Singletude: A Positive Blog for Singles

Singletude is a positive, supportive singles blog about life choices for the new single majority. It's about dating and relationships, yes, but it's also about the other 90% of your life--family, friends, career, hobbies--and flying solo and sane in this crazy, coupled world. Singletude isn't about denying loneliness. It's about realizing that whether you're single by choice or by circumstance, this single life is your life to live.

Friday, March 13, 2009

When Relationship Compromise Is Self-compromise

Relationships demand compromise. We hear it again and again from well-meaning friends, relatives, and mental health counselors. At the same time, a long list of teachers, mentors, and great philosophers remind us to be true to ourselves, to follow our hearts. When I was growing up, one of my favorite quotes was:

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. --Henry David Thoreau

If there's a message of compromise in there somewhere, it's using a pretty good cloaking device!

If you do have hopes of one day sharing your life with a significant other, a certain amount of compromise will be inevitable to keep the peace. But when does it become self-compromise to the point that you are now marching to someone else's drummer?

I pondered over whether or not to publish this post for a good week since the question arises from a matter in my personal life, and I've made it a point that Singletude is not a personal blog. And yet, I think this question is so universally applicable that it would be a lost opportunity not to address it here. So bear with me while I invite you to step into my world for a moment.

Recently, I ended a relationship with a man I'll call Andrew. (Yes, a relationship. Didn't think I had those, huh? ;)) He was a beautiful person in many ways, so it pained me deeply when things didn't work out between us. But the problem was that he and I had numerous lifestyle and belief differences which would have demanded a great deal of compromise had we decided to build our lives together. As I began to realize how vast our differences were, I found myself sinking into depression due to both the impending loss of someone I cared for so much and the self-doubt and -criticism stirred by our disagreements.

Since there were lots of things that Andrew and I loved about each other, he hoped we could compromise, reminding me that that's what people do in relationships. But it hurt to know that there were so many aspects of myself that he wanted me to change. (To be fair, it probably hurt him that some of his life choices, values, and habits were hard for me to accept, as well.) I started questioning everything from my career path to my philosophy of child rearing to my artistic sensibilities, wondering if he was right that these were areas in which I needed to compromise in the interest of reaching a middle ground with someone who had different ideas. Andrew assured me that a willingness to compromise was a mark of maturity and dedication to a relationship, and I knew that, to an extent, he was right.

To an extent. Those were the operative words. My relationship with Andrew highlighted a question I'd been puzzling over for awhile on my own: When is compromise an appropriate sacrifice for the betterment of a relationship, and when is it too costly a self-sacrifice?

As time passed and I tried on some of those compromises for size, I felt worse and worse about what I was compromising. Although I thought the world of Andrew, I was less and less excited about us as the sacrifices I would have to make mounted and I felt increasingly less accepted for who I was. It occurred to me that my singletude was slipping away, and I began to feel like a hypocrite. (For those not in the know, singletude isn't the attitude that it's necessarily better to be single than coupled but that it's definitely better to be single than in a relationship in which you can't be a happy, healthy individual.)

To compound my confusion, I wondered if I was just unhappy because I had unrealistic ideas about relationships. Perhaps all long-term relationships would require this kind of compromise, in which case the problem was me and my own self-centeredness. After all, the compromises Andrew was asking of me didn't seem unreasonable in his eyes, just as the compromises I was asking of him didn't seem unreasonable in mine. Yet, in the end, neither of us was willing to change.

Some observers may see one or both of us as selfish, stubborn, or intolerant. Others may wave the banner of independence and laud us for following our own paths and refusing to change for anyone else. I suspect that for most relationships to succeed, a certain amount of compromise is a necessary ingredient. But there's a fine, almost invisible line between what you should and shouldn't compromise, and equally blurry is the degree to which you should compromise on it.

