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Homework Assignment: Compromise

Many couples fail to compromise on issues because they go about trying to compromise in the wrong way.

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Many couples fail to compromise on issues because they go about trying to compromise in the wrong way. Negotiation is possible only when you use a softened startup, keep calm, and repair your conflict discussions effectively. 

For a compromise to work, you cannot close your mind to your partner’s opinions and desires. You do not have to agree with everything your partner says or believes, but you have to be open to their position. That is what accepting your partner’s influence is all about. If you find yourself sitting with your arms folded and shaking your head when your partner tries to talk about a problem with you, your discussion will never get anywhere.

Once you’re ready to accept influence, finding a solution you both can live with is not complicated. Often compromise is just a matter of talking out your differences and preferences in a systematic way. This is not difficult to do as long as you prevent your discussion from becoming overwhelmingly negative. Drs. John and Julie Gottman have a game that can help.

The Gottman Island Survival Game

Imagine that your cruise ship just sank in the Caribbean and you awaken to find yourselves on a tropical desert island. The two of you are the only survivors. You have no idea where you are. A storm appears to be on the way. You decide that you need to prepare to survive on this island for some time and make sure you will be spotted by a rescue party. There are a lot of items from the ship on the beach that could help you, but you can only carry ten items.

STEP 1: Each of you writes down on a separate piece of paper what you consider to be the ten most important items to keep from the inventory list below. Then rank-order these items based on their importance to you. Give the most crucial item a 1, the next most important item a 2, and so on. 

Ship’s Inventory:
  • Two changes of clothing
  • AM-FM and short-wave radio receiver
  • Ten gallons of water 
  • Pots and pans
  • Matches
  • Shovel
  • Backpack
  • Toilet paper
  • Two tents
  • Two sleeping bags
  • Knife
  • Small life raft, with sail
  • Sunblock lotion
  • Cookstove and lantern
  • Long rope
  • Two walkie-talkie sender-receiver units
  • Freeze-dried food for seven days
  • One change of clothing
  • One fifth of whiskey
  • Flares
  • Compass
  • Regional aerial maps
  • Gun with six bullets
  • Fifty packages of condoms
  • First-aid kit with penicillin
  • Oxygen tanks

STEP 2: Share your list with your partner. Together come up with a consensus list of ten items. This means talking it over and working as a team to solve the problem. Both of you need to be influential in discussing your viewpoint and in making the final decisions.

STEP 3: Once you compromised on a third list, it’s time to evaluate how the game went. Think about how effective you were at influencing your partner and how effective they were at influencing you. Did either of you try to dominate the other, or were you competitive with each other? Ask yourself if you had fun. Did you work well as a team and both felt included or did you sulk, withdraw, express irritability, and anger? Acknowledge any problem areas and agree to work together on these issues with your partner. Changing bad habits does not happen overnight, but you can move forward if you take responsibility for the part you play in marital troubles caused by issues of compromise.


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Ellie Lisitsa is a former staff writer at The Gottman Institute. She holds a PhD in Clinical Psychology.

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