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.
How 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!