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Seeking Compromise, Part Three: the Upsides to Downsides

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“usually when you think you’re compromising with someone else, you’re really still compromising with yourself.”

The more avid reader might have noticed two posts ago that I set an agenda around compromise, before getting waylaid by the pros and cons of optimism and cynicism. Yes I set a goal, then deferred its realisation off into the distance. See what I did there? So meta. It wasn’t deliberate.

What could this feelgood/feelshit disparity in world-views possible have to do with compromise? Well, compromise means getting away from our ideal scenarios. If optimism and pessimism establish internal order, compromise is where those values and methods meet with cold, hard circumstances. Optimists deal with compromise just as narrow-mindedly as do cynics. The optimist might strategically block out limitations and downsides, while the cynic might just as strategically rule out hope. As we explored already, both are irrational certainties, and nothing much to do with how events pan out. Very little indeed will stop us from continuing to see the world exactly as we are most comfortable with, but optimistic/pessimistic tendencies might inflect how we are forced to compromise, as we shall see.

Compromise is important here because it puts our values into action; it is the nature of Plan B, and Plan B goes to the heart of It means giving up control; working with the elements. We compromise with other people whenever we share space, time and wants. But more often—in fact, all the time—we compromise with our own competing ideas, observations, judgements and desires. It’s only a little more complicated when we have to compromise with another party, because we are slightly less in control of their competing desires than we are of our own. In any case, compromise is an inescapable predicament, for everyone, all the time. No exceptions.

We compromise over the most ordinary decisions. How much to work before our health and happiness are both shot. How much to study, before our brains melt down or our friends start to think of us as that person. How much to stop and smell the rosaries. Economically speaking, the price of ANYTHING, and I don’t just mean money. The self itself is at stake, though I mean ‘self’ almost metaphorically. The question is not, “Who do I want to be?” on a macro scale; it’s always an infinite regression of micro-decisions—compromises, that combine to make you whoever you end up ‘being’, regardless of who you’d like to be. So get it right! I’m only half-kidding—such a view puts the onus on the responsibility of our decisions more than some ever-futile self-image. starts from the basis that your preferred self-image is impossible to realise, and not just because it is endlessly deferred.

A friend of mine is deciding on a wedding dress. The only one she will ever wear, with any luck. She likes several designs for different reasons. She can’t wear them all, so she has to compromise. Whatever decision she makes, she is confronted with the path not taken. If we never put those paths away, multiplied by every decision we make, our lives would be miserable. Luckily our brains conduct handy tricks on our behalf—most of the time, and some of us more than others. All the cons for the chosen dress are minimised, as are all the pros for the alternatives. The chosen dress pros are enlarged, as are the cons of the alternatives. Seamless compromise. Problem solved. If she’s aware of this operation (and she is—she told me), the resolution will depend on being able to enjoy the dilemma with a sense of playful, ironic detachment, to avoid constant second-guessing.

As for compromise = sharing with others, usually when you think you’re compromising with someone else, you’re really still compromising with yourself. This post isn’t about negotiating the best possible result for yourself, while hoodwinking the other party into believing they’ve actually done well. We might have something to say about such practices in the future. To show how compromising with others is still really about prioritising your own values, think about the start of your last relationship. Many things weren’t quite how you wanted them to be, but you were putting your most optimistic foot forward, giving their peccadillos the benefit of your actual doubt: ever running late, clothes hung up on the floor, inconsequential lies, secret-surprise smoker’s breath, chewing and talking at once, an obsessive avoidance of odd numbers, crying after orgasm, drunken violence, refusal to go see a doctor, or capricious bursts of unseemly competitiveness. Some are more endearing than others, and some less funny.

When a peccadillo first arises, you might casually tease your new flame, joke about it, or politely ignore it. All these are subtle discipline procedures. Once identified as entrenched or compulsive behaviour, peccadillos can be dealt with two different ways: zero in on each one, allowing no margin for error until your partner leaves you, citing your impossibility, OR acknowledge the theoretical existence of your own flaws, accept that theirs are part of the package, and keep rolling with the good times. This IS the more optimistic path, which doesn’t mean it is more open-minded, which in turn doesn’t rule it out as the best course of action. Classic compromise.

Your eyes might glaze over when irritating habits occur, or you conveniently find something else to do, momentarily looking in your bag for your glasses (which you are always already wearing) until the crisis passes. And, tellingly, this might well constitute your own peccadillo for your budding flame (“S/he’s great but s/he’s SOO absent-minded…”). Your chances of minimising the peccadillo itself are lower than your chances of minimising how it impacts your life, and the second course is ethically superior to the first, as well as more practical. The optimistic course here is to reduce it down or away, while the cynical course might be ironic detachment, if not a wholly sardonic (re)framing of the relationship itself. Significant compromises both; in fact a series of perpetual compromises, as you assess, recommit and devote your energies each day.

Optimists might well be bummed about this described state of affairs, and cynics gloomy minus surprise. But I say fear not! The inevitable upside of these inescapable compromises so close to our hearts, is that downsides can work in our favour, just like with my friend’s wedding dress. The critical optimist path, introduced last week, is to stay aware of the peccadillo in question, as cynics would, but in context with what you value about the relationship and the person. If the balance plays in your favour, I hope you’re satisfied, or dare I suggest—happy. If the balance tips poorly for too long, you call it a day. Optimism and cynicism matters here because your assessments depend upon your expectations and decision-making methods.

Ending a relationship, or having it ended in your face, is where critical optimism prevents eschatological hysteria or defeatist nihilism: all those peccadillos you fought down now become the excellent proof for why you’re suddenly so much better off. The operation applies no matter which side of the power imbalance you find yourself on. This explains the disjointed phenomenon so many friends and loved ones experience, when a partner or relationship goes from being championed with so much conviction, to becoming the sudden object of repulsion, exasperation, even vilification. In Freudanese, it’s textbook ‘return of the repressed’. If the reversal can’t be explained in this way, are we seriously to believe that reality was instantly so categorically turned on its head? Surely not, though I’d love to hear your alternative explanations.

Some caveats: you can only use these peccadillos to power critical optimism through this tough time, if you’re aware enough of them in the first place. This rules out unbridled optimism. Meanwhile, if you do nothing but wallow in the relationship deficits you were all too constantly aware of, those peccadillos are wasted potential. This rules out committed cynicism. Perhaps I could have explained the upsides to downsides without spending a month on optimism and cynicism and their evolved mutant hybrid, but hopefully you can now see why we went there.

In his new book The Shape of Design, and his latest round of international talks, renowned designer and author Frank Chimero advocates the long way around for creatives specifically, and perhaps indeed for life more generally, since design for him is about making decisions that bring you closer to how you want the world to be. This long way around is all about compromise, reframed as exploration, innovation, surprise, and engagement. More than design tenets, these make great self-help tenets. Harnessing the deviations and downsides of compromise is absolutely dysatisfunctional, and simultaneously, to your benefit. Even—as the last four weeks of blog posts here demonstrate—by utter, ignorant mistake.