrays itself as our conscience or inner voice telling us to back off or step out. We channel these cognitive responses through our continuous monitoring of environmental cues as well as our own behavior and that of our partner’s. Our moods and motivations influence our cognitive responses, which derive from our personal significance of emotionally relevant events in our conscious or subconscious mind. Our cognitive response contributes to our physical and emotional responses to conflict. Think of the cognitive response as a gut feeling to a given situation that elicits a response from our personal library of catalogued emotions and behaviors.

Armed with an awareness, and a deeper understanding of our physical, emotional, and cognitive responses to conflict, we gain a more focused insight into the myriad of thoughts, feelings, and physical reactions derived from conflict in our romantic relationships. Ultimately, we can pave the way for potential solutions through the application of intelligent reasoning over knee-jerk reactions.

Although some research suggests a strong correlation between our personality types and the behavior-oriented conflict management styles, other research suggests a weak relationship between the two. Despite the research ambiguity, our given personality traits and our approach to conflict management are influenced by the choices we make on how we elect to deal with certain conflict situations.

Take a moment and reflect on your own conflict management style—competing, collaborating, compromising, accommodating, or avoiding—and compare your approach to your partner’s. By recognizing your individual conflict management styles, you can improve your self-awareness of how you and your partner respond to stressful situations. Perhaps your behavioral responses are similar or completely different. Either way, focus on recognizing your similarities and differences with a goal of improving communication and compromise through problem solving that involves a clearer understanding of your individual approaches to conflict resolution, rather than applying brute force power struggles that often end badly for everyone involved.

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