Humans are relational beings, inherently designed to live in close relationship with each other. But because of these relationships, our lives can seem like they’re in a constant state of imposition and negotiation. So how do you know when to compromise in relationships for the sake of keeping the peace, and when to stand your ground?
As soon as we are employed, sign a lease or take out a mortgage, we have certain rules and responsibilities we need to live by. Doctors, teachers, childcare centres, hospitals, public transport authorities, local councils and the laws of the land all direct our movements.
Because we’re largely trained to follow societal rules, we may not be strongly mindful of them. But every time we take a ticket at the deli, queue for the bus, or put in a leave application at work, we are bending our will to the rules imposed upon us. Largely, we comply in order to maintain social order and support the common good.
Are some people’s rights more important than others?
Every person on the planet has a set of basic human rights, like the right to be safe. At a societal and institutional level, these rights can be achieved through rules and regulations. For example, the right to be safe can be achieved through legislation, policing, training, and self-responsibility.
On a personal level though, things are more nuanced and often comes down to preference. Take for example a romantic relationship where one partner is messy, and the other neat. The messy dweller could claim they have a right to live the way they want to, and the neat partner has no right to impede this. At the same time, the neat partner might say they have the right to a clean house.
But the fact is, unless we live as hermits, in a totalitarian regime or an abusive relationship where all rights are claimed by one person, then on a day-to-day basis we have to consider whether we are entitled to impose our preferences on others. This may not be a matter of ‘rights’ at all.
Rights vs preferences vs relationships
Living and working with others is a negotiated arrangement which isn’t static. What works early on in a relationship may not work so well as it progresses. Take a share house arrangement, where you might want to have friends over whenever you feel like it.
You pay rent and so you believe you have an equal right to share all the public spaces in the house. However, you also live in relationship with your housemates. If you stay only at the level of “my rights versus their rights” then you stay focused on yourself and your indignation that others are standing in your way.
If you are a person who likes to win at any cost, you could tune out their protests and become oppositional. This is likely to jeopardise your relationships – you won’t be liked and may even be asked to leave.
How do you manage potential losses?
It is certainly true that if the only way to preserve a relationship is to keep sacrificing your own needs, wants and preferences, then that is not okay. Negotiating preferences in service of a good relationship is truly that – a negotiation.
If you believe you have really lost something well below your bottom line, then the relationship likely can’t withstand it. If you impose something on the other person, then you also should consider what it might cost.
How to balance getting what you want with respecting your relationships with others
In life, we can’t always get everything we want – our freedoms, choices plus all the relationships we want.
Here are some things to consider when deciding whether your belief or value is worth standing your ground for.
- Be true to yourself. Is there really an underlying principle at stake that is worth fighting for? What is it? Make sure it’s not just about being right.
- Reason well. If you are caught up in indignation, anger or fear, or a “right versus wrong” way of seeing the issue, then calm yourself first, and seek council on the accuracy and credibility of the conclusions you are drawing.
- Be accountable. Are you really entitled to insist or impose in this particular scenario? What are the potential negative effects or real risks to others of doing what you want to do as an individual?
- Set limits for your behaviour. If you want to make a strong point, how can you do that without transgressing other rights, such as the right of others to be safe or be treated decently? Are you mindful of the effect you are having on others?
- Hold relationships as valuable. Consider your line of reasoning from multiple perspectives. If you get your preference at the expense of others, is it worth it?
Looking at the bigger picture
Every day, we have to make decisions about our preferences, rights, and freedoms in the context of relational compromise.
Sometimes, we won’t ‘win’ on every decision, but as adults, we have to manage that. At other times, the cost is too great and we make choices accordingly: leave a job, a relationship, or even a country. But most of the time we make do, and we are not necessarily the lesser for it.
Ultimately, when we live in a community, preferences and rights are balanced with relationships. We must ask ourselves: if we forge ahead with our own preferences at all costs, then what are we prepared to lose in the fallout?
Our social standing? Our likeability? Our relationships with others? Or our ability to fully participate in society?