How much do you compromise in your relationship? What expectations do you have for your partner? Do you communicate them clearly? Have you ever considered that compromise is creating expectations in your relationship?
Smiling, my husband says that my idea of a great date night is couples therapy and a shrimp tempura roll. He is not far off. Maybe throw in a workshop, attended separately for optimal discomfort and growth. During our thirteen years as a couple, the best marriage advice that we received is to stop compromising.
Many people still believe that something needs to be wrong to seek out the support of a therapist or coach. I see it like going to the gym, if you don’t work that muscle regularly, atrophy is guaranteed. By the time most people enter some form of work together, it’s too late, neural pathways are Grand Canyon deep. The disparity between the amount of work we put into other areas of our life and our primary relationship is illogical.
Around six years ago, sleep deprived navigating the world of young children, we started playing a relentless tit for tat game of ping pong. Anyone in a relationship knows how this plays out- I did this for you, even though I didn’t want to do it, so now I have an expectation that you owe me in return. Meanwhile, this dialogue is taking place in our heads and what’s communicated in agitated tones is entirely different. The majority of conflicts take place in the gaps of communication that open up endlessly between the most well-intentioned people.
After a particularly heated argument, I suggested we go see my old psychologist Chris Ford. During my twenty years of Woody Allen Manhattan shrink trialing, she was the only one who made a difference. My husband was resistant at first, and in a rare moment of quiet, I asked him from the bottom of my heart. Little did I know that the way I enrolled him to see Chris initially, was the recipe for future harmony between us.
We started meeting in Tribeca every Wednesday evening at Chris’s office. She immediately picked up on our ping-pong game and asked us to list all the things we did for each other that we didn’t want to be doing. Revealing minefields of resentment, the length of our lists scared us. Chris calmly explained that our expectations had worn out our goodwill towards each other and from here on out, they must be communicated clearly and agreed upon by both parties. It was a set-up to make assumptions in our heads and then feel disappointed every time they didn’t manifest in reality.
Chris said that compromise is a slow death for a relationship. She suggested that we try asking each other, as if we were asking a close friend for a favor, from the bottom of our hearts. If we couldn’t muster a degree of authentic emotion around a request, it’s probably not that important. The lesson of The Boy Who Cried Wolf also applies to this system- you can’t make soap opera requests every week; thinking it through carefully before speaking is a crucial factor in building trust and listening with your partner.
You must also be prepared for your partner to say no, that’s still an option available to them if they can’t muster a pure yes to your request. If you can’t shake a loving no, that means you are back in the world of expectation.
With these guidelines in place, our dynamic started shifting immediately, although, it took years to uproot all our buried expectations. We started practicing after our therapy sessions at the sushi restaurant around the corner. Now when my husband asks me for something, I listen carefully. In this way, he makes around five or so requests a year. I usually say yes because I know how sparingly he uses this tool and how much he respects my individual needs.
In this world we live in where everyone is expected to be a team player, I never fathomed that giving up compromise would make our love flourish.