Well meaning people often told me, “compromise is the answer to a happy marriage (or relationship).” They were wrong.
According to Google, a compromise is “[a]n agreement or a settlement of a dispute that is reached by each side making concessions.” When you concede, you give something up. A lifetime of compromise is a lifetime of giving things up. That is not the key to a happy marriage.
A compromised life.
Say you and your significant other (SO) are buying your first car. You want a blue car, but your SO doesn’t like blue. He wants a black car. He has wanted a black car for as long as he can remember. But you don’t like black cars. What do you do?
You compromise. And you suffer one or more of the following fates:
1. Everyone gets what no one wants.
You buy a silver car. Neither of you wants a sliver car. Neither of you has ever wanted a silver car. But because you can’t have blue or black, you settle for silver. A color no one hates. When you see a blue car go by, you sometimes feel a twinge of sadness. It’s just a car, you say. And you remind yourself that buying a silver car was the right choice for your marriage. It assuages your sadness a little bit. You go on with your life. But every so often, that twinge of sadness returns.
2. You get what you want sometimes; if you’re lucky.
You buy a blue car. You make a deal that if you can get your blue car this time, next time around, SO can get a black sports car; the car of his dreams. SO is a bummed about having to drive around in a blue car, but he looks forward to getting his dream car one day. It’s worth the wait.
By the time “next time” rolls around, life has happened. You now have two kids. And as much as you want SO to have his sports car, it is no longer practical. What you really need is a mini-van. You promise SO that he can have a black mini-van. Black as agreed upon years ago. You feel bad about the sports car part, so you tell him that he can soup up the mini-van with all the gadgets and gizmos his heart desires; a better engine, stereo, speakers, wheels, anything! And you come home with a fully loaded, black mini-van.
You expect SO to be happy. He enjoys the mini-van’s gadgets and gizmos. And he understands why he can’t have the car of his dreams. Yet, every so often when he sees a sleek black sports car, he says something about not having one. At first, you understand. Then, it gets annoying. It sounds like he’s complaining. And you lose a little patience. After all, he has his black car. And all the gadgets he could have dreamed of. You start to resent his complaining. He resents your lack of understanding. And his lack of his dream car.
If you’re lucky, your blue car still feels worth it. But maybe you realize that you would have gladly given up your blue car had you known it would lead to this. Maybe it didn’t give you what you really wanted: a happy marriage.
3. People lose themselves.
You buy the blue car. And then the black mini-van. One day, SO is walking towards the mini-van. And suddenly, he sees it as if he is looking at it for the first time. It looks odd, and unfamiliar.
It is odd. That a person who loved sports cars, and always dreamed of having one, is driving a black mini-van. It is unfamiliar. Because his life does not reflect who he has always known himself to be. Who am I, he wonders. What happened to me?
Compromise gives you a life of concessions. It gives you silver cars, souped-up black mini-vans, and a feeling that your life doesn’t make sense anymore. It gives you a compromised life. It is not the answer.
A fulfilling life.
The answer is love: love for yourself, and love for SO. Loving yourself means wanting a happy and fulfilled life for yourself. Loving SO means wanting SO to have a happy and fulfilled life . Because you can have a happy relationship only when both you and SO are fulfilled.
So, say you and SO are buying your first car. You want a blue car, but your SO doesn’t like blue. He wants a black car. He has wanted a black car for as long as he can remember. But you don’t like black cars. What do you do?
You don’t compromise. And one of the following happens:
1. You are happy, even when you don’t get what you want.
You ask SO what having a black car means to him. You find out that he’s always loved black cars. Actually, he admits, he’s dreamed of owning a black sports car since he was a teenager. Getting that car would mean a lot to him.
You think about why you want a blue car. You realize that it’s simply because you’ve always liked blue. But you don’t care much about cars. You don’t feel as strongly about them as SO does. And while it’s true that you don’t like black cars, you don’t dislike them enough to deny the person you love something they’ve always dreamed of. You love SO. You want him to live his dreams. You want him to have the car he’s always dreamed of. So, you let him have it.*
You make a loving choice that brings happiness to you both. As SO lives his dream, he feels fulfilled. His joy fills you with joy. You don’t feel like you’ve conceded anything. You haven’t compromised. And everyone has won.
2. You get what you want.
You find out that SO has dreamed of owing a black sports car since he was a teenager. But you were in a terrible accident as a child; while you were riding in a black sports car. You are deathly afraid of being in one again. And while you really want him to have the car of his dreams, you would never be able to sit in it. So, the black sports car is not an option.
SO loves you. He doesn’t want you to be deathly afraid every time you’re in your own car. And that is more important to him than having the car of his dreams. So, he buys a different car. Happily. You feel loved and fulfilled. Together, you decide that when you have the means to buy a “spare” car that you will never need to sit in, he will have his dream car. You resolve to find a way to let him have that. He feels loved and fulfilled. He doesn’t feel like he’s conceded anything. He hasn’t compromised.*
Not compromising, and acting from a place of love allows each person the space to live their best life. To live their dreams. To remain connected to their hearts. To feel fulfilled. And when each person is fulfilled, the marriage is happier and more fulfilling. It cannot be any other way.
* If you (or SO in the next example) still want to have it your way, then your relationship has deeper issues that need to be addressed. And compromising will not address them.