Let me clearly state that I don't think love should be measured by that line. I know there are people who believe that love should conquer all and that if you don't practically rip your heart out in sacrifice, you must not have valued the relationship enough. I say that if you rip your heart out in sacrifice, you have nothing left to love with. Selflessness is admirable but not when you give up so much of yourself that you become an empty shell. I don't believe that kind of self-compromise is indicative of love any more than any other act of self-hatred. So I think it's unfair and inaccurate to surmise that Andrew and I (or any other couple in a similar situation) could've made it work if only we'd loved each other more.

For most people, though, I think it can be difficult, as it was for me, to discern when you're exercising your heart, making it work a little harder for someone else, from when you're on the verge of sacrificing it. By no means have I come up with a foolproof method of distinguishing between the two conditions, but I think my recent experience did teach me a few rules of thumb about when to compromise and when to stand your ground. Here are some questions you should ask yourself before you compromise for your partner (and please be aware that these can apply to any relationship, not just a romantic one):

1. Will this compromise affect my day-to-day happiness?

Many compromises involve relatively minor changes to your daily routine that have little impact on your overall life satisfaction. For instance, let's say your alarm is set to a death metal station, but your mate doesn't like to be blasted out of a sound sleep every morning. He or she prefers to wake up to the gentle strains of Beethoven, which, while not your ideal, don't make you wish someone would knock you back out when you wake. Setting the alarm to a classical station is, therefore, a reasonable compromise. Yeah, you'll miss your Slayer, but it won't, er, kill you.

Other compromises concern situations or events that occur so rarely that they have little significance for your general happiness. For example, your families may live far apart, forcing you to compromise on where you spend the holidays. However, this is a conflict you only face once a year, so it doesn't even register as a blip on your radar of relationship satisfaction the rest of the time.

On the other hand, some compromises threaten to dig deep, permanent trenches in your happiness. Let's say a woman deeply desires a large family and marries a man who doesn't really want kids. They compromise and have one baby. The painful result is that every day the woman longs to have more children while the man resents the work he has to invest in just one. Maybe another couple can't agree on where to live. The man grew up on a ranch in Wyoming, loves it there, and can't imagine living anywhere else. The woman craves a fast-paced city lifestyle and favors Boston, New York, or Washington, DC. They compromise by settling in a small city in the Midwest, but the man always misses the big open skies of Wyoming, and the woman chafes for a bigger, busier metropolis. These are examples of compromises that impinge on day-to-day happiness. And the unhappier you are, the more stressful it will be to your relationship.

2. Will this compromise change who I am?

Some well-intentioned people may advise you not to compromise on certain values that they consider integral to who you are, such as religious practices or the pursuit of various career goals or hobbies. But really only you can determine how important something is to your sense of self. Someone might be fine with promising to raise his children Catholic so that he can marry a Catholic wife, whereas someone else might be so committed to her Muslim faith that she would have to turn off her conscience to raise her children in another religion. A young dental hygienist may not feel defined by her job and have no trouble giving it up if her significant other got a promotion that would take them overseas, whereas a college professor's position may be central to his identity so that he would be devastated if he had to leave his department due to his partner's relocation.

In short, you should steer clear of any compromise that would alter a core part of yourself that you highly value. I emphasize those last words because change is good when you're ready and willing for it. But if changing yourself is tantamount to revoking the beliefs, values, interests, or objectives that are most important to you, then you will end up unhappy, which will take an equally unhappy toll on your relationship, as discussed in 1. Besides, what does it say about your partner's love for you if he or she wants you to change the very things that make you who you are? Answer: Nothing good.

3. Is my partner compromising too?

This is a biggey, and the answer has to be yes. The definition of compromise is "a settlement of differences by mutual concessions; an agreement reached by adjustment of conflicting or opposing claims, principles, etc., by reciprocal modification of demands." (italics added) A one-sided compromise is like one hand clapping. Compromise only deserves that label when both partners are meeting each other halfway.

you accomplish that is up to you. You might agree to give up something this time if your partner will give up something next time, take on a new responsibility if your partner will help with it, or do something you both like instead of something just one of you loves. All of these are different examples of compromise, but what they have in common is that both partners are sacrificing.

