One of the subjects that couples almost always bring up in my office is how to make – or keep – a marriage happy. My first reaction is to remind them that they are on the same team; that they share the same goals, the same desired outcome and the same values.
But this doesn’t work unless you choose the right partner for the right reasons. If you both want happiness, then conflict can easily be stopped by saying, “Wait a minute. We’re not enemies.” Listen. Assert. But don’t fight.
Your real personality tends to come out in a romantic relationship. For example, are you the kind of person who cares most about winning and being right? If so, then your marital relationship will surely dissolve into adversarial games and one-upsmanship.
The only real “win” is happiness for both parties. Some people love their partner so much that they’re happy to concede when something is more important to him or her. If mutual happiness is the primary goal, then you’re happy to give your spouse everything he or she may desire. And since it works both ways, everybody’s happy, because there’s no sacrifice when both partners aim for the other’s happiness.
Sound simple? That’s because it is. If something’s really important to your spouse, then you’re more than happy to give in. At the same time, if something is really important to you, you’ll convey that fact. For example: “Do you remember how important it was to you that we vacationed in Hawaii last year? Well, that’s how I feel about having our bathroom remodeled.”
There’s a big difference between that and the attitude that couples in conflict often express, i.e., “I went on that trip to Hawaii for you; now you need to do this for me!” The response will inevitably (and reasonably) be something like, “Well, first of all, you shouldn’t have made that sacrifice. And if you did, that gives you no right to throw it back in my face. You should have made your intentions clear by saying, ‘I don’t want to go. But I’m going for your sake. It’s a sacrifice, and you’ll owe me.’ That would have given me the opportunity to have no part of this and come up with a different plan. Instead, you pretended to want to go, and now you’re using it to get what you want.”
Unfortunately, this is a surprisingly popular but dishonest game because it’s rarely done in the open. It’s done resentfully, in secret, and then it’s revealed later on. It’s as if the self-sacrificer is making a trade with you, but won’t admit it. We’re taught that sacrifice is noble and that bringing the notion of “trade” into personal relationships – especially romantic ones — is mercenary and cold. Yet the exact opposite is true. Marriages that fail almost always suffer from a lack of open exchange and a sad overabundance of secretive, resentful sacrifice.
If you’re just starting out in a love relationship and you want it to last, remember that love is an exchange. On the broadest level, it’s a trade. Each partner gets something out of it; primarily the fact that the other person is whom he or she is. On a concrete, day-to-day level, exchanges and trades must be made in the spirit I described above.
I suppose this is what people mean when they claim that compromise is so crucial to the survival of a marriage. But I don’t think it’s the primary issue. The primary issue is mutuality and a healthy sense of trade. Compromise might be useful for building mutuality, but it’s not an end in itself. Happiness is.