I feel like I've heard a phrase like "so-and-so's deal" or "such-and-such agreement" that describes an arrangement/deal/compromise that leaves all sides unhappy. Like "pyrrhic victory", but for agreements.

Anyone know anything like this?

EDIT: As a fictional example... two people are getting married. One has family in New York, the other in LA. Rather than have one family have to fly across the country while the other stays put, they decide to meet in the middle and hold the wedding in Oscar, Kansas. No one, including the couple, has any connection to Kansas, and no one in the situation is happy. (Nothing against Kansas, but it's not a resolution that satisfies anyone in this situation.)

N.B.: Thanks for the Abilene paradox - not what I'm looking for, but a cool thing to learn about.

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    I think there is a useful distinction between a compromise which divides the pain between the two parties, and a compromise that is actually worse for everyone than either of the preferred solutions. For instance, one family lives in New York, the other in Paris, so they have the wedding on a barge in the mid-Atlantic.
    – Beta
    Aug 27, 2021 at 4:02

12 Answers 12


This is sometimes called splitting the baby. A related term that connotes a compromise acceptable to both sides is split the difference, and some use “split the baby” as a synonym for this while others consider that an error. The original story was about an ostensible compromise so horrible that it was really a ploy to test who cared the most, but the meaning has changed over time—and not everyone accepts the newer usage.

The story from the Hebrew Bible (1 Kings 3) goes that two prostitutes both claimed to be the mother of the same baby boy, and King Solomon was called to judge the case. He ordered that the baby be chopped in two, and each woman get half. The legend says that one woman begged that he let her baby live, even if she couldn’t keep him, but the other then told Solomon she’d rather he killed the baby so neither could have him. Solomon then declared that the woman who tried to save the baby must be the real mother.

In the slang of American lawyers, though, it’s come to mean something different: if a negotiation is stalled, and the two parties cannot agree on a fair amount of money, but they both agree that it’s somewhere within a certain range and want to come to an agreement quickly, a “split-the-baby” negotiation is one where they meet in the middle (to some, exactly in the middle).

A different opinion, and one that makes it a perfect answer, is that “split the baby” should only be used like in the original story, as an alternative that’s so bad for both parties that it forces them to abandon their hard lines. To those people, if the mother of the bride wanted to invite a hundred people and the groom’s family only wanted to invite fifty, inviting seventy-five would be “splitting the difference” but they would not call it “splitting the baby.” Proposing to make both families travel to Kansas because the bride and groom can’t decide between New York and California might be “splitting the baby” even to them, but only if it’s such a bad alternative that it’s supposed to motivate them to give in a little.


Several people in the comments say that they have not heard one or more of these usages, so here are some real-world examples. Here are the top search-engine hits that weren’t about Solomon.

In economic disputes, the phrase “splitting the baby” is often used to describe a compromise somewhere in the middle of the opposing parties’ requested demands. [...] In arbitration or litigation splitting the baby is looked at as a very undesirable result. [...] On the other hand, in mediation the parties do not want a decision from a third party[;] they merely want assistance.

The term “to split the baby” is an idiomatic expression for what seems like an unreasonable decision but is actually a ploy to flush out the truth.

Legal disputes are often resolved with a “split the baby” negotiation approach, having a very different meaning than the old King Solomon story. In this context, if a dispute (typically already reduced to a money issue) is within a reasonable range of reaching a solution but both parties are still fairly well dug into their positions, one or the other might suggest that they split the difference, agreeing at a near exact middle ground, without either party making a concession on the validity of their position, merely to get the dispute resolved to avoid incurring further costs of negotiating or litigating the dispute.

An example that’s literally about determining who gets custody of small children:

This is where we get the term “splitting the baby.” It references the equitable act of giving some to each side. However, is splitting the baby the proper way we should consider custody cases? [...] While we often say we want to split the baby, do we really like such a result?

One person who says that he thinks the term should only be used in situations like you asked about, but also says that’s not how American lawyers do commonly use it:

So should you ever say “split the baby?” Sure. Here are two examples:

  • The court grants your oppressive motion to compel, but makes discovery mutual, and you then negotiate a reasonable scope for discovery, or
  • The court issues a final judgment that is adverse to both parties, so you settle the case.

