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To Fully Grasp Win-Win in Relationships, First Understand Win-Lose

In win-lose situations, even the victor ends up being defeated.

Key points

  • When couples engage in discussions that become increasingly combative, neither feels heard, understood, empathized with, or validated.
  • For most people, if their point of view feels valid, their partner’s differing perspective must be erroneous.
  • In the “70/70 compromise,” each party’s ability to successfully accommodate the other enables both of them to get most of what they want.
  • As long as couples genuinely agree to disagree, enduring differences won’t make their relationship untenable.
From your point of view, you can't be wrong, and neither can your partner.
Source: MoteOo/Pixabay

In all relationships, when the two sides disagree, it’s crucial to find compromises that are genuinely acceptable to both parties: compromises where neither party ends up feeling they’ve had to forfeit their personal integrity.

Achieving such a resolution is particularly important in committed relationships where repeated unresolved disagreements typically eventuate in mutual alienation. And that generally foretells the end of any warm, trusting connection between them.

Lose-lose and win-lose ultimately lead to the same outcome

In my experience as a therapist, when partners feel they’ll lose too much of themselves if they meet in the middle, they wind up endlessly making points and counter-points. And neither feels they’re getting through to the other.

How could they when both of them are busy talking, and neither is really listening but instead obsessing on how best to devise their next rebuttal? The couple is left engaged in fruitless and increasingly combative repetition—with neither of them feeling heard, understood, empathized with, or validated.

I’ve frequently felt obliged to interrupt couples’ burgeoning hostility by telling them I can’t let them further damage their relationship on my watch. That there’s no way I can create a safe space for them to resolve their grievances if arguing in my office merely replicates what they’re already experts at doing by themselves at home.

The problem is that they both—with the most profound sense of righteousness—firmly believe that their perspective is the only one that can be valid. Because for most people, if their point of view is sound, their partner’s differing viewpoint must be (by their own biased definition) erroneous.

But such a conclusion belies the fact that everyone’s perspective warrants being viewed as valid—and just as valid as anyone else’s. Why? Because all viewpoints are subjective and accurately depict one’s (in-the-moment) beliefs. And this is true regardless of how reasonable or “sane” a person’s perspective might be.

If, for example, a psychotic individual claims that he’s Godzilla, then, however delusional the belief, undeniably it reflects his personal, subjective reality. Similarly, until both members of a couple can be made aware of the inescapable subjectivity of their viewpoint, no compromise reconciling their opposing beliefs or values can emerge.

And that’s the bottom line of virtually all conflicts between couples, as well as suggesting what must happen if their conflicts are finally to be resolved. In short, belligerently laboring to prove each other wrong in order to feel that they alone are right is—and, unfortunately, will always be—a losing proposition.

Moreover, win-lose is itself only a variant of lose-lose. Here neither party seems to realize that even if they succeed in squashing their partner’s perspective and getting them to abdicate it, the consequent damage to the relationship will far outweigh any immediate victory.

In these situations, the loser most likely will look to get even by sabotaging the other’s apparent triumph (as in, “I’ll concede now ’cause this argument is exhausting me, but—just you wait!—I’ll find a way to get back at you”). So the person’s win, by coming at the unacceptable expense of the other, will have associated costs to the relationship far greater than the victor’s supposed success.

And even if, behind the scenes, the supposed “loser” isn’t plotting revenge but passively submitting to their partner’s more dominant will, the result will probably be either a depressive withdrawal from the “winner” or a growing need to create distance from them—physically, mentally, and emotionally. And that represents a major relational loss for both partners.

Willingness to compromise sets the stage for a win-win

The ever-popular concept (or, by now, cliché) of a win-win is somewhat paradoxical. For it can’t but involve remedies where neither individual gets all of what they want. However ideal such a feat might be, it’s too idealized. It’s just not realistic—in fact, it’s not even possible.

Nonetheless, if both partners can be open-minded enough to accept each other’s carefully thought-out concessions, they can get beyond their aggravating standoff. Only then can they terminate whatever emotional turmoil their conflict has caused them.

In the past, I’ve written about what I call “the 70/70 compromise,” meaning that successfully accommodating one another enables both partners to get most of what they want. As a result, no one leaves the table smugly believing they’ve triumphed over their partner or, dejectedly, that they were overpowered or defeated by them.

Compare this to win-lose outcomes, wherein one party, if only to keep the stressful fighting from escalating further, subjugates themselves to the other. Here the apparent “loser” inevitably will experience negative feelings about what, begrudgingly, they’ve acquiesced to. So although intensified contentiousness has been averted, no real closure has occurred.

And lose-lose? That’s about both parties righteously clinging to their point of view as though their very life depended on it. For they’ve become so identified with their viewpoint that they can’t but experience their relationship as secondary to it. Actually, one party might be OK with working toward a compromise, but if their partner isn’t, the dialogue will go nowhere.

Regrettably, lose-lose can become the death blow to a relationship. If couples can’t work together to find an avenue toward at least partial agreement, they’re implicitly giving each other the message that their incompatibility is irreparable.

It’s hardly surprising that no couple can be compatible in all areas. There are simply way too many things to differ on. Yet even while certain discrepancies between them may never be settled, it doesn’t mean their relationship is untenable. For as long as both parties can genuinely accept these enduring hardcore dissimilarities, mutual disaffection is avoidable. And my earlier piece on what—deep down—it means to “agree to disagree” explores this subject in greater detail.

Getting back to the innermost core of win-win solutions, whatever couples can learn to accept about each other, they can comfortably live with. So once they’ve learned the fine art of compromise, their differences no longer need to interfere with their relational satisfaction or contentment.

© 2022 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.


I’ve written a great many posts on couples conflicts and how best to deal with them. Below are the ones that most closely complement the present piece:

Seltzer, L. F. (2010, Apr 28). How to optimize your relationship: The 70/70 compromise.…

---------- (2010, Sep 23). Can you and your partner agree to disagree?…

---------- (2011, Feb 11). 4 essential rules for approaching couples conflict.…

---------- (2015, Oct 29). Compromise made simple: 7 handy tips for couples.…

----------- (2018, Jun 20). To accommodate or confront? The key relationship question.…

---------- (2020, Jun 1). Could harmony in a relationship be no more than a “cop-out”?…

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