Why compromise?

I hear it every day: ‘A good marriage requires hard work and compromise.’ ‘The secret of our relationship is’ sacrifice.’ Blah, blah. Well, I have a different take on the subject.

It’s not that I’m against compromise altogether. Life as a couple certainly does involve some negotiation and concession from time to time, but not as a general principle. It seems to me that if you’re fortunate enough to find a good romantic match, everyday give-and-take shouldn’t require sacrifice.

For a mentally healthy person, the feeling of love is a deeply positive response to what is seen as the good qualities in another person. If you really admire and respond favorably to someone else’s personal qualities (in other words, if they make you happy) it seems reasonable to assume that you’re not going to feel the need to demand constant compromise. It’s my view that people who make a big deal about the virtue of ‘compromising’ with their partner actually made a big compromise in the beginning—by choosing that partner in the first place.

One major consequence of a loving relationship that doesn’t require constant compromise is respect. When you genuinely love someone, you also respect him. You respect him because he has good qualities. Maybe you respect those qualities because you lack them. Or maybe you respect those qualities because you possess them, and you’re glad someone else does too. If your spouse is good at something that you’re not so good at, then you don’t struggle with him. You leave him free to be good at what he’s good at—and both parties benefit.

Occasionally you see telltale signs of this struggle in the home of a married couple. A kitchen that doesn’t quite make sense, or a couch that doesn’t fit with the rest of the room, or a bathroom design that seems contradictory. When you scratch the surface, you often find that the warring couple made a compromise—each giving up something important so that the whole package ended up being mediocre or worse. Those screwy bathroom, kitchen or furniture decisions are metaphors for some of what’s wrong in that relationship. Instead of one spouse leaving the other to do what she’s BETTER at (or enjoys more), he interferes and insists on leaving his mark on the project. A lot of money’s been spent, and nobody’s happy.

It’s natural and rational to want control over our lives. Passivity is not healthy. But the survival value of love and marriage lies in the fact that they contribute to the well being of both partners. If a spouse doesn’t add to the well being of her partner, constant compromise isn’t going to fix it, because it requires her to be something other than whom she really is. Pressure to do so will only generate resentment and give him the (temporary) illusion that she’s different from the person she really is.

All of us want some traits the same as ourselves and some different from ourselves. If you choose to spend your life with someone who is both similar and different in certain ways, this is no threat to your individuality—so long as those differences are what you want. Let’s say you’re not handy around the house, and your spouse is. He likes to do the work—it makes him feel competent and in control—and you don’t like to do it anyway. This is a difference that benefits you both. It would make no sense to try and change him into someone who isn’t handy around the house, or to interfere in something he obviously knows how to do. Does it serve your individuality to make him more like yourself? Of course not.

Obviously, much of the solution here is to know who you’re marrying. But it goes even further than that: You have to know what you want. If you leave it all to feelings, you’ll get married to someone if it feels good enough. The problem is, as the months and years go by, you’ll probably discover that ‘good enough’ isn’t quite so good any longer. You’ll feel like you want something more or different, resulting in efforts to demand compromise where it’s really not fair or realistic to do so.

Loving give-and-take, not sacrifice and anxiety, should be part of everyday life. For example, you want Chinese for dinner and I want pizza. Well, we did have pizza two days ago and I always like Chinese. So let’s do it your way. But I’m not sacrificing anything: If I truly love and value you, it makes ME happy to see you get what you want. It doesn’t compromise my individuality to please you. Indeed, I love you and the pleasure you derive from having what you want makes me happier than eating pizza would. In fact, if our relationship is healthy, you’ll enjoy doing the same for me on another day.

Sadly, this is an attitude that many marriages lack, and it’s why many relationships flounder. The answer doesn’t reside in sacrificing yourself and your desires. The answer lies in remembering that you cherish this person with whom you chose to spend your life, and taking pleasure in his or her happiness will pay off in both the short and the long term.