In those situations, the court’s orders force the parties to reveal information—how much discovery was really needed and what the parties were willing to settle for—that the court couldn’t determine itself.

But if you’re just describing a compromise, do our profession a favor and use “split the difference.” It is a much better option.

Observe that all of these examples have some connotation that “splitting the baby” is bad for both sides: “a very undesirable result,” “an unreasonable decision [...] actually a ploy,” “merely to get the dispute resolved to avoid incurring further costs,” etc.

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    This feels badly incorrect to me. "Splitting the baby" isn't any kind of compromise. It's more akin to "cutting off one's nose to spite one's face". Aug 27, 2021 at 4:51
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    @DawoodibnKareem A “split-the-baby negotiation” today is a real compromise. Even in the original story, telling both women that they could get half of the baby was a putative compromise, just one so horrific that the arbitrator did not expect it to actually happen, and only proposed it to get the parties to back down from their intractable positions. “Then how about you make both your families travel the same distance?” could be like that.
    – Davislor
    Aug 27, 2021 at 10:35
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    FWIW, I have literally never heard the phrase "splitting the baby" in AmE. While I am quite familiar with the story of Solomon, it would not be immediately clear what the reference is. Strongly recommend "split the difference" instead.
    – costrom
    Aug 27, 2021 at 17:20
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    @costrom "Splitting the difference" doesn't imply both sides are unhappy though. Aug 27, 2021 at 18:15
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    @SyedMohammadSannan - Not true. David died in 1 Kings 2:10. The baby story is 1 Kings 3:16-27. In particular, 1 Kings 3:25 is "And the king said, Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one, and half to the other." (KJV). Solomon was the king mentioned. Aug 28, 2021 at 0:30

If both sides are happy we call it a "win-win situation". The opposite would be a "lose-lose situation".

Cambridge Dictionary

A lose-lose situation or result is one that is bad for everyone who is involved:
He said that going ahead with the strike would be a lose-lose situation for all concerned.

  • 9
    I'm not sure this is appropriate: In my mind, a "lose-lose situation" is a situation where both sides would be better off not having the deal (as opposed to a win-win situation, where both sides are better off with the deal). If I understand OP's situation right, it's about a compromise which is better than no compromise for both sides (otherwise, at least one side would not agree to the compromise), which (technically) makes it an (unsatisfying) win-win situation.
    – Heinzi
    Aug 26, 2021 at 7:24
  • @Heinzi this could be called a "shallow compromise" or a "lowest common denominator agreement".
    – henning
    Aug 26, 2021 at 10:21
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    @EdwinAshworth The only definition I can find isn't really on point. It seems to describe a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation.
    – Barmar
    Aug 26, 2021 at 13:47
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    CD: 'A lose-lose situation or result is one that is bad for everyone who is involved'.... I'd say this leaves everyone unhappy. Aug 26, 2021 at 15:42
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    @EdwinAshworth Thanks. I searched Lexico, M-W, and dictionary.com.
    – Barmar
    Aug 26, 2021 at 15:46

Since a compromise usually involves both side conceding some things, there will logically be degrees of happiness. However, a compromise can also be uneasy and liable to fail because it satisfies neither side. Basically, both sides walk away from the agreement unhappy from the start.

uneasy compromise

The solution sought by the Antall government, with the FKGP as a junior coalition partner, was an uneasy compromise between the two positions, which satisfied no-one and played a big part in the MDF's election defeat in 1994. Eastern Europe: Newsletter—Volumes 12-13.

Several months of uneasy compromise between the council and the syndicate ensured. ... Yet the compromise satisfied neither faction. As it broke down, the councilors repeatedly tendered their resignations only to have the governor insist that they remain in office... Starr and Collier; History and Power in the Study of Law.

We stand today in an uneasy compromise if not an impossible contradiction. The Aims of Education.

As a result of the marathon EEC Council session... an uneasy compromise was reached on procurement prices... Internal Affairs — Issues 1-6.

So both men agreed to an uneasy compromise which satisfied neither of them. Frank Daly; The New Frontier.

