A few weeks ago, while waiting in line for food, I was moved to give my card to a perfect stranger. She looked at it and read the captions summarizing a few of the articles I have written, and we began a conversation. Before I left, she asked an interesting question: “What is the difference between settling and compromising in a relationship?” I paused for a minute, trying to think of an articulate answer. But this was a complicated question and would require some thought. I asked her to drop me an e-mail and promised to send her a response, and we parted ways. As I walked, I thought feverishly about what she asked and was prepared with my answer when I happened to pass her again. I shared it with her.
As it is generally used, the term “settling” implies a willingness to accept less than what you believe you are due – as in “don’t settle for that man” or “don’t settle for that job.” Both uses have negative connotations, suggesting to the listener that there may be something better out there, something we would miss out on if we make the wrong decision. But the definition of settling is to decide, arrange or agree. In other words, every time you make a decision – whether it’s big or small, or good, bad or indifferent – you are settling, and you are ruling out other opportunities. This is the nature of decision-making.
Compromising means reaching an agreement by adjusting conflicting or opposing claims or principles. Most people discuss compromising as though it is somehow better than settling. I have heard many people over the years make statements like, “Be willing to compromise, but don’t’ settle.” When we are formalizing romantic partnerships, the compromising usually comes before the settling; after all, “settling” is the decision. Compromising just gets us to the place where we are willing to decide. Neither is good or bad; both are simply part of the process. When settling, there are always compromises (spoken or unspoken). Why? Because there are always conflicting interests when two people come together. No two individuals have the same interests all of the time – not spouses, not siblings, not friends and not parents.
When my current mate and I first realized that we were interested in being together, compromises ensued. We discussed where we would live, where we would spend select holidays and other nuances of what our life would be like together. We also negotiated a custody arrangement and how we would divide our mutual possessions if we split. When we both decided that we could live with these compromises. We settled. There may come a time when one or both of us wants to pursue new relationships. Whatever the case may be, I am happy with my current relationship. I do not feel that I have done myself a disservice by settling; I love her and the life we’ve created together. And I write this with no negative connotations.
The problems and the discontent seem to arise when we are unwilling to be comfortable with our decisions – when we spend too much time thinking about what could have been. There will always be roads not traveled; that doesn’t mean they’re better.
I recently read an article in Entrepreneur magazine about the keys to a successful, happy life. Author J.D. Roths warns about the dangers of “comparison shopping” and explains that people are generally happier and experience less “buyer’s remorse” when they have fewer options. He concludes, “Find a good option, go with it and don’t look back.” There are those of us who, upon settling with or for a relationship, continue to question the merits of the decision. That’s fine. Question the merits, but make a decision one way or the other. Otherwise, you’re setting yourself up for misery.
Wear your settlement with pride, even if it’s temporary. If you want to change or adjust, do it because you are ready for something new, not because you made a “bad” decision or took a raw deal. There’s nothing Powerful about that way of thinking.
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November 7, 2011 at 6:12 PM
“There will always be roads not traveled; that doesn’t mean they’re better.” Yep! Appreciate the framing, as usual.
November 8, 2011 at 1:57 AM
Settling is not nearly as good as compromising. Settling can be done in silence while compromising is a give and take process where both give a bit to get and overall agreement both can live with.
Agreeabe Sweet Joy
November 8, 2011 at 10:02 AM
I agree, you make a choice and that is what you settled for, hence the phrase “Is that what you settled for” this is no different from asking someone “Is that what you chose” The only difference is society has put a negative connotation on settled and the word choice is more empowering. Either way it is a part of decision making
November 8, 2011 at 1:08 PM
I think it’s how you choose to look at the situation. Settling has a negative flavor if you decide to see it that way. Conflicts in marriage may require someone to give in. It’s called “LOVE”. Love wants what’s best for the other person & w/o the spirit of love, you may never reach an agreement. And that’s why most couples experience conflict deja vue. They keep having the same fight over & over.
We should strive to approach our relationships with positivity and it will be recipricated. Nope, it’s not always easy but love is a choice.
November 8, 2011 at 2:17 PM
I go for integration where there is a difference of opinion. This is the win/win solution originally proposed by Mary Parker Follett.
November 8, 2011 at 3:35 PM
I read the title anticipating that the article would be applicable to jobs; however, I found the information very timely. Thanks.
Paula Young, LMFT
November 8, 2011 at 5:18 PM
I like what Betty said.
An absence of information usually leads to problems (one outcome of Betty’s “settling in silence…”). In the compromise process, there is communication. Talking is usually good (I have written posts on how to talk more productively). Most couples whom I see in my therapy office mention communication problems as a, if not the, presenting primary problem.
November 8, 2011 at 10:49 PM
Settling is deciding to choose something below your standards. Compromise is too look at all aspects and then make a decision based on what can still be acceptable.
November 9, 2011 at 1:39 PM
Thank you for sharing your experiences and thoughts. I think there is another option in some relationships that might be worth writing about someday…maybe another blog? I think it is the idea of seeking a mutually satisfying solution for both parties. I dont know what you want to call it, but often with compromise and settling, everyone is walking away with some degree of unhappiness. I think there is also seeking unity and harmony. The synergy of two people (or more) coming together and not doing something until everyone is able to support it 100% is powerful too!
November 9, 2011 at 4:53 PM
In relationships, compromising is concluding their are differences that we can live with. While settling is something we do now, but intend to revisit when we’ve formulated another strategy for discussing the issue.