Family obligations can be defined any number of ways, such as parents and children sharing dinner together at home, chauffeuring kids to school or extracurricular activities, helping with homework assignments, taking care of a live-in grandparent, visiting in-laws, or anything involving a time commitment to family. For the purpose of this discussion, I focus on family obligations defined by parents or childless adult couples interacting with in-laws or adult relatives. Within this context, family responsibilities can run the gamut from minimal to overwhelming. Some couples view family commitments as less of a burden and more of an opportunity to introduce or facilitate an existing relationship between one partner and another partner’s relatives.
When I think of family obligations, I picture Chevy Chase and his Griswold clan enduring one disastrous holiday event after another with the kids in tow. I suspect the seemingly endless, and hysterical confrontations between all parties involved hits close to home for a lot of American families. All kidding aside, this Hollywood portrayal pokes fun at a serious issue couples often face.
Consider the many variables in the family equation: Are both partners equally committed to family in terms of regular involvement? What are their individual expectations toward family commitments in terms of who visits whom and how often and by what means? Do the in-laws come to us, or do we go to them? Are we committing to major holidays or every other month? If we choose to visit relatives, do we pack up the car and spend days on the road or fly instead? What type of relationship, good or bad, do we have with our parents or extended family? Is the requirement for family involvement a deal breaker in our relationship? At what point is it acceptable to beg for mercy from the mother or father-in-law who’s driving you crazy?
I was fortunate in my marriage to have wonderful in-laws who brought nothing but support and love to my former wife and I. My father-in-law was always willing to listen and share his thoughts. And I owe a debt of gratitude to my mother-in-law who assisted for several months after my twin boys were born. Little did my infant sons know what a Godsend the extra help would be for brand new parents juggling twin babies without a user manual.
I’m not a child psychologist nor do I pretend to understand all the intricacies involved with how our childhood shapes our lives as adults. I do believe, however, the first step toward compromising on family obligations should involve an honest dialogue between partners regarding their family upbringings and beliefs. Secondly, I feel both partners should engage in frank discussion about things like cultural differences and expectations, where one culture might require or encourage significantly more extended family interaction than another. Financial considerations bring out another issue with the price of gasoline and airfares always rising. There’s also the cost of time to consider, as one partner may have more difficulty leaving work for extended periods of time. Most people only accrue a limited number of vacation days, allocated across the calendar to cover everything from actual vacations to sick days or child emergencies. If family obligations involve relatives visiting your home for extended periods of time, discuss an emergency exit strategy—or at least an agreed upon length of stay. A nice hotel can spread comfort for everyone involved, particularly if your guest accommodations involve a pull out sofa with busted springs and nocturnal pets running wild throughout the night.
If family obligations involve taking care of an elderly parent or permanently sharing your home with a relative, talk it over with each other. If you’re married, hopefully these discussions occurred before you took your marital vows. If not, you could be in for a bumpy ride both financially and emotionally. If, on the other hand, your relationship is relatively new, you should consider whether or not your partner’s predilection toward family obligations parallels or conflicts with your own. As with many compromises, family obligations can be tough to agree to disagree on.
Personal Goals and Ambitions
Oprah Winfrey said, “Alone time is when I distance myself from the voices of the world so I can hear my own.”
Whether or not your personal goals require time apart from your partner to pursue your own aspirations, a balance exists—and for some, a very delicate one, between too much independence and spending too much time together.
Too much time together? Is there such a thing? Of course there is. Most healthy couples don’t spend every minute of every day joined at the hip. We all crave personal time now and then. And some people enjoy more time alone than others.
Ask yourself: Does the time and energy required to achieve your personal goals interfere with your relationship? Or does your relationship impede your ability to achieve your dreams? If you answered yes to the former, you have an opportunity to compromise on some personal issues for the benefit of your relationship; however, if you answered yes to the latter, then you might reconsider your romantic relationship. Sound harsh? Perhaps. But it goes back to defining your needs and desires. If your romantic relationship blocks your need to attain your personal goals in life, then maybe you’re better off going solo for a while. To ignore your inner conflict and press on with the relationship will likely cause more personal strife and incur a rift in your ability to compromise. I believe this partly explains why so many “Hollywood marriages” end in total disaster, some in a matter of months, weeks, or even days. Any time two people in a committed relationship go full bore to achieve their personal goals—with their romantic relationship a constant obstacle—the relationship will always suffer. In a perfect world, both partners share common personal goals and objectives. But few people share exactly the same goals or how to go about achieving them.
