We often hear that relationships involve compromise. Maintaining lasting partnerships and friendships is a game of give and take.

It’s true that if we want a healthy connection, we can’t always have our way. Mature relationships can’t thrive in a soil of narcissism. But neither can they flourish if we sacrifice our values or continually minimize our own needs. Such self-betrayal is destined to backfire, leading to deep disappointment with others or ourselves — or giving up on love or life.

Compromising has a dark side. It may be a setup for resentment if we mindlessly dismiss our own desires and well-being to please others, or if we repeatedly sacrifice truth to protect ourselves from the potential loss of the relationship. A growing resentment can lead to a slow and steady fraying of love.

Intimate love thrives in a climate of freedom. We need to feel free to be ourselves — to want what we want and express our desires without fear of criticism, shame, or retribution.

Affirming and expressing our desires doesn’t mean that we’ll always get what we want. Nor does it mean that if our partner really loves us, they’ll bend toward our will and neglect themselves. After all, they have their own needs and wants. They want to be happy, just as we do.

How do we navigate our varying needs with someone we come to care about? This is where the rubber meets the road in our important relationships — the dance of self-affirmation integrated with a caring attunement and empathy toward others.

The common solution to this quandary is to agree to compromise. We prefer Mexican food but our partner wants Italian. We want to visit a friend Monday night, but our partner wants us to stay home. What’s the key to negotiating such differences so that we can stay connected rather than build resentment from compromising too often?

A Key to Lasting Intimacy

Considering an alternative to compromising raises the question of what does it take to sustain a truly intimate relationship? How do we nurture a climate for love and caring, where we can be ourselves and have a healthy relationship?

A prime nutrient for intimate relationship is to be open, present, and attentive, along with a willingness to be affected by our partner. Research by Dr. John Gottman has found that relationships are more successful when we allow ourselves to be influenced by each other.

Love asks us to see another person as they are and be responsive to them. A part of what makes a love relationship exciting is that we’re invited to move beyond ourselves to share our world with another person.

Being open to being affected by our partner is different from doing what we think is “fair” or “right,” which is not to say there’s no place for fairness. It’s an entirely different matter if we orient ourselves toward one another in a manner that conveys the message:

  • I care about you
  • I want to hear what’s important to you
  • I take your feelings and wants to heart and I am touched by that
  • I allow myself to be affected — and even changed — as I listen openly and caringly to your experience.

There’s a big difference between acquiescing and being genuinely touched by another’s experience. A key to intimacy is opening ourselves to each other’s world. If I care about you, I will feel happy to give you what you want… if I can. If I hate Italian food, I may need to kindly decline and explore some alternative that works for both of us.

If I find sustenance on the altar of intimacy rather than cling too tightly to what I want, I will feel good to make you happy. I will find meaning, fulfillment, and delight in expressing my love and caring by supporting what you want. I don’t do this because I value compromise, but because I value you. It feels good to bring a smile to your face and joy to your heart.

Importantly, the reverse is also true. I honor myself by expressing my experience to you. I suspend what I want as I listen to you, but as I take it all in, I notice how it mixes with my own desires. If I never consult with what I want, I might succumb to a codependent pattern of giving up myself to please or placate you. But as Buddhist psychology teaches, if I cling too tenaciously to what I want, I may be enabling my own isolation and suffering.

The art of loving involves the give and take of listening openly and being touched by each other’s felt experience rather than a belief that relationships require compromise in order to maintain harmony. Intimacy is a function of experiential sharing, not doing what we think we “should” do or trying to manipulate or control our partner as way to meet our perceived needs.

The next time your partner asks you to join them in visiting your in-laws or wants a weekend getaway together, you may find that this resonates with what you want. If not, you can have a conversation about it. Can you listen closely to what this would mean to your partner? If you’re not sure, you can ask about it — inquiring into what they’re feeling and thinking about it.

Understanding your partner can deepen intimacy regardless of whatever decision you make together. They are free to make a request; you are free to notice what this brings up for you, whether a quick “yes” or a need for further dialogue. Within a climate of mutual respect, you are free to be you and respond from a place of caring for yourself and your partner. Doing this together can help both of you feel more connected to yourselves and each other. And after all, isn’t that what we’re all really wanting?