If you're the only one sacrificing, or if you're sacrificing more than your partner, you'll be headed straight back down that road to Unhappyville. Granted, the equity of compromise is subjective, but what matters is that you and your loved one believe your compromise is equitable. For instance, if you're both okay with dividing labor along traditional male-female lines, fine. But if one of you thinks he or she is getting shafted in that role, then you have a problem.

4. Am I really willing to make this compromise?

The worst thing you can do when negotiating a compromise is to vow that changes are forthcoming only to relapse into old habits when asked to make good on your promise. For compromise to work, you need to commit to it. It may seem like the perfect solution to offer to cook dinner while your honey vaccuums the floor, but when you repeatedly "forget" to go to the grocery store or schedule too many business dinners, all bets are off, and your partner will be even more disgruntled than before because you reneged on your word. Before you agree to a compromise, be honest with yourself and your partner about what compromises you're really willing to make. To continue with the example above, if you recoil at the sight of raw chicken fillets and have convinced yourself by now that you like burnt toast, a compromise that has you wearing a chef's hat is unrealistic.

Instead, look for compromises that you know you can carry out with a little effort. So maybe you can't deliver in the kitchen. Okay. Then you might do the laundry or take care of the lawn or put the kids to bed every night. Whatever the compromise, you have to sincerely be willing to tackle and follow through with it.

This also means believing in the compromise. On some level, you have to agree that it's necessary and the right thing to do so that even if it wasn't your first choice, you know that it is, nevertheless, a good choice. By the same token, once you've settled on the compromise, you shouldn't feel resentful or regretful about it. If you do, that's a sign that you may want to return to the preceding guidelines to see how your compromise stacks up.

Ultimately, if you can't embrace the compromise and stick to it, it will be a sticking point for your relationship. There's no justification for spinning your wheels into the ground if you know that you can't get behind a compromise with enough faith and determination to push your relationship out of a rut.

Now, there is one question that you might think I've left out. On the contrary, it's the question that I hope you won't ask when judging whether you should compromise in a relationship: Do I love him/her enough to compromise?

People ask this question all the time, and I believe it contributes to many devastating choices. Why? Because, as I said earlier, compromise is not a measure of love and should not be used that way. If the compromise you're contemplating will have such a detrimental effect on you that you need to reevaluate your whole relationship, then it's a compromise that violates at least one of the principles above. And if you compromise under those conditions, you compromise yourself. Any decision made out of self-compromise is not a decision made out of love. It may be made out of fear (of losing someone), guilt (of seeming selfish), ignorance (of alternatives), or self-righteousness (another discussion in itself). But not love. Love is absent from any compromise that engenders chronic unhappiness, is inconsistent with one's identity, unfairly burdens one partner, or is insincerely made.

Please note that I'm not saying someone who makes such a compromise doesn't love his or her partner. But I'm also not saying that he or she does. What I'm saying is that love has nothing to do with it. The reason I'm so exacting about this is because too many people make untenable compromises because they've bought the lie that compromise is a measure of love, and the more you love, the more you compromise. Believe me, you can love someone more than a fish loves the water and still not want to compromise yourself for him or her, and, conversely, people who do self-compromise don't do it out of love. Yeah, I know that will leave a bad taste in the mouth of anyone who has a martyr complex, so if it's any comfort to you, I was one of your number for years and am not pointing any fingers.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not arguing that love doesn't entail giving generously to your partner. But you shouldn't give yourself away in the process. When the potential for self-compromise threatens to become reality, sometimes the most loving thing you can do is walk away rather than ask someone else to change for you.

Where do you draw the line between healthy compromise and unhealthy self-sacrifice in a relationship? Have you ever been in a relationship in which you compromised too much? How did you recognize that you had compromised too much? Did you choose to be single, or did you stay in the relationship? What advice would you give to someone trying to decide between singlehood and self-compromise for the sake of a relationship?

Fun Link of the Day

Do you have a question for Clever Elsie about some aspect of the single life? Have a rant or rave about singlehood? Write in, and you just might see your question in a Singletude Q&A or your rant or rave in a Singletude Sound-off!


Jenn said...