Whatever personal goals and ambitions keep you fired up all day or awake at night, spend some time to reflect on their significance to you. This might involve asking some tough questions about your needs and your relationship, the honest answers to which might surprise you. Moreover, you may find you can compromise on your work or hobbies to spend more time with your partner without significantly impacting your personal goals and objectives. So it takes you a little longer to finish your project or plan your dream trip around the world. You might discover your relationship is more important. In the end, the best way to approach a compromise on personal goals and ambitions involves balancing the time you spend doing things alone with the time you spend doing things together.
When it comes to parenting and compromise, various parenting styles exist. We all have opinions on parents we perceive to be too strict, too lenient, or indifferent altogether, but well-known research conducted at Berkeley by developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind in the 1960s has been used for decades to categorize Western parents into one of three parenting styles: Authoritarian, Authoritative, or Permissive. Baumrind’s research involved the study of middle class preschool children and their parents. Subsequent studies have upheld Baumrind’s conclusions on parenting styles, and as Western society has evolved since the 60’s era, two additional parenting styles have been documented: Over-Parenting and Neglectful/Uninvolved.
In the following paragraphs, a cursory explanation of each Baumrind style helps identify our own parenting approaches and casts the spotlight on some pros and cons of each. This short discussion on parenting styles presents a broad-brush perspective on a topic largely beyond the scope of this book. Nonetheless, I feel it’s important to understand the definitions of these parenting styles before we attempt to compare our own style to our partner’s in an effort to compromise on our parenting approaches.
As you read these short descriptions on various parenting styles, it’s likely you’ll discover your own parenting methods constitute more than one of these styles—and how your particular approach to parenting can be subject to change, slightly, based on household dynamics, the age of your children, lack of sleep, temporary loss of sanity, momentary bouts of dain bramage, afull moon, or any number of existential influences real or imagined.
Baumrind’s Authoritarian Parenting
The authoritarian parent observes a restrictive parenting style. These parents impose lots of rules with little or no explanations and expect their child to abide by the rules without question. Violation of the rules results in harsh punishment. Baumrind found that authoritarian parenting produced children who were “fearful, apprehensive, moody, unhappy, easily annoyed, passively hostile, vulnerable to stress, aimless, sulky, and unfriendly.” Moreover, Baumrind noticed children raised by authoritarian parents were likely to comply with parents’ expectations when the parents were present, but act out behind their backs.
Baumrind’s Authoritative Parenting
The authoritative parenting style offers a less restrictive and more flexible approach to the authoritarian style but still imposes rules. Authoritative parents set expectations for appropriate behaviors and provide reasons for their expectations. These parents listen to their child’s point of view. According to Baumrind’s research, the authoritative parenting style helped parents raise children who were “self-reliant, self-controlled, cheerful and friendly, coped well with stress, cooperative with adults, curious, purposive, and achievement oriented.” In Baumrind’s conclusion, children raised by authoritative parents succeeded well in life, with the fewest instances of substance abuse, superior grades, and eventually better jobs. In more recent times, Dr. Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University, points to studies on authoritative parenting that correlate authoritative parenting with stronger psychosocial development and mental health across all cultures, regardless of ethnicity and socioeconomic status.
Baumrind’s Permissive Parenting
The permissive parenting style, or “indulgent parenting style” as some describe it, represents warmth and nurturing but with few expectations for the child. Children have free rein over their own behavior with minimal parental supervision. Parents with this style rarely discipline their children and often assume the role of a friend more than a parent. According to Baumrind, permissive parents tend to be more responsive than demanding and often avoid confrontation. Their children grow up to be more rebellious, impulsive, and low in achievement.
The over-parenting style, or “helicopter mom” as some describe it, places the needs of the child first. Parents who exhibit this style believe children must be protected from unpleasant or sad experiences in order for children to be happy and secure. This style of parenting takes away the child’s sense of autonomy, where the parent makes decisions for their child and attempts to solve their child’s problems. Over-protected children typically lack confidence, have a low self-image, and remain averse to taking risks or confronting new situations. Parents who conform to this style do their child a disservice, despite good intentions, by treating their child like a “bubble boy” without allowing the child to handle life’s challenges. In my opinion, children who fail to learn how to cope with life’s up and downs eventually grow up to become adults who have difficulty handling stressful situations, including conflict resolution. Of course, most good parents probably over-parent their children to some extent, on occasion—myself included.