With regard to the OP's recent edit about a Wedding Compromise, I suggest that this would likely be one of a series of compromises involving both sides. Usually we can say Side 1 came away with A, C, D, and E; Side 2 got B, F, and G. For some points, like the venue, something (the distance in this case) can be split in half. True, this choice of the venue may satisfy no one, but perhaps many are less unsatisfied than they would be having to travel twice the distance. (Personally, I'd pick one location or the other and "make it up" to the other side of the family with other parts of the overall compromise or something involving the cost of tickets or hotel accommodations.)

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    My impression is that the word “uneasy” in “uneasy compromise” indicates a degree of instability, as in “it’s a compromise that the parties may not honor in the future.” That contrasts with the wedding example, where folks would be unlikely to back out of the agreement to hold it there after the planning starts. But perhaps I’m mistaken about that? Aug 27, 2021 at 0:11

My original answer is the second paragraph but after thinking about it compromise is the word you're looking for because if someone got what they wanted it wouldn't be a compromise. By definition a compromise is where both parties give up something therefore not getting what they want so they can keep some of what they want. If you didn't even get the smallest bit of what you wanted it wasn't a compromise, you just got screwed.

This isn't so much a word but you could say something like this Compromise feels akin to king Solomon actually splitting the baby.

Anyone not familiar with the parable or anecdote I'm referencing, Google King Solomon and the baby and it will explain what I'm talking about. (Is parable the right word? Didn't double check but if it's not a story that teaches a lesson feel free to correct me on that word.)

  • 1
    I came here to say this. While there are certainly varying degrees of how happy or unhappy the people are, generally in any compromise all participants are at least somewhat unhappy. When at least one person is truly happy, we generally wouldn't use the word compromise and would instead call it a deal or a bargain. Aug 26, 2021 at 17:29

A compromise which pleased nobody.

With the OP's recent edit (about the wedding in Kansas) I think it depends on how easy Kansas is to get to (I'm not in the US so I know it is in the middle but don't know about specific transport practicalities for someone travelling from either East or West coast).

If Kansas has been chosen because it is significantly easier for each party to get to than it would be to go to all the way to the other coast, then I would just call it a compromise.

If however Kansas is not significantly easier for either party than it would be to go all the way to the other coast, but it is chosen so that neither party is the "winner" then I would refer to it as "a compromise which pleased nobody".


A solution which tries to achieve two aims but achieves neither is said to fall between two stools.

The expression is often used for poor design choices (for example a product that is suitable neither for the beginner nor the advanced user because it tries to appeal to both.)

It can be used to describe a compromise between two groups of people. For example the final Brexit deal falls between the stool of European Union membership (favoured by the Remainers) and the stool of complete independence (favoured by the Leavers.) Both sides feel the final situation is unsatisfactory, because the UK is still very much under the influence of the European Union, despite having given up the right to vote in the European Parliament.


As a fictional example... two people are getting married. One has family in New York, the other in LA. Rather than have one family have to fly across the country while the other stays put, they decide to meet in the middle and hold the wedding in Oscar, Kansas. No one, including the couple, has any connection to Kansas, and no one in the situation is happy. (Nothing against Kansas, but it's not a resolution that satisfies anyone in this situation.)

There's no phrase because it's a perfect example of the definition of "compromise": neither gets everything they want, while both sides get half.


A good compromise is when both parties are dissatisfied

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    Except neither side gets half. Both sides get zero. Flying to Kansas is no less painful than flying to LA or NYC
    – user253751
    Aug 27, 2021 at 8:09
  • A couple are arguing about whether to staycate in the UK or fly to the US.... Aug 27, 2021 at 9:58

When a good compromise is found, it can be described as "striking a happy medium", or "finding a happy medium". The latter version is more common since the mid-1980s. Here's the link to a Google Books ngram.

In contrast, a bad compromise can be referred to as "striking an unhappy medium". Admittedly, it's not a common idiom. Google's ngram engine finds no matches, but it does find "an unhappy medium".

Google ngram of "unhappy medium"

A Google search on "strike an unhappy medium" gets 536 results, "find an unhappy medium" gets about 3,590 results. Also, "An Unhappy Medium" is the name of a recent novel by Dawn Eastman, who has a penchant for wordplay in her book titles.


There is always the rotten compromise, although the rot may affect the sides in an unbalanced fashion.