Wow, talk about timely! I'm just at the beginning of a relationship and it's the first one, I think ever in my life, that has felt 'healthy'. But since I've tended to compromise WAY too much in my previous relationships, I'm hyper-sensitive about it now so I've been thinking about this a LOT. At this point, we haven't hit any deal-breakers (i.e., things that I know I can't compromise on, like kids), but I'm bracing myself for the not-so-obvious things that I'm sure are going to come up and that I will have to really think about. I think that it helps that I've worked hard over the last few years to really figure out who I am and what's important to me - in my past relationships, I gave up parts of myself without even realizing it until it was too late, just to please the guy. I think it can be good to figure out at least some of the deal-breakers for yourself, before you're emotionally invested, recognizing that you also should 'never say never'. Thanks for a great post!

Special K said...

Do you think as women we might overthink "should I be in this relationship" and that thinking about it really detracts from our experience of it for what it is? If the thought "am I compromising" even remotely surfaces...then I bet you are. Yep, it takes work, but it shouldn't take more work than a friendship...unless you are married!

Clever Elsie said...

Jenn: Oooh, a quirkyrelationship! Exciting! :)

I'm bracing myself for the not-so-obvious things that I'm sure are going to come up and that I will have to really think about.

Right. In the case of Andrew and I, most of the real deal breakers weren't apparent until we had already fallen for each other. And a hard fall it was! Ouch!

The funny thing was that I thought I had figured out my relationship priorities, but it wasn't until Andrew came along that I realized my priorities weren't quite what I'd thought they were. Even though I'm sad that it didn't work out, I'm thankful that the relationship taught me more about myself and what I'm really looking for.

I think your advice is spot-on, and I hope you're enjoying the fun getting-to-know-you stage of your relationship. :)

Special K: Hmmm. That's an interesting question. To a degree, yes. That is, I think it's unhealthy for a relationship if you spend more time analyzing it than just enjoying the other person. But I also think that when your goal is a long-term relationship, you do need to ask those important questions.

Although I would disagree that a relationship shouldn't take more work than a friendship until it's a marriage (after all, isn't a serious relationship preparation for marriage?), I think you're right that if you're constantly asking yourself if you're compromising too much, you probably are.

Anonymous said...

#3 is the big one! The last guy that I dated was all about compromise, as long as it was me compromising and him getting his way.

In the end, I just gave him his walking papers.

Anonymous said...

Compromise can be great, but only in the right conditions. I think this a great post on learning to be conscious of good vs. bad compromise.

Anonymous said...

Elsie, great post. I must concur with Jenn: "in my past relationships, I gave up parts of myself without even realizing it until it was too late, just to please the guy" -- I had a similar experience in my last significant relationship, and when I realized what was happening, I freaked out and broke up with him with very little warning. I seem to have broken his heart, and since we run in the same social circles, I think it's still very painful for him. I so wish I had been more careful.

One thing that this post made me think about is how much of our sense that we *must* compromise when in relationships comes from culture, and how much is practical? Pop culture, at least, seems to make it seem as though making major compromises is a necessity when it comes to relationships, often to the detriment of both partners. And if a partner isn't willing to compromise, he/she becomes the "bad guy/gal." It's almost like our cultural mantra when it comes to relationships is, "Love hard and hang on tight, even if it's painful and changes who you envision yourself to be."

-- Lisa

Clever Elsie said...

Such thought-provoking comments on this issue from everyone! :)

Catherinette: Ugh! I'm sorry you got the raw end of the deal from a one-way compromiser, the kind of guy who thinks change is a one-way street...and only when it goes his way! Like yours, my response to a my-way-or-the-highway kind of guy is to say, "Hit the road, Jack!" :)

Anonymous: Thanks for visiting Singletude and for your kind words! Hope you'll stop by again...

Lisa: Though I don't know the details of your relationship, I hope you won't blame yourself for the way in which it ended! It's not your fault that it took awhile for it to sink in that you were compromising more of yourself than you should have. Sometimes self-compromise is really only visible in retrospect as its consequences become clear. And he, of course, probably should not have asked you to compromise on issues that were so important to you in the first place.

