What Marital Compromise Is Really All About

Dear Dr. Hurd: How would you advise an empty nest couple with two professional careers of equal importance to the individuals, to find compromise when job loss is imminent for one spouse whose career is unstable by its nature, and the other spouse is happy in his secure job of over 25 years, which makes him unwilling to risk a move to another city that presents new opportunities for his spouse, because it would jeopardize the financial stability and retirement of the couple? Expanding in another direction in the same career is not an option, nor is telecommuting, but giving up a career that has been a life’s passion for over 38 years in favor of stability will likely breed resentment in the marriage.

Reply: There’s an old Spanish proverb that says, “Take what you want — and pay for it.” This basically means that there are costs and gains to everything, and you have to objectively judge and weigh those before making any major decision. Sometimes you’re certain of what those costs and gains will be, and more often you’re not entirely certain — making the challenge even more than it was.

Your dilemma consists of two individuals — only two, since as you indicated the “nest” is now empty. The starting premise has to be, for each member of the marriage: “We’re going to find the best possible solution to make us both happy. We’re not going to stop until we do.”

This starting premise is very, very important. Nothing I might suggest — or nothing else that makes rational sense — will ever be able to matter or function outside of this starting premise.

Sometimes the question is, “How can I get my partner to compromise?” What this question really means, in most cases, is: “How can I persuade my spouse to start with the premise that any compromise or solution here must end up maximally satisfying us both?” Perhaps that’s where you’re stuck.

The simplest and best way I know of to go about this is to say to your spouse, in essence, “Of course your career is important to you, and it should be. I want it to be, and that’s part of what I love about you. At the same time, my career is equally important to me. I trust and hope you’re prepared to come up with a solution that satisfies us both, even if there’s some compromise involved.”

In principle, this shouldn’t be a tough sell to one’s spouse. If you love and value someone highly, then you WANT to please him or her as much as you possibly can. It doesn’t mean you’re willing to give up your own happiness in the process, of course, but it would bother you just as much to see someone you love or adore give up his or her own happiness, as well.

I realize that many will say, “Yes, but some people are selfish. They won’t start on the premise you’re recommending.”

I would not blame selfishness for this. “Selfishness” basically refers to caring about yourself. This includes who and what you value. Presumably, your marital relationship is one of the things you value the most in life — perhaps most of all. If this is true, then why in the world would you want the person and relationship you value most in life to suffer or even be destroyed because of your unwillingness to work on finding a solution good for both of you?

I’m spending a lot of time — in fact, almost this entire article — on the idea of what marital compromise really means. I do this because I have found, again and again, that the conversations never had, and the thinking never engaged in, about this issue are the root cause of the kinds of dilemmas you describe.

What it really boils down to is, “If you don’t treat my career wants and needs as visible and as important as your own — we have a serious problem. It’s not just me. You’ll also have an unhappy spouse. How is that so good for you?” This is the issue to drive home, sometimes over and over again, because while it’s a rational idea it’s not the way most people seem to approach relationships. Most people seem to approach relationships as either meeting one’s own needs (and assuming the other is always fine with that), or as exclusively meeting the other’s needs. It’s not right, because the two partners are supposed to be equal in stature.

I recognize that different careers make different amounts of money. It’s possible for one career to make a stable and excellent income, and a different career to make too little for even one person to survive comfortably on. It’s valid to take this into account. If the one partner is saying, “We can make a move based on your career, but we can’t live off of what you make,”  that’s a valid consideration in the discussion. But it’s NOT a valid reason to end discussion. Instead, the next step might be, “Let’s look at places we could move to where you could have heightened and sustainable career fulfillment, while I could retain what I have, after a few changes.” There may or may not be such a context. Also, with the real estate market so bad in most places, you have to factor in possibly a year or two to sell your house, or selling your house at a lower price than you hoped for. The numbers have to be crunched and they have to be considered. But none of this is a reason not to have an ongoing discussion where “we don’t stop until we’ve exhausted every possibility.”

Here’s how it should work: Partner A wants a change that Partner B does not initially or necessarily want. But both partners take the desire to change seriously, and weigh those options carefully and seriously. In some cases, it becomes clear to both Partner A and Partner B that the status quo is actually a superior option to any other. But Partner A deeply appreciates that Partner B took the discussions seriously, and was prepared to make a change if one could be found that worked for both.

None of this is what I’d call the spirit of selflessness, nor even of compromise, as most people would label it. I see it as negotiating to mutual benefit with the one you love — with a high regard for what that person wants precisely because of your love for him or her.


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