All my life, I’ve been taught that compromise is essential to healthy relationships. For decades, I’ve been chanting the mantra of compromise as I navigate decisions with friends, lovers, family, the dude at the auto repair shop, you name it.

The problem is, it doesn’t seem to be living up to its glowing reputation of increased ease and harmony. In fact, it seems to be pretty effective at cultivating resentment and apathy.

Let me give you an example of something my husband and I were seeking to find compromise on. We cook dinner every night. I work on weekdays, and my husband has a variable schedule each week. When he’s off and I’m working, he cooks dinner. When he works, I cook dinner even if I’m working that day, too. Granted, I get off of work earlier than he does, so it makes sense for me to cook, but there was still enough friction around this issue to trigger an argument.

We have some pretty awesome communication skills, just to toot our shared horn, but nonetheless, all attempts at finding a compromise left both of us feeling less excited about making dinner. Rather than arriving at a solution that helped us feel energized and empowered about making yummy food to put in our faces, we both felt like we were meeting in this lame, watered-down middle ground that kinda worked for both of us and kinda didn’t. Yippee.

Just when we were about to give up and trudge onward with our plan of compromise, an idea came to me: What if, instead of trying to meet in the middle, where both of us ended up having to cook on nights when we just weren’t feeling it, we opened up to the idea that we could have everything we wanted? Both of us. Simultaneously.

Listing what we wanted made this solution easier to find.

I wanted:

  • to have healthy, home-cooked food every night.
  • to be able to cook on days when I wasn’t working.
  • to not have to cook on days when I was working.

My husband wanted:

  • to have healthy, home-cooked food every night.
  • to be able to cook on days when he wasn’t working.
  • to not have to cook on days when he was working.

Hmm…there seemed to be quite a bit of overlap, yet our work schedules didn’t pan out such that we could each get what we wanted every night.

The lightbulb switched on when we stopped looking at it as a compromise and asked, what’s standing in the way of both of us getting what we want? When I do the big reveal and tell you our solution it’s going to sound super obvious, but while we were trapped in Compromise Mode it was actually quite hard to see.

Our solution? On the weekends, we’d cook ahead enough meals that if there was a weekday when my husband worked, which would require me to cook dinner after I worked all day, we had an already prepared meal ready to eat. Duh, right?

This is a really simple example, but I have to wonder how often we do this in more complex situations. In just a few months of experimenting with tossing compromise in the trash and seeking a solution that makes both of us feel like we’re totally winning, together, my husband and I have been experiencing less of the feet dragging that accompanies forcing ourselves to do crap we don’t really want to do, and we feel more empowered in our choices.

Here’s a highly technical diagram to illustrate the process.

Interestingly, I was reading a business book (and yes, I realize that an interesting business book might sound like an oxymoron, but stick with me) called Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant.

The blue ocean of the title refers to the uncharted territory that a business can create with fresh, untapped potential, in contrast to the bloody “red oceans” filled with the cutthroat competition of businesses fighting over limited market share. In the red oceans, the most you can hope for is to be the best of what’s available, but in a blue ocean, the sky’s the limit, because you’re no longer constrained by all of the conventions and “rules” that keep red-ocean companies stuck.

In one example, the authors explained how traditional business thinking says you can either offer greater value or you can offer lower cost; you can’t do both.

It is conventionally believed that companies can either create greater value to customers at a higher cost or create reasonable value at a lower cost. Here strategy is seen as making a choice between [the two]. In contrast, those that seek to create blue oceans [of untapped potential] pursue [value] and low cost simultaneously.

And when we look up “compromise” in the dictionary, we find these less-than-flattering meanings:

  • Accept standards that are lower than is desirable.
  • Weaken (a reputation or principle) by accepting standards that are lower than is desirable.
  • Bring into disrepute or danger by indiscreet, foolish, or reckless behavior; cause to become vulnerable or function less effectively.

When companies broke out of this limited, compromise-based model, they were able to sail out into blue oceans with unicorns and puppies.

Case in point: Cirque de Soleil. Conventional circus strategy was to try and up the fun and thrill factor by getting more famous clowns and animal acts. The problem was that doing so upped the circus’ costs, which reduced their profits. And to top it off, “famous” in the scope of clowns and circus acts didn’t hold very much sway with the public. So basically, the circus was spending more money on stuff the public didn’t even give a hoot about.

Cirque de Soleil took a totally different path. Rather than offering a better solution to the accepted problem, it broke the boundaries between the circus and theater and “sought to offer people the fun and thrill of the circus and the intellectual stimulation and artistic richness of the theater at the same time; hence, it redefined the problem itself…This led to a whole new circus concept that broke the value-cost trade-off and created a blue ocean of new market space.”

When we step out of the thinking that says we have to compromise, we open ourselves to new solutions.

I would argue that, not only do we compromise with others because we think that’s the mark of a mature adult, we also compromise with ourselves. I uncovered a worn-out mind track playing in my head that sounds a little something like this, “You can’t get everything you want. If you did, you’d be a spoiled brat, and nobody likes a brat. You have to compromise on everything.”

If I wanted to take a three-day weekend, the Compromise Tape would kick in and convince me to give up something else, like a sort of payment for my weekend off. Okay, you can take off three days, but you can’t buy this pair of yoga pants, even if you totally have enough money.

The Compromise Tape was completely divorced from logic. I just picture this sad, little man sitting behind this giant console of complicated charts and blinking screens, carrying out all of these bullshit calculations: Okay, yoga pants versus three-day weekend…we’ll need to subtract sleeping in on Saturday to balance that out and add in cleaning the bathroom to make it even. Let me see, and then…

Yeah, yeah. Thanks little Compromise Dude. I appreciate your hard work, but I think it’s time for you to take a three-day weekend.

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