In most counseling I do, I work with people to improve their communication skills. In a partner/spouse relationship I sometimes call it “Home Improvement”. People want to add a room and have the lumber. All those 2x4s are worthless unless they have nails to hold them together. In a relationship, words are the “nails” that either build it or tear it down. Vocabulary matters, except one word can have several meanings. Before we get to our “Word of the Week”, I want to digress.

A small Christian college in Shreveport LA grew big enough to have a men’s varsity basketball team. They named them “The Gentlemen”, but most often people shortened it to “Gents”. Eventually they added women’s basketball and, of course, they were “The Ladies”, and so “The Ladies” became “Lads”. (Unintended consequences).

Couples don’t really like to argue and fight. When they go for help and advice they are told, “Stop the arguing, for everybody loses when you fight. For a healthy relationship, you need to compromise. You both can’t have your own way.”

Good advice, except as soon as the word “compromise” enters the conversation, both people shut down. It is like a dark mist descends and anxiety levels rise. I have learned not to use the word. When I used to, I could feel the walls go up and positions harden. “Compromise” as a good intentioned word carries a lot of negative baggage. I don’t use the word anymore, but sometimes a client will. I’ll let you listen to the result:

Anna said, “Jim, tell him we need to compromise on the spending to make things work.”

I said, “Bill, how do you feel about that, any suggestions?”

Bill said, “We certainly do need to compromise and work things out, but she will have to go first. I doubt if it will do any good even to try. You know how stubborn she can be.”

I said, “I’m not a mind reader. I don’t know if she is stubborn or not, but she is sitting right here, ask her.”

Bill said, “I’m her husband. I know what she’s like. She’ll never compromise.”

Anna said, “Compromise, I’m tired of doing it. I’m the one who always has to give in until he gets what he wants. I wish it were 50-50 for a change.”

Bill said, “See, I told you! I would compromise if she were reasonable. She’s is always making impossible demands. I would talk about it if she would bring something real to the table.”

I said, “Talking about compromise makes you both angry, so let’s cool down and look at your budget again. We need to see if there might be any room for adjustments to your spending habits. You might find it helpful to use a scale of one to ten to decide your money priorities. How about doing that?” (End of Story).

They were able to “make some adjustments” once they stopped compromise combat. Compromise, as necessary as it is, has come to have negative and even toxic feelings attached to it. It is on my list of little foxes that spoil the vine. Those are the words we commonly use that have unintended consequences.

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