That's an interesting observation about pop cultural representations of compromise! I notice two polar extremes in the media--compromise at all costs and compromise for nothing. That was my inspiration for trying to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy compromise. If we don't each develop our own personal guidelines for what we can and can't compromise, it's so easy for the former to slip over the boundary to the latter.

The Singlutionary said...

This is a really great post! I think that we've come to use the word "compromise" too freely. Yes, in healthy relationships there is a give and take. This give and take ultimately benefits both parties. If one party feels robbed, that is no longer compromise. That is an unhealthy relationship. Nobody should feel robbed by love.

In past generations, people didn't really have as many options. Life kinda just happened to people. There were fewer identity crises, people didn't have the time or option to sit around wondering what they wanted. They had to work and work hard and were just glad to have a home, etc.

Now we have the luxury of thinking about who we are and what we are doing on the earth and deciding how to spend our lives.

I think this makes us pickier in finding a mate.

Cause many many many men will be a good fit for me if all I need is love and porridge. But if I need them to be outdoorsy but not too athletic, independent but not aloof, religious but not fanatical, willing to adopt older children way way in the future and all the 10,000 other things I value. Well, there are just a lot of deal breakers these days.

And I have such a good life going already that it would take someone really truly amazing for me to compromise on any of them.

Clever Elsie said...

Singlutionary: I'm impressed by how much thought you've put into the kind of partnership you want! I wish everyone was introspective enough to form such a clear picture of what they want in advance. It would save a lot of heartbreak.

And good for you that you're happy with your life as it is and have no intention of compromising it for someone else! That's inspiring. More singletude for the singlution! :)

s.t said...

Our life.. seems to be always similar.. similar situations eerily similar timing.
I just ended a relationship.. while as much as there are differences, i am willing to compromise to a certain extent. He is one who wants to sit dwn to 'talk it out' for every single little things which we dun agree on, or things which upset me. Whereas for me, i hav those habit of not dwelling on small issues and wld just brush aside some minor things which upsets mi.
He said these are 'fundamental differences' between us. I said i wld b willing to compromise. Lets talk, when u wan to talk. i wldnt move away or display uneasiness like i used to.
He said - no. He said some fundamental differences - u just cant change it, no matter hw hard u try.

Clever Elsie said...

S.T.: I know we've already talked about this outside of the blogosphere, but I just want to say again how sorry I am that things didn't work out with your BF. At the same time, I'm happy to hear that you've bounced back from the initial disappointment and recognized that you're not to blame for the incompatibilities that your ex found unresolvable.

I also want to take a minute to address the specific conflict that you and your ex had because I've had the same issue in at least two relationships, and I think it's one that comes up for a lot of couples during times of disagreement. It seems there's always one party who's inclined to talk things out while the other just wants to forgive and forget.

Although "communication" has become a fashionable byword promising to resolve all relational disputes, studies show that it's possible to have too much of a good thing when it comes to candid conversation. For example, the authors of this book claim that overanalyzing relationship problems can produce more stress, mostly because of the severe emotional reaction that men have to conflict. Sometimes, though, as in your case, it's the woman who reacts more strongly to the threat of discord and seeks to avoid it.

These researchers, as well as some others I have read, suggest that doing (i.e. bonding activities) can be more effective than talking when you want to diffuse an argument. This supports my own experience, in which I've found that there's a delicate balance between discussing problems and dwelling on them until they overshadow the many wonderful aspects of a relationship. Sometimes "communicating" is a cover for criticizing when the dissatisfied party needs to learn to be more tolerant or work on his or her own issues. Other times it's a cop-out for couples who would rather talk about a problem than work on it. Still other times, intentions are good, but too much talk distracts a couple from what drew them together in the first place.

Not every dispute will be resolved immediately or at all--some things you have to agree to disagree on. In the meantime, it's important to reinforce relationship bonds by taking a break from the conflict and refocusing on what you love about each other. In other words, stick a bookmark in your momentous conversation and go have an ice cream!

