Ava always wanted to have a house with a garden and a Siamese cat that she would call “Sphinx”. Growing up at her parent’s apartment she was not allowed to have pets because her parents considered them dirty and expensive. After finding a well-paid job she moved to a bigger city and rented a studio. She believed she was getting closer to fulfilling her dream of buying a house and getting a cat. Then she met Mark and married him. She still dreamt of Sphinx running in her backyard, but Mark preferred a modern apartment in the city, and was not very fond of animals. For the sake of their marriage Ava decided to drop her dreams – she bought a nice apartment in the city with Mark and was trying to forget about the cat and house she dreamt about for years.

Compromising vs. Sacrificing
A few years later Ava became tired and disappointed in her relationship but she didn’t know why. She believed that in marriage one has to be able to reach a compromise, and in her mind that’s what she had been doing by not fulfilling her dreams. When asked what was the compromise on Mark’s end, she couldn’t find an answer to this question. Ava’s problem is not an uncommon one in relationships. As a matter of fact, Ava represents many women and men that I have worked with or met in my personal life. Many people struggle with very similar problems in their relationships. In my work with couples and individual clients facing similar issues, I always try to explain the difference between a compromise and a sacrifice. If one partner is constantly abandoning his or her dreams to satisfy the needs of the other partner, it is not really a compromise, but rather a sacrifice on one partner’s part. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, compromise is ”a way of reaching agreement in which each person (…) gives up something that was wanted in order to end an argument or dispute.” Was Ava actually reaching a compromise with her husband, then?

A synonym of sacrifice, on the other hand, is “resigning.” In order to change things in her relationship, Ava would have to understand that in her relationship she was resigning from many important things to satisfy her husband. Because she was willing to do that, her husband didn’t have to compromise at all. Satisfied with this arrangement, Mark didn’t even notice that Ava was slowly wilting in their marriage; regularly and progressively quitting things she cared about. Many couples, once they understand the difference between compromise and sacrifice, are very surprised with the settlement that they’ve often times unconsciously worked out in their relationship. Usually one partner is dictating the conditions and the other is giving up his or her voice in the relationship. Once relationships reach such imbalance they become filled with frustration and disappointment, and as a consequence, often times fall apart.

Re-establishing Your Voice
The earlier we begin work on reaching compromises and respecting each other’s needs, the better it is for our relationship. However, in order to reach a compromise we do not only have to be able to respect our partner’s needs, but also to express our own. Compromises may look very different depending on the relationship and the issue at hand. In Ava’s case, maybe the couple could have bought a dog instead of cat since Mark didn’t like cats, and for Ava it was important to have a furry friend. A compromise may also take a different form: one partner gets to decide on one issue, and the other on another. If Mark was absolutely against having pets at home, maybe Ava could accept it if she could get the house in the suburbs. It is important to remember that compromises do not only apply to bigger issues such as those in the aforementioned examples. Healthy relationships are filled with everyday compromises. For example, I’ll watch a football game with you today (even though I’m not interested in it) if you’ll go to a movie I want to see tomorrow. Of course, reaching compromises should not become score keeping (“I got the groceries, so now you owe me”). If both partners care about their relationship and their reciprocal wellbeing, the art of reaching compromises becomes a natural part of their relationship.

Couple’s Happiness is a Team Effort
In summary, the main difference between compromise and sacrifice is that compromises require the work of both partners on their relationship, while sacrifice means disproportional giving on one partner’s part. Compromise means willingness to reach reciprocal satisfaction, while sacrifice happens at the expense of one partner. The art of compromise can be mastered only with reciprocated effort. It takes work and regular practice, even with the small issues. Sometimes such work can be exhausting, but it is a price worth paying for a healthy, satisfying, long-term relationship.

Marta Oko-Riebau, MA, LPC has a private practice at Maria Droste Counseling Center. Marta works with clients on their relationships, self-esteem, assertiveness, finding meaning, and increasing life quality and enjoyment. 

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If you would like to speak to a therapist about this subject or about any other issue you may be experiencing, contact the Maria Droste Access Center at 303-867-4600.

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by Marta Oko-Riebau, MA, LPC