We’ve all been in the middle of an argument that we know we cannot win, understanding that our frustration has overwhelmed all sense of perspective. Spent and shattered, we would do well to remember the old saying: “It is better to bend than to break!” And this is just what Dr. Gottman’s countless research studies have shown.

When you are caught in the heat of an argument, you are in a state of crisis, which is defined as “a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger” from the Greek krisis. In times where you experience crisis, what you yearn for most of all is to feel safe. If you do not feel safe (emotionally or physically), there is no way for you to reach a state of compromise with your partner.

Dr. Gottman’s further findings may not seem so intuitive: If your goal is to reach a state of compromise, you must first focus on yourself. Define your core needs in the area of your problems, do not relinquish anything that you feel is absolutely essential, and understand that you must be willing to accept influence.

His advice, based on more than four decades years of research, is the following:

Remember, you can only be influential if you accept influence. Compromise never feels perfect. Everyone gains something and everyone loses something. The important thing is feeling understood, respected, and honored in your dreams.

If you feel like this is an incredibly tall order, you are not alone. Luckily, the following exercise may be of comfort. Featured in the couples workshop that Dr. Gottman presents with his wife and collaborator, Dr. Julie Gottman, this exercise will help you and your partner to make headway into the perpetually gridlocked problems you face in your relationship. We hope that it will provide welcome relief in this critical first step towards easing the many stresses of conflict:

The Art of Compromise

Step 1: Consider an area of conflict in which you and your partner have been stuck in perpetual gridlock. Draw two ovals, one within the other. The one on the inside is yourInflexible Area, and the one on the outside is your Flexible Area.

Step 2: Think of the inside oval containing the ideas, needs, and values you absolutely cannot compromise on, and the outside oval containing the ideas, needs, and values that you feel more flexible with in this area. Make two lists.

Step 3: Discuss the following questions with your partner, in the way that feels most comfortable and natural for the two of you:

  • Can you help me to understand why your “inflexible” needs or values are so important to you? 
  • What are your guiding feelings here?
  • What feelings and goals do we have in common? How might these goals be accomplished?
  • Help me to understand your flexible areas. Let’s see which ones we have in common.
  • How can I help you to meet your core needs?
  • What temporary compromise can we reach on this problem?

Designed as an activity for the two of you, this exercise should not be approached in the midst of a stressful discussion. It will be most helpful if undertaken in peacetime, perhaps in the evening or on a weekend. It should take you and your partner approximately thirty minutes. Remember, this activity is not a magical pill that the two of you can pop, causing your problems to disappear forever! It is the beginning of a series of what will likely prove to be long, honest, fruitful, and fulfilling discussions.

If this all still feels intimidating, don’t be discouraged. It probably means that this is important to you. And that is your greatest power – motivation to overcome these very real difficulties. In the words of Virginia Woolf, “You cannot find peace by avoiding life.” The differences between us all are very real.

Remember, those of us who love someone have a real gift – having seen the unique beauty of the one we love, in all of its strengths and weaknesses, complexities and depths, we share the will to build bridges between our souls.

We hope that the exercises we have shown you in the last couple of weeks will help you and your partner in building these bridges. This Friday, look forward to our last entry in the 6 Skills of Managing Conflict.


More in Conflict Management
Manage Conflict: The Art of Compromise
Ellie Lisitsa

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.