On another note, a couple's communicational pattern is one of the few elements of a relationship that is completely amenable to compromise. It may not be a painless task, but it's certainly more doable to alter how you present and respond to disagreement than the nature of the disagreement itself. For example, you may always disagree about where to invest your money, but the way you handle the disagreement can be modified to make it more palatable.

As I mentioned elsewhere, I suspect that your ex may have used your differences in communicational style as a cover for other areas of dissatisfaction or his own reluctance to commit. Of all possible sources of conflict within a relationship, a couple's communicational pattern is one of the best candidates for compromise and is often the first thing addressed when a couple enters therapy.

And with that, I will step off my soapbox! :)

s.t said...

thks dear..
sadly.. there aint any chances to work on it anymore.
maybe.. like u say there might b the real underlying issues, bt in whichever case, some how or another i m still mourning over it.

Clever Elsie said...

S.T.: I know, hon. It's completely normal to grieve for a lost relationship, no matter how it ended, and even to go back and forth between grieving and feeling better. You know the drill. You and I are both vets of the recovery process! Give yourself as much time as you need.

Tanya said...

Wow, so true for my current situation. :((

I cant agree more about 'not knowing my priorities' until i got into this current relationship. I had a divorce 3yrs back and this was the first R'ship after that.

What I had done was...I had found the 'EXACT' opposite of my ex-husband. My ex had it all, a wonderful family, strong career, ambitious, intelligent, financially secure, a beautiful house, a great well settled life and was apparently very loving.
But also emotionally abusive, demanding.
My BF is loving, caring, very patient, understanding, loves his job, not a great looker, [looks dint matter as much as the person] is fairly career ambitious and in life. [But has no plans set nor has an idea how he will get there, as 37.]. From a different culture and financially secure enough for a single guy.

I am in a limbo after 1 and half years of a long-distant relationship. Communication was our bonding quality [we met online and spoke for 3 mnths before meeting] and we could talk for hours.
But when we finally met, I began to find faults in him and criticizing him. I was just showing my fears in the worst possible way. I was scared that I would not be able to 'adjust' to him and his family. I was worried that our families will not get along.
He took all that in his stride as he knew 'i was the one for him'. His priorities were clear.

I sought confidence in 'his confidence' cause I did not have any of my own. Whenever we met, we did whathe wanted cause i never voiced my choice.

I was subconsciously wanting to replace the qualities the my ex did not have, but not wanting to take any away from what i already had with my ex. Like financial security, family compatibility.

I come from a practical point of view. He comes from a 'vision and dreams' point of view. He lives by the day. I live in the future. He is into taking loans and paying them off over time, while I resent loans or credit, other than home loans. I would rather save and build a corpus, than live worrying about the next time to 'begin' saving. He is 37 and im 35. He has close to 5k in savings [after pushing him to begin saving 1yr back]. I have over 30k which is not a lot either.

YET! I held on, thinking 'I' can work around it and be happy with him since he is a warm, caring, patient and giving person. Which is what i exactly missed out before. He tolerated all my 'needing space' moments. Would keep humor alive all the time even if I was irritable and distant. I come from a financially secure family background and he has no such back up from family.

But I also gave in to his strong fixed ideas, his 'vulnerability' with people [he needs to be appreciated and cared for and his ideas supported]. He would forget the world around him when he is with people.

He is a social bird and im a selective friends, need space and get tired after a long talk, kinda person.

He has had a couple 'weak moments' which troubled me. What if we fight and he gets weak and goes to vent his sorrows with someone else?.

We are on the verge of breaking up. He cant wait anymore and Im unable to commit. I have accepted most of the issues I had, but im not feeling that 'overjoy' of getting married. Ive been trying to resolve these qs in my own head for so long that its drained me out completely.

I guess I over analyzed him and his life. But am I too focused on worrying and not enjoying life and exploring the moments as they come along?


steve said...

I just came out of a relationship where I did all the compromising for her, it was always her way or no way and when I brought it up she would just get mad. The funny thing is I am still hurt about her breaking it off but when I look at how we never did anything I wanted it does make me feel better now as I realise I was unhappy.