Beyond The Stale Platitudes About Love and Marriage (Part I)

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 be about 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 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.

Consider Ayn Rand’s definition of love: ‘Love, friendship, respect, admiration are the emotional response of one man to the virtues of another, the spiritual payment given in exchange for the personal, selfish pleasure which one man derives from the virtues of another man’s character.’

In other words: You are already ‘paid’ by the other person — the friend, the spouse, the romantic partner — merely by virtue of the fact that he is who he is. Love doesn’t require a compromise of who that person is. If it did, then love would mean something other than the way Ayn Rand defined it, and I think her definition is a pretty good one. And of course it’s mutual. For a relationship to exist, the person you’re with is getting ‘paid’ merely by the fact that you are who you are. When it’s mutual, meaning a two-way street, we call it love.

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 to them 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 has 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.

To be continued in tomorrow’s Daily Dose of Reason.