compromise, shmompromiseJune 22, 2007 | 3 Comments
“Relationships take compromise.” Is there any piece of relationship advice more ubiquitous than this? Personally, the first time I heard it, I hoped it wasn’t true. It sounded like a grim reality, one where I’d have to sacrifice what I wanted and find some way to do what the other person wanted even though it was stupid. And plus I’d have to smile and not care if they thanked me. All I could do was pray that the willingness to act like this would come with adulthood, bundled in a package with things like checkbook balancing and an interest in housekeeping. In the meantime, I thought, I ‘d continue as I was, skipping out of relationships that didn’t work, managing money by incantation, and dropping my stuff on the floor.
As I grew older, I realized that my heart only had so much give in it and if I wanted to keep it soft and alive, I’d better stop throwing it around willy-nilly and look for a stable relationship with someone I could love for a long time. “This could be cool” was no longer a good enough reason to hook up with someone. But what was? I started reading relationship books and found that though there was a lot of advice about how to get what you want in a relationship, it all basically boiled down to two suggestions:
1. Make a list of all the qualities you want in an ideal partner, visualize him or her, and you will attract that partner.
2. Set boundaries about what you will and won’t accept so you won’t get taken advantage of.
Well, who knows. Neither of these recommendations turned out to be useful for me. The opposite advice would have been more helpful. I wish I had read something like this:
1. Don’t assume that you’re the final word on what’s good for you.
My second to last boyfriend was everything I could have asked for: smart, cute, funny, same religion, no ex-wives, wanted kids, good job, close with his family, and, to top it off, our parents were friends. So I moved in with him and everyone started placing bets on whether we’d spring for a big wedding or elope. One night we were sitting at our beautiful dining room table eating a lovely meal prepared in our fabulous kitchen and we had nothing to talk about, nothing whatsoever. I could hear him breathing. I thought, “Why does he have to breathe like that? Can’t he breathe like a normal person?” Uh oh. Apparently, I didn’t even like the way this guy breathed. This did not bode well. Mr. Looks Perfect was Mr. Dead Wrong. I did us both a huge favor and moved out, like the next week.
About a year later, I fell in love again, this time, with someone my friends (understandably) deemed Mr. Unbelievably Wrong. He had been separated for one month from his wife of 18 years. The divorce was a raging mess and it looked like he was going to be broke. We were not of the same cultural or religious background. He had a small child who burst into tears every time my name came up, and so on. But I fell completely, madly in love with him: his voice, his face, his skin, his ears, his glasses, the backs of his hands, his total his-iness. It felt choiceless to both of us. To this day, nine years later, the main thing we have in common is that we totally love each other. I have no idea why. So what are you going to do?
2. Let your boundaries have soft edges.
Whenever people say, “just set clear boundaries” as a solution, I get a little suspicious. Of course it’s good to expect others to treat you with respect. Definitely. But sometimes what we call boundaries are really reservoirs of fear. For example. I have a tremendous need for privacy and solitude. When I go for too long without them, I begin to feel unsettled and nervous. My husband, however, can’t understand why anyone would NOT want to feel the closeness of the one they love 24/7. To him this is sweet and normal, but to me it’s claustrophobic and bizarre. When we moved in together, I made my case very clearly and explained to him that spending some undisturbed time alone would aid me in becoming an adoring wife, as opposed to a harridan with snakes for hair. He nodded solemnly. About five marital minutes later (maybe a month), I told him I was going to go into my office for a few hours to do some alone time. “But it’s Saturday,” he said, and mimicked a pouty baby mouth. My heart sank. A few days later, he did the one thing I begged him never to do: disturb my privacy by talking to me while I was in the bathroom. To this day, he remains overwhelmingly interested in everything I do, everywhere I go, everything I think. Maybe I sound like a bitch, but this makes me insane. When I go upstairs, he asks me what I’m going to do when I get there. If I’m reading, he wants to know what and if I say I’m tired, he wants to know why. My comings and goings are of great interest to him and he marks both carefully. He continues to step all over pretty reasonable (to me) boundaries, like please don’t call me at the office before 11 because that’s my writing time. I’m a writer, so this is very important to me! Each time the phone rings at 9A and I see it’s him, I grab it thinking something must be horribly wrong. He says, “I was driving to work and just wanted to say hi.” I know it sounds terribly sweet, but after a while it actually starts to feel like, why is this guy ignoring me? I tried many strategies to get what I wanted: loving talks, angry screaming, showing him articles in magazines that said how right I was—but nothing worked. Finally, out of sheer frustration, I caved. The next time he called me in the morning, I cleared my mind, put work aside, picked up the phone and we started to chat. Nothing earth shattering, just what are you doing today and stuff like that. Having consciously set my own agenda aside, almost immediately I heard what this little chat meant to him. He was cozying up with me before heading into another stressful workday. It was like he wanted to give me one more hug. My heart opened. I remembered how much I loved him. I saw his phone call, not as disrespect for my boundaries, but as a display of vulnerability. When we hung up, it was with a feeling of sweetness and softness. My nerves were calm. My mind was clear. The balance that I thought could only come from privacy actually came from dropping my idea about how much I needed privacy.
I’m not saying that every time someone crosses your boundary you should put your wishes aside and feel sorry for them. But try to come as close to your boundary as you can. Feel the tenderness and shakiness that surround it, both for the one who crouches behind it and the one who approaches. See what it’s like to let your heart take it all in.
Now, whenever I hear a single friend say something like, “but I can only be with someone who has no children/celebrates Christmas/is a vegan,” I think to myself, I hope the next single parent/Jewish/carnivore you meet will stop your mind with the power of love.