“Give 75%. Expect 25%.” This is some of the best advice I heard when I got married, and something my husband and I usually share if newly married couples ask for a piece of marital wisdom on their wedding day.
I love this advice because I believe we usually overestimate what we are doing for our partner and underestimate what they are doing for us. So if we EACH give more and expect less, then ideally, we end up somewhere closer in the vicinity of a 50/50 partnership.
And while I have found this to be some of the best advice for my marriage, I have been thinking a lot about how relevant (or not) it is in my other relationships. Not just because the nature of a marriage relationship is so unique compared to some of our other associations, but also because I know that I lucked out. I married a very giving partner who has no problem compromising (okay, most of the time!) and is prone to apologize whether he is in the wrong or not.
When you have a relationship that involves two people who tend to be thoughtful and giving, I think that chances are, you are going to find that the partnership tends to be more naturally based on compromise and give and take. The problem is when there is a lack of balance in the relationship—one person is giving and the other is…um, not.
I hate to reduce the conversation to “givers” vs. “takers” because that is pretty reductionist. So instead I will use the phrase “ego dominant.” Basically, I think it comes easier for some people than others to see outside of their own ego/perspective and to understand and put someone else’s needs first. And it’s a character trait with a full spectrum of variation, not just one extreme or another. Very rarely do you find someone is all give or all take, all egocentric or all selfless.
But I have been thinking a lot about “Being Accommodating” and how much it really blows, to be honest. I always thought it was such a great quality to have—virtuous even—but lately…not so much.
I’m not trying to say that I have some mind-blowing understanding of “The Other” and always know and put the needs of others first. That is hardly the case. Frankly, we are all pretty selfish when it comes right down to it.
It’s just that—I tend to be an accommodating personality. I like everyone to get along. I like harmony. And to be honest, the preferences of other people are sometimes so loud and insistent that I can’t even hear my own. Oftentimes when someone takes the time to ask what I want, my honest answer is, “I don’t know anymore” (but the “anymore” is silent).
I find this to be more a pain in the ass than some sought-after character trait. Sometimes I desperately long to be demanding and selfish and myopic and just tell people off. But…it just doesn’t seem to happen that often.
The thing that I absolutely can’t stand about being accommodating is how often it matters so little. You see, if you and I need to reach some sort of arrangement—let’s say, where to eat dinner and what movie to see after—chances are, I have already thought about everything I already know about your dining and cinema preferences. I have already made peace with the fact that I won’t be eating or watching my first choice of anything. Okay, not ALL the time, but really more of the time that I would like to admit.
I am already operating from the space where I believe (or hope) your preferences and mine might overlap. (I may not always be right, but that’s another topic altogether.) You probably don’t even know I have done this. But my top preferences are probably off the table before we even start open negotiations.
I don’t do this because I have no preferences or because I have the same preferences as you or because I have low self-esteem or I think you matter so much more than me. I do it because I like you, and I think preferences are just that… preferences, and because I am sure I will have a good time just the same, and because I really don’t want to draw a line in the sand over something as mundane as dinner and a movie.
The problem is that like many accommodating people, the other party often has no idea that ground has already been given. Let’s say that I just decide right off the bat to give up 75% of my ground and negotiate from my own 30-yard line (or whatever the math is…). Often, instead of the accommodated party saying, “Wow, I am already getting things 75% my way,” they make that last 25% “The Battleground”. They want MORE.
Some people who do this know EXACTLY what they are doing, but I am realizing that many people do not. I am not already giving up ground in their mind. I am in my corner and they are in theirs, and now the bargaining begins as though no concessions have already been made.
Nothing pisses me off more, quite frankly. How much more can they possibly ask me to surrender when I already have given up so much? And for quite some time, I have been raging over this flaw in my personality. I loathe being accommodating, but I loathe not being accommodating even more.
When confronted with a demanding person where I believe I’ve already given up my pound of flesh (okay, maybe a little overly dramatic, but sometimes it feels that way), my first reaction is to evict this person from my life entirely. “If they are going to be so selfish and ungrateful,” I think to myself, “then I have no place for them.” And the resentment grows and festers.
The thing is, I realize now that my approach is the problem. And it’s in my power to fix it. No, it doesn’t mean that I suddenly give up compromise and thoughtfulness and become a selfish prick (although I have fantasized about that often.)
What I realized is that I have been hurt or worse, enraged, and the other party often has no idea that any of this has happened. It is attrition warfare that has taken place mostly in my own mind. I am having both sides of the debate in my head—instead of including the other party—and then I am mad when the other person doesn’t understand what’s going on.
And that isn’t fair to anyone.
Part of compromise is each party trusting the other enough to have an honest conversation about what we want, where we are willing to concede and where we aren’t. If we don’t trust the other person enough to include them in the whole process, then how can we expect them to respond fully? And more importantly, how can we hold them responsible for crimes they don’t know they’ve committed?
I am now in “accommodation recovery.” To me, when I accommodate someone, it usually means I have excluded them from the process somehow. I have acquiesced. So even if they got “their way,” they often either don’t know what I gave up or they don’t realize that I now resent them for what I have sacrificed.
I didn’t trust them to treat my needs and feelings with respect, and so I have cut them out of the process and then judged them for it. And how fair is any of that?
It is quite possible that I am the only one who feels this way, but I really doubt it. And so my challenge to me (and to you, if you identify with anything I have said) is to approach these problematic relationships with more honesty and directness and more trust in communication. Fight for your needs while also respecting the needs of the person you are negotiating with.
I think sometimes the phrase “compromise” gets a bad wrap. No one wants to compromise their standards or what matters most; no one wants to make concessions or “settle” or make tradeoffs.
I prefer to look at compromise as mutual understanding and agreement. To compromise is to jointly find common ground that BOTH parties work towards and agree to.
The next time someone asks me, “What do you want to do tonight?” I am going to do a better job of trusting them with my honest response, even if they may be disappointed with what I have to say…Even if I may be disappointed with their reaction.
And when I ask myself the tough questions, hopefully I can trust myself with the truth, not just with what I think people prefer to hear.