Marriage is Not about Compromise
People say marriage is about compromise. It’s not.
One time, at Burning Man...
Burning Man is a roughly week long event in which 70,000 people build a temporary city in the Nevada desert, dedicated to Ten Principles. Outside the city itself but within the confines of Burning Man is an area called ‘deep playa’, which is an area of flat open desert scattered with widely dispersed sculptures. Expansive views stretch out across the desert to a ring of mountains in the background. It's fun to explore deep playa on bicycles and to come across unexpected and beautiful pieces of art. It’s gorgeous to experience this as the sun sets against a background of expansive views ringed by distant mountains.
Roxy (my wife) and I were biking out towards deep playa as sunset approached. Roxy had a stomach ache. There are rows of porta potties on the way out there, so we stopped near one for her to visit. She emerged after a few minutes looking a little green, and said sadly, apologetically, that she felt she needed to sit down rather than bike, as her stomach ache was persisting.
This seemed to present a dilemma. On the one hand, we were right next to the porta potties and the sun would be setting soon. Wouldn’t it be a special memory to create if we could bike to be near a gorgeous, iconic art piece for the magical sunset? On the other hand, she really didn’t want to get on her bike. I felt frustrated at the situation; I looked over and saw the guilt on her face that she was about to ruin this perfect moment by being sick.
I saw a flash of what this situation might be like if marriage were about compromise. I might want to have that perfect sunset moment, and would negotiate some way to partly achieve that. For example, “Let’s not be too ambitious - we’ll just bike to whichever art piece is nearest, to minimize your suffering on the bike”, or “I’ll leave you here while I go see an art piece, take a picture and be back in 10 minutes.” I pictured us in a parallel having that conversation, agreeing on a compromise, and going ahead with it. And it working out ok.
But then I recalled something Roxy said to me after we came back from a trip abroad. She said that the main event is spending time together, and the places we go are the background. Remembering how much this resonated, I realized that what was best for us in this moment was to be together. To sit on the sand, watch the sunset together, and bask in our love. To have a view of the porta potties, not a sculpture. I said this to Roxy, and we then had a wonderful time watching the sun set over the porta potties. We hugged each other tightly and celebrated the realization that it turned out well that she had a stomach ache because it enabled us to have this moment in front of the porta potties that was actually perfect because it wasn’t.
I said in one of my wedding speeches (we’ve had several weddings - that’s a future blog post) that we don’t seek out the perfect love story; rather, we experience our own love story as perfect. This is what I meant.
To move, or not to move?
A couple I met (let’s call them Julie and Matt) were happily living in New York. She was offered a new job in LA - a fantastic opportunity working for AirBnb. As a teacher, it wouldn’t be easy for him to find an equivalent job in LA. If they moved, he’d be taking a risk in his career.
They never thought about it as Julie wanting to move and Matt wanting to stay. They thought about what would be best for the two of them, together. They knew that if she took the new job, it would be great for Julie’s career, which would be good for their union. But they worried that if they moved to LA and he couldn’t find a good teaching job, he would feel resentful, which would be bad for their union.
Ultimately, they made the decision in an interesting way. After they talked it over, Julie said to Matt, “I’d like you to make the decision. I’ll be completely happy with whatever you decide.” To say this, she had to get completely at peace with the possibility that they might stay in New York. She trusted Matt to do what he felt was best, and she truly didn’t want to move to LA for this great job if Matt wasn’t totally on board.
For Matt’s part, as he weighed his options he felt like he had a real choice to make. There was no right or wrong answer - it was all a judgment call - and he knew that Julie would support his decision. He chose that they take the leap together and move to LA. He felt comfortable doing this knowing that he had made a carefully considered decision for the good of their union. After the move, it did take Matt quite a while to find a new job, but he did, and the months of searching for it were made so much easier by the knowledge that he had made the choice himself.
You'd waste a million dollars for this?
Another couple (let's call them Brad and Helen) decided to start a family. They lived in Hawaii, where Brad was stationed as a Navy pilot. When they were getting ready to have their first child, Brad asked for paternity leave. The Navy offered him just 2 days for the birth, and wouldn't budge when he asked for more. Brad loved his job, and his career was very important to him. But his relationship with Helen was more important. After Brad and Helen reflected on it, he went back to his Commanding Officer and told him that he was ready to quit the Navy if they wouldn't give him the 2 weeks he had wanted. Brad and Helen came under all sorts of pressure from his colleagues and their spouses, many of whom had been through this before and accepted 2 days off. He was chastised: "You'd be willing to waste the million dollars the government spent to train you, just to be with your family?"
His emphatic answer was "yes". To him, family was most important, and neither he nor Helen wanted him to be in a job which would require him to compromise his values: he wasn't bluffing. The Navy backed down and gave him his time off. Imagine what this did for their relationship - how much joy and security Helen felt from knowing Brad would put her and their child first, and how much strength she would later draw from this when his job took him abroad. And the whole situation ultimately increased Brad’s loyalty to the Navy.
So, marriage is not about compromise.
In these situations, there was no compromise. A compromise is fundamentally rooted in “I want something, and you want something different.” If you’re truly a team, that concept dissolves. Instead, the question becomes “What’s best for our union?” That’s the question we strive to ask ourselves every day.
What do you think?
How can we make decisions for the union without losing our individuality?
What are some situations you have faced in which a compromise has worked well - or hasn't?