Baumrind’s Neglectful / Uninvolved Parenting
The neglectful or uninvolved parenting style applies to parents who fulfill their children’s physical needs but remain emotionally distant, isolated, and detached. This parenting style places few demands on the child with limited communication and low responsiveness to the child’s needs. Children of neglectful parents grow up with low self-esteem and poor social competence. These children suffer to various degrees on physical, emotional, and psychological fronts.
Beyond the Baumrind Styles
New research from a three-year study concluded in 2012 by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, describes parenting as an outgrowth of who we are rather than a system we consciously choose. Over the course of the study, researchers examined three thousand parents who participated in an online survey and interviews. This study of school-aged children across the United States examined the origins of American parenting styles across the country and classified American families into the following four groups:
- The Faithful
- Engaged Progressives
- The Detached (or Laissez-Faire)
- American Dreamers
According to the University of Virginia study, the Faithful comprise twenty percent of America’s total parent population, and place heavy emphasis on morality with religion at the center of their world. When faced with a morally unclear circumstance, eighty-eight percent of the Faithful would decide what to do based upon what God or scripture tells them is right. Roughly seventy-five percent believe “faith is more important than their children’s eventual happiness and positive feelings about themselves.” The Faithful pray daily and look to pastors or spiritual counselors for parenting advice. They feel secure as parents and have control over their children. Nearly eighty-eight percent are married with average education and larger than average family sizes. Their ethnic group includes sixty-seven percent Caucasian, sixteen percent Hispanic, eleven percent Black, and six percent other.
The Engaged Progressives comprise twenty-one percent of America’s total parent population and place heavy emphasis on personal freedom. They view tolerance more than faith in their moral code. Over half believe that as long as they don’t hurt anyone else, they should live however they want. Engaged Progressives tend to emphasize honesty and generally maintain an optimistic view of the world. They prepare children to be “responsible choosers” and believe in the motto of “doing what would be the best for everyone involved.” Engaged Progressives maintain higher than average education with smaller than average family sizes. About eighty percent are married within an ethnic group, including seventy-one percent Caucasian, seventeen percent Hispanic, two percent Black, and ten percent other.
The Detached (or Laissez-Faire)
The Detached comprise nineteen percent of America’s total parent population and place heavy emphasis on “freedom of retreat.”They feel “marginalized, reticent, and unsure of themselves and their place in society.” The majority of detached parents consider practical skills as important as book learning. The Detached hold less than average education and most have only one child. Their philosophy on parenting is to “let kids be kids and let the cards fall where they may.” Roughly two-thirds are married and about half spend less than two hours a day talking or spending time with their children. Their ethnic group includes sixty-seven percent Caucasian, seventeen percent Hispanic, ten percent Black, and six percent other.
The American Dreamers comprise twenty-seven percent of America’s total parent population. These parents share the low economic and education levels of the Detached but have much higher aspirations for their children. Most hold less than average education, and one in four live below the poverty line. American Dreamers invest heavily in their children to give them a competitive advantage in later life. Roughly two-thirds are married and remain optimistic about their children’s opportunities and schooling. Their ethnic group consists of forty-six percent Caucasian, twenty-six percent Hispanic, twenty-two percent Black, and six percent other.
Coping with Different Parenting Styles
According to Barbara Frazier, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist, our parenting styles derive from the first-hand experience of the parenting styles our parents or parent displayed. From our childhood, we subconsciously internalize our parents’ style, which helps lay the groundwork for the development of our own parenting style as we enter parenthood. This parallels the work of researchers at Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture who describe parenting as an outgrowth of who we are rather than a system we consciously choose.
So how do you compromise between different parenting styles? The same way you kiss a porcupine—very carefully. Experts believe parenting conflicts are normal. They also emphasize the importance of striving for conflict resolution versus ongoing disputes of who’s right or wrong. Different partners bring their own unique perspective on child rearing based on their own childhood experiences. Working through parenting conflicts benefits the children but also the marriage as well. Once we recognize how different parenting styles can emphasize cooperation over conflict, we can begin the process of compromising on our parenting styles. With this goal in mind, Barbara Frazier offers the following advice:
- Engage in cooperative parenting compromise only when your child’s best interests are the primary consideration.
