Compromise in Love and Marriage (Delaware Wave)

Several readers have asked me to clarify the difference between short-term compromise and all-out self-sacrifice. More than one Life’s a Beach! column has emphasized that the latter should never be part of a marriage or any partnered relationship.

A short-term compromise is something you do to make your partner happy. This should (at least in a healthy relationship) make you happy because it makes your partner happy. For example, you might be indifferent as to where to eat tonight. Your spouse has a preference. So you go where he or she wants to go, even though it might not have been your first choice.

You won’t eat somewhere you hate — that would be a sacrifice, but this compromise is made willingly.

Compromises like this do not include resentment. You agree to them freely because you love someone. And, more importantly, you enjoy putting a smile on the face of the person you love. A quick little test is to ask yourself, “Is it more important for my partner to do such-and-such than it is for me NOT to?” If so, and given that you love the person, it then makes a sense to do it.

A compromise can never be made over a deal breaker. One partner, for example, is sure of never wanting children, while the other wants two within the next 5 years. That’s likely a deal breaker. On the other hand, even life-changing decisions can result from a compromise. One spouse wants (or needs) to move away to a different state. The other would never do so willingly, but his or her life might still be fundamentally the same after the move. It’s a compromise (and upheaval) of major proportions — but it’s not a sacrifice. In the overall scheme of things, it’s more important to have a satisfied and content spouse than it is to uphold one’s first preference. It really wasn’t a deal breaker after all; not if true love is holding the relationship together.

The definition of self-sacrifice is literally surrendering one’s important values, deepest wants and cherished principles. If what you want and cherish are reasonable and sustainable, then you need not, and should not, give them up. If sharing a romantic commitment requires that sort of surrender, then maybe you should reevaluate the commitment.

Lovers sometimes say things like, “I sacrificed for you. I did this or that for you. I worked while you went through school, etc.” Let’s break this down for a minute. Hopefully, the one who did those things did so because he or she loved the person. You might put your spouse through school precisely because of the self-interested gratification — mental and/or physical — that you get out of being with her. If you made that decision honestly, then you have no business claiming after the fact that you did it selflessly. In truth, you did it selfishly because it made you happy to see your spouse succeed. And that’s OK! It’s how it should be.

People sometimes set up a false code of morality. They are carefully brainwashed, early-on, that the measure of virtue is self-sacrifice. When they’re in conflict with their partner, they naturally ‘lord it over’ the person they supposedly love. “You’re selfish,’ they whine. If someone said that to me, my attitude would be, “Well I hope so. You don’t want me to love you out of charity, do you?” There’s a conversation stopper for you, and it’s undeniably true.

We love another person in order to fulfill our own desires. We don’t love the person as an object or as a possession. We love the person for being who he or she is. In the best-case scenario of a relationship or marriage, that’s how it works: ‘All you have to do is be who you are, and it lights up my life’ — and vice-versa. Self-sacrifice should be the last thing on your mind.


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