where the writers are
Compromising Myself out of a Marriage

Compromise is not necessarily good for a marriage. You want to be kind, you want to be caring, you even want to show that you are magnanimous, but for heaven’s sake—you don’t always want to feel that you never get what you want. Yes, I know it’s all about finding common ground, but common ground can feel like enemy territory if you always have to leave your home turf.

It had started out so innocently 25 years ago; how was I to know that I would end up compromising myself out of a marriage? Maybe the problem was that we each perceived compromise differently: my understanding was that we each give a little and get a little so that we both feel satisfied; whereas, his understanding was that I give and he takes, and we both feel satisfied.  

When we were dating and early in our marriage, we would take movie turns. One James Bond or some other blow-up-things movie for him, and the next time we would see a drama or romantic comedy for me. But at some point he just couldn’t bear to see Meg Ryan cry again, and so the romantic comedies were cut—with no substitution. Okay, dear, I don’t want to make you suffer on our night out, so let’s go to see what you want—even though I hate movies with guns and people dying and no real dialogue or story.

And while the first time I did this I thought that I would be compensated the next time by ait’s your turn sweetie, it’s alright, I’ll just hold the tissues for you, but, alas, it was not to be. He was quite pleased to see Something Part 2 with me in tow, and never got around to reciprocating the favor. So, with a lovely smile and the fairness principle that was deeply ingrained in me from childhood, I enabled my husband to be comfortable as he hijacked our movie-going options. He saw it as a calculation: x times the degree to which he hates the movies I like to see is greater than x times the degree to which I hate the movies he likes to see. So it became twisted into his not having to suffer, as opposed to my having to suffer, but not as much as he would have to. Compromise? I don’t think so.

Fast forward 22 years and we have just bought a beautiful house and we are either going to renew our respect for each other and develop real compromise-making skills to once again become a couple that sees its future together or we will be pulled apart by the weight of so many “compromises.”

I had decided that I wanted to get two large vases to put in front of the house. But I overstepped my bounds when I thought that I would be able to make a decision on my own and act on it on my own. I had hoped that my husband of eighteen years would nod and say “wonderful, that would look great, make sure that you get a plant that can live in the shade,” but once again I was pushed out of my home turf and into enemy territory. At 42 I was still being told that I could not buy things on my own (which is where all of that compromising had led me). “No,” my husband told me, “you can’t buy anything without my approval.” Without a moment’s hesitation, rather than suggest a time to launch the vase expedition, I said “go by yourself.” It was my straw on the camel’s back. Needless to say, the vases were never purchased because it was not about the vases; it was about his deciding things for both of us, for the family, and not about his esthetic principles being compromised.

That was the slippery slope to which my compromising had led me.

But the compromises weren’t just about whether or not to buy the white dining room table and chairs (it was the 80’s), or where we should go out to dinner, or when we should start a family, they were about appeasing him. And this type of compromise is not a give and take, it is about control; it is about one person compromising herself so as not to upset the other. The calculation here would be: x times the degree to which he would be nasty if I said something that he didn’t agree with is greater than x times the degree to which I wanted to express myself to a man who no longer considered my point of view. And once you start to make decisions or change your behavior to prevent antagonizing someone, you have crossed the line into an abusive relationship. For what is abuse if not one person controlling another person’s mind?

It took years to realize that my life had crossed an untenable line from compromise to control and abuse. Perhaps I didn’t realize it because it didn’t make sense. It takes a clear mind to discern that it’s not okay that you have your husband in the back of your head whenever you go to the store, whether it’s to buy children’s shoes or cake. I’m not saying that this isn’t normal, I’m saying that the degree to which he encroached into my decision-making process, and why, was wrong. It wasn’t about getting things that would make him happy, it was about getting things that would prevent him from being disappointed. And that’s a huge difference. It’s the difference between someone saying “thank you” and someone saying "return it."

On our last vacation as a couple (the save-the-marriage trip) we went to St. Thomas. Before we left I had said that I want to see the ruins of a plantation. When we got to St. Thomas it became an onerous thing to do; in fact, it could potentially ruin the entire vacation for him because he would be forced to do something that he didn’t want to do. It was no longer about seeing the things that we both wanted to see; rather, it was about my “compromising.” The logic goes like this: since he didn’t want to go to a plantation, and since I wanted to do all of the things he wanted to do, then why should we go somewhere that one of us didn’t want to go? Wasn’t that right? Wasn’t that a fair compromise? Besides, it would be a waste of time and money to go to the plantation. And so, the compromise was to do what he wanted.

I did the calculation: is it worth having him angry at me for the rest of the trip so that I could look at a few broken buildings?

We didn’t go to the ruins. But I was the one who gave the silent treatment; I could no longer talk to a man who so negated my will, and my willingness to compromise.