Many people are trained to believe that it’s always right to compromise, i.e., to meet the other person halfway. That might sound nice, but in my experience it doesn’t always work.
All action needs to be purposeful. And two things must be true before you compromise. First, the issue on which you’re compromising and your relationship with the other person must be important. Second, the other person must be willing to compromise. These do not guarantee a successful outcome, but they at least make it possible. Without these factors, the “spirit of compromise” can quickly turn into frustration and disaster.
Take for example the case of Lizzie. Lizzie’s mother is terminally ill. Because Lizzie is single, she’s able and willing to take care of her mother. She does everything she can, not in resentful self-sacrifice, but because she loves her mother. As it happens, Lizzie’s mother has a substantial amount of money. Lizzie has one brother and one sister. Her mother is very appreciative of Lizzie’s time and attention, and has told Lizzie that she plans to will her the family house, a property of financial as well as sentimental value to the family. The rest of the estate will be divided equally among the three siblings. See it coming? Read on.
Mother changes the will. Lizzie’s two siblings are furious. Her brother threatens legal action. He makes these threats to Lizzie, but never to his mother. Lizzie’s sister resorts to silence, holiday brush-offs, and other passive-aggressive nonsense to communicate her displeasure. Lizzie politely tries to tell her siblings – to no avail – that this was mother’s decision, not hers. But Lizzie still tries to appease them. She offers to talk to mother about giving each sibling a higher portion of the estate to compensate for not getting the house. After each exchange, her brother shouts, “I am entitled to my share. In fact, I’m entitled to more than a third. It’s outrageous that mother is leaving you the whole house.”
Lizzie doesn’t know what to do. Some of her more vapid friends in the psychotherapy and “healing” fields tell her that love, forgiveness and tolerance will solve everything. Lizzie isn’t so sure, but because it’s the only advice she’s getting, she takes to walking on eggshells around her siblings. She is very reluctant to travel or vacation, because she’s petrified her mother will die while she’s out of town. “I’d never hear the end of it from my brother and sister,” she whines.
So let’s examine the situation. Lizzie believes that if she appeases her family, everything will somehow work out. She tries compromise, failing to note that it’s something to which her siblings never agreed. In Lizzie’s mind, if she shows them consideration and spends even more time with mother, then they will at least meet her halfway. But the siblings never agree to this. Why? Because compromise does not matter to them. Her brother is explicit about his view that he’s entitled to essentially all of mother’s estate. The sister feels much the same way.
Lizzie fails to understand that she cannot pretend that her siblings are willing to compromise. In fact any attempt to meet someone halfway never works when they feel entitled to it all. Of course, entitlement isn’t always wrong. Let’s say you buy a new computer. It doesn’t work, so you take it back. The clerk agrees it doesn’t work, and says, “Well, how about this? I’ll meet you halfway. We’ll give you the less expensive model.” Of course you’re upset, because in this particular case you are indeed entitled to the whole thing. But in the case of poor Lizzie, since her brother believes he’s entitled to it all, there’s no reasoning with him, and it’s futile to try reason or compromise with an unreasonable person.
As the philosopher Aristotle said, “‘A’ cannot be both ‘A’ and ‘not-A’ at the same time.” In other words, trying to compromise when none is possible is futile. Poor Lizzie should have held her ground. Needless to say, things did not turn out well.
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