As someone who’s dated my fair share, some of the most emotionally taxing experiences were the ones in which I thought I could — and should — agree to disagree in a relationship – particularly about the big stuff. I started these relationships with the bright-eyed hope that we could agree to disagree where it counted, and that — like many previous generations of married couples and casual sweethearts with vastly different political and ideological leanings — we could make things work. But I soon discovered why relationships often don’t survive large disagreements; major issue differences can point to incompatibility, which can become increasingly difficult to fight off.
April Maccario, founder of the women’s relationship blog Ask April, believes that true incompatibility isn’t equivalent to an argument or two; some level of difference is completely normal. Incompatibility becomes a real issue when — in discussing your differences — you and your partner find out that you disagree on fundamental matters, like your way of life.
“We can draw the line with disagreements in our taste and our perspectives, but [there are] disagreements [that] shouldn’t last forever,” Maccario tells Her Campus. “There should be a moment where you both overcome your differences,” Maccario says, referring to forging a middle ground. It’s one thing to playfully argue over pineapple on your pizza every time you order out, but you can’t live your life disagreeing over your right to manage your own health. “If you’re not compatible and can’t find a solution, maybe you’re not meant to be together. In this instance, it’s best to let go before you hurt each other,” Maccario advises.
So where do you draw the line? My experience is just that — my own experience — so your may need to dig a little deeper to find your own boundaries. But while agreeing to disagree might work with some of the little things, it poses problems when it comes to the bigger picture.
What Is Agreeing To Disagree?
You’ve probably heard – and even said – the phrase “agree to disagree” in any one of your relationships in the past. Unfortunately, there are plenty of reasons why this doesn’t work in more serious situations. Agreeing to disagree might apply when it comes to your favorite movie or the best ice cream flavor. However, there’s something real and serious about differences with significant ideological issues regarding human rights and politics – things that impact the lives and livelihoods of others. Agreeing to disagree is much easier when it doesn’t apply to actionable points within your relationship.
Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill, licensed marriage and family therapist, weighs in on why agreeing to disagree isn’t always a healthy strategy. “It works, as long as a couple recognizes that it cannot be used as a go-to behavior too frequently,” she says. Otherwise, its impact can diminish over time.
However, O’Neill warns that agreeing to disagree isn’t for issues concerning critical boundaries. “If a relationship begins to have serious differences regarding morals or values, the couple is getting into territory that will potentially up-end a relationship,” she adds. And maybe it should. It’s easy to get over – and almost fun to argue about – your SO’s hatred of your favorite chip flavor, but how are you supposed to ignore it if you’re dating somebody who values other human lives as less than?
Michelle Davies, Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Best Ever Lifestyle Guide, says that for big ideological differences, the agreeing to disagree can just cause further distance between a couple. “If your partner doesn’t support giving asylum to refugees and you do, for example, this is a major values split,” she tells Her Campus. “You may come to resent one another for a difference this big.” Plus, if you can’t talk to each other about issues that matter to you without inviting hostility, how can you maintain a positive relationship?
You can part ways on abstract philosophical matters, but things like politics, human rights, and race and gender equality are difficult to negotiate on. They’re vital topics that affect real people, and I don’t want to agree to disagree that some people deserve human rights and others don’t.
The Issue Will Likely Worsen
Unfortunately, whether you’re a vegan dating a carnivore or a Democrat hitched to a Trump supporter, if an issue bothers you now, it’s likely to fester. You could be dating a drinker while you hate going out, or seeing a frivolous spender while you’re a responsible saver. Unfortunately, the gap is more likely to widen than close. Studies show that even small disagreements can lead to big wedges, which can eventually end the relationship. But larger disagreements — like whether to invest or spend a family inheritance, or whether to have kids or not in the future — can cause even larger rifts that won’t just go away.
Learning to respect and work with each other’s communication styles is important in a relationship, but at the same time, it doesn’t always solve fundamental differences. Even if you agree to have different opinions, they risk fermenting, culminating in larger conflicts later on — something I’ve learned the hard way. Ultimately, it wasn’t worth my energy, but I stuck around anyway. If I could go back, that’s one thing I’d do differently.
Planning To Change Someone Doesn’t Work
One of the primary things I’ve learned in my dating life — which applies to everything, not just agreements and disagreements — is that you shouldn’t start a relationship with the intention to change or fix somebody.
Whether you’d rather not date a smoker and you happen upon a lover with a cigarette habit, or you want to persuade someone to see eye to eye with you on politics, it simply isn’t worth it to enter a relationship trying to change someone. Not only do you deserve to live your life — and your identity — to the fullest, but your partner deserves to maintain their identity as well. If your values and identities inherently clash, that’s hard to do, even when you disagree amicably.
Lina Mafi, Psychotherapist at Intuitive Healing NYC, shares her experience advising clients on the limits of compromise in relationships with Her Campus. “The clear limit to agreeing to disagree comes when a compromise can only be made by one partner completely abandoning their values, desires, or identity. A classic example is a couple where one partner wants children and the other absolutely does not. If this couple ends up married, it is likely that one partner will have to completely compromise and end up feeling resentment.” When both partners strongly identify with their beliefs or chosen lifestyle, it’s not fair for one partner to hope or expect that the other person will completely change.
“Do you both have space for your own identities while creating space for each other?” asks Mafi. “Depending on your answers, it may be time to evaluate the relationship’s foundations.” Just like you wouldn’t want your significant other to force you into a life that doesn’t feel authentic for you, you shouldn’t expect them to change dramatically for you, either.
You’re Worth Respect
One of the biggest points of contention for me when it comes to dating somebody with more conservative social views is how they value people. It’s not just about me, but also the people I love and care about. Right-wing men often consider women as lesser than or inferior, which definitely affected my relationship with a past partner. Dating someone who doesn’t see you as an equal is a disagreement in itself — one that makes you compromise your own self-worth.
I don’t want to be in a relationship with somebody who perceives me to be less valuable than they are, or sees the single father working at McDonald’s as inferior. I know that I deserve more respect than that, and have learned that it’s not something I’m willing to compromise on.
Although agreeing to disagree might work when it comes to your favorite TV show or how you take your coffee, it’s increasingly harder to apply that kind of approach on anything less frivolous. It affects the interpersonal workings of the relationship, and we all deserve to be with somebody who can see eye to eye with us on the things that matter.
April Maccario, founder of Ask April
Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill, licensed marriage and family therapist
Michelle Davies, Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Best Ever Lifestyle Guide
Lina Mafi, Psychotherapist at Intuitive Healing NYC