- Define values and parenting strategies by listing the primary values you wish to impart to your child and what you hope to accomplish in the years they will be living with you. Next, list major categories of parenting strategies and the specific activities or practices you will use.
- Identify conflicts and compromise areas by listing the areas of disagreement.
Dr. Connor Walters, a Certified Family Life Educator at Illinois State University also recommends the following approach to dealing with different parenting styles:
- Keep communication open to address small issues as they arise, rather than waiting for the issues to get worse.
- Discuss differences based on specific behaviors not individual personalities.
- Settle problems one at a time by coming to an agreement on the most important issues first.
- Stay in the present and don’t rehash old conflicts.
- When disagreements arise, don’t wait for days on end to discuss them.
- Don’t jump to conclusions. Allow each parent to express their own views.
- Speak respectfully to one another and control your nonverbal communication—i.e., don’t send mixed signals by nodding an enthusiastic “Yes!” while you’re rolling your eyes to express your disapproval.
Compromise in Summary
This chapter covered a lot of ground on a topic many people find hard to discuss. Instead of hiding from compromise in your romantic relationship, I hope the information I’ve provided will encourage you to look at compromise from a different perspective across a variety of issues. Compromise involves empathy for your partner’s needs and desires with the objective of settling differences through mutual concessions to reach agreements through reciprocal modification of demands. Compromise derives from equality and respect, and not power and control. Positive compromises keep your relationship in balance. Negative compromises do more harm than good. Only you can decide where to draw the line between negative compromise—unhealthy compromise that prompts you to sacrifice your core values—and positive compromise—healthy compromise that keeps your relationship on track.
Not everyone shares the same ability or the same desire to compromise. As we grow older, some of us become more set in our own ways and less willing to change for the benefit of our relationship. This can lead to conflict, which is a normal part of any healthy relationship as long as both partners can keep their emotions in check and focus on the issue at hand. Try not to overanalyze things, but do set guidelines and follow them. Listen to each other. Maintain eye contact. Be flexible where you can. A stiff branch breaks; a soft one bends.
Whether you are in a new relationship or involved with a long-term partner, consider making a hierarchical list of all the things important to you, starting with the most essential. Then compare this to your partner’s list. Hopefully most of your priorities coincide. If not, you now have a way to help identify areas of concern. When broaching a specific compromise, consider asking yourself the following questions:
1. Will this compromise make me happy?
Many compromises involve relatively minor changes in our lives or our daily routines and have little impact on our overall satisfaction. In other words, don’t sweat the small stuff.
2. Will this compromise change who I am fundamentally?
Ask yourself if this compromise will have an adverse effect on your core values, your beliefs, or your personal goals and objectives. It’s one thing to try and work through an impasse with your partner through mutual concessions you can both live with. But it’s never a good idea to try and change someone or ask them to become someone they’re not.
3. Is my partner also compromising or am I simply giving in?
Compromise goes both ways. Compromise isn’t always fifty-fifty, but if you find the scales constantly tip in your partner’s favor, it might be time to renegotiate your position.
4. Am I really willing to make this compromise?
Be honest with yourself and decide if you’re willing to live with the compromise. If you’re not willing to make the compromise, then don’t offer it.
5. Is this compromise for the benefit of our relationship?
Are you compromising exclusively for your partner’s sake to make their life more convenient or enjoyable for them? Or will this compromise be beneficial for the overall health of your relationship?
6. Am I ready to be in this relationship?
If there are high priority issues causing too much conflict in your relationship, and you or your partner are not willing to compromise on any of them, then it might be time to reevaluate the long term viability of your relationship. Better to be happy and single—even lonely and single—than stuck in a miserable relationship.
A strong romantic relationship thrives on our ability to compromise on the smallest of issues as well as those that loom large in our own minds. If two people truly love each other, and truly accept each other for who they are as individuals with important needs and desires, then compromise for the benefit of the relationship should be something to espouse. Meaningful and lasting don’t have to imply mutually exclusive descriptors for romance to thrive. We aren’t bound by the notion of meaningful or lasting when we love someone. We are bound by our desire to give and take in equal measure, to seek balance in our lives together without sacrificing our own core values and beliefs.
If you’ve made it thus far in the book, you should have a better understanding of the first three ‘Cs’ and how the art of compromise involves the use of many skills, including communication, conflict management, and sacrifice. The fourth and final ‘C’ describes something many people shy away from, but if you’re willing to keep an open mind, you’ll find there’s nothing to fear with commitment.