As an aside: The German Wikipedia article claims that compromise has different connotations in Britain and the Commonwealth compared to the United States: In Britain the ability to find a compromise is regarded a virtue; in the United States, the negative connotation of a "compromised" principle is stronger. One could speculate that compromises are generally in higher regard in countries that never went through a revolution but reached their current state through a succession of mutual agreements.

  • but that's not "a figure of speech", it's just a book title, a phrase the guy was using
    – Fattie
    Aug 26, 2021 at 12:16
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    @Fattie He used that phrase because it was around; but admittedly, it may be more common in German. In any case I have replaced the link with one to a list of uses. It's been around at least since Trotsky (whose utterings, or utterings to whom may, of course, have come into English through other languages, like German... Aug 26, 2021 at 13:13
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    I am sorry (1) it is simply not, in any way at all, whatsoever, a figure of speech (this list deals with English) (2) the new link is a list of sentences that happen to use the two words separately in different parts of the sentence, perhaps proving (not that it needs to be proved) that if you search on the phrase you ... don't find any, heh :)
    – Fattie
    Aug 26, 2021 at 13:26
  • @Fattie Are we reading the same list? Entry 1: "what is called a rotten compromise". (2) "A rotten compromise is taken to be a compromise ..." (3) "Despite advice to refuse "any rotten compromise", Trotsky did ..." (4) "such disputes end up with rotten compromises ..." (6) "the spirit of compromise in politics, while warning against rotten ones ..." etc. It may not be abundant but it has been in use for at least 100 years or so. Aug 26, 2021 at 13:52
  • "compromise" in French has a rather positive connotation and we had and have revolutions as a national sport.
    – WoJ
    Aug 26, 2021 at 15:33

I would call it the intersection of two hard lines,

from "hard line" meaning "uncompromising".


I'm not aware of this being in widespread usage, but I would call this a 'losing compromise' and expect the meaning to be understood by English speakers as something along the lines of what you asked for. It's a bit less gruesome than "splitting the baby", and more specifically naming the compromise compared to similar wording like "lose-lose situation".


A zero sum compromise.

It's a novel phrase that encapsulates both the agreement to a compromise, and the net effect that nothing is gained from such a compromise, other than the compromise itself.

No party to the compromise comes away satisfied.


Sources that support this interpretation:

Fisher, Max. “Why Democrats Should Run on National Security.” The Atlantic, February 22, 2010. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/02/why-democrats-should-run-on-national-security/36367/.

Mansbridge, Jane. “Deliberative and Non-Deliberative Negotiations.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2009. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1380433.

Psych Central. “OCD and the Tortures of Scrupulosity,” April 28, 2018. https://psychcentral.com/blog/ocd-and-the-tortures-of-scrupulosity.

“Session 1.4 Handout - Medi(t)Ation.Pdf.” Accessed August 28, 2021. https://www.cadreworks.org/sites/default/files/sessions/Session%201.4%20Handout%20-%20Medi%28t%29ation.pdf.

“Social Psychology | Evidence-Based Methods for Inter-Group Civility. | CivilPolitics.Org,” January 7, 2011. https://www.civilpolitics.org/social-psychology/.

Defense One. “What Clinton’s Foreign Affairs Article May Mean for the Defense Budget.” Accessed August 28, 2021. https://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2020/10/what-clintons-foreign-affairs-article-may-mean-defense-budget/169557/.

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    This is incorrect. In a zero sum compromise, one party gets what the other loses, so that the winnings and losses total 0. One party is, in fact, satisfied.
    – Laurel
    Aug 27, 2021 at 14:41
  • It's not "incorrect", it's metaphorical.
    – Jerry
    Aug 27, 2021 at 15:05
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    Incorrect as in that’s not what the expression means according to reputable sources (where it is almost always talked about with the name it is known as according to game theory). For example: investopedia.com/terms/z/zero-sumgame.asp . (If you have sources that would support your interpretation, then you should include them in your answer.)
    – Laurel
    Aug 27, 2021 at 15:11
  • It's intended to be poetic license. If that doesn't belong here, that's fine.
    – Jerry
    Aug 27, 2021 at 15:18
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    Negative sum, not zero sum. Aug 27, 2021 at 17:15

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