When I deconverted, I had to unlearn a lot of stuff I thought I knew about compromise–and learn whole new ways of interacting with people in my relationships.
Last time we talked about compromise on a societal scale. Today I want to talk about compromise on an interpersonal scale. I see the concepts as related but not identical; in societal compromise, people have to get along, so they’ve absolutely got to find some way of handling big issues. On a personal level, nothing’s forcing two people to get along or to stay together except their own willpower, so there’s not that same impetus to figure out a good and effective compromise. That’s something I had to figure out for myself–because nothing else around me was teaching that lesson!
When two people are already in agreement with pretty much everything–or at least if dissent is hugely discouraged (if not outright not allowed), then it’s not hard to find a consensus. My religion had a really weird relationship with the idea of disagreement. Nobody had the faintest idea how to deal with dissent in general, which is why extremist religious parenting manuals come down so hard on what non-extremist parents would consider to be perfectly normal childhood rebelliousness. If you think adult relationships work a lot differently than what that link outlines, think again; the only real difference is that husbands in my old culture knew they can’t just beat wayward wives or physically drag them anywhere… at least in public.
When I was Christian, I was expected to obey a procession of male authority figures in my life–my father, first, and then my husband, and above all the pastor. Of course, the men in my life were expected to “serve by leading” and not ask anything too onerous or get too out of hand with demands or unfair behavior. They were supposed to “listen” to the women they were leading, which means to nod thoughtfully while women raised objections and then go do what they were going to do anyway. The idea was that all groups, whether a world religion or an individual church or a business or a relationship, needed at least one leader and at least one follower. The leader was the “decider” (you didn’t imagine Dubya got that idea and terminology on his own, did you?), and at the end of the day the followers just had to do what the leader said. When married women got all uppity and demanded equal say in a marriage, chaos resulted and likely the world would end, but more likely their rebelliousness would get them divorced.
There was not a single church I attended, from Catholic to Pentecostal, that taught anything different from what I describe here. Some of them even used evocative diagrams depicting two people yanking on a rope in a tug-of-war game to show what such a terrible marriage would look like, and people openly pitied men who were married to uppity women (like Bill Clinton!). When followers followed, even if what was being demanded might not be totally awesome, then Jesus would bless the enterprise generally for the follower’s obedience. And of course followers could pray “without ceasing” that Jesus would maybe magically change their leaders to be better leaders, which is what I got told in no less than three different churches across the United States when I objected to my then-husband’s shitty “leadership.”
You can probably imagine that this gauzy ideal didn’t actually work out the way Christian leaders think it does. Like a lot of other overly-simplistic, reality-denying social and economic models, it works great as long as those in charge always act the right way. There are no checks and balances to make it work, and no way to deal effectively with differing opinions other than “it’s my way”–because you don’t even get a highway with some of these flavors of Christianity!
But when someone in charge doesn’t act the right way, as happened in more cases than it didn’t in my direct observation and experience, this relationship model is nothing more than a recipe for predation and victimization. Who’d have imagined that removing the rights and voices of an entire gender of people would lead so directly and so unerringly to that gender’s constant mistreatment? Gosh, it’s so mystifying, isn’t it, that when we hear about sex abuse scandals erupting out of Christianity they always seem to center around groups that strip women of their rights and treat them like children who must be controlled and directed, around groups that treat women in general like sex objects who exist to gratify and serve men? How could that ever go wrong, right?
So when I deconverted, and no longer had any reason to automagically grant my then-husband or church leaders control over me, things got out of hand very quickly. After so many years of near-unthinking obedience, I had to learn how to set boundaries and evaluate demands made upon me–and I didn’t have much time in which to do it.
Here’s what I learned that I didn’t know about compromise:
1. I had no clue in the world what compromise even was.
Turns out that everything I knew about compromise, I’d learned from hair bands’ power ballads and 1980s movies.
Compromise doesn’t actually mean inflicting terrible things on each other by turns and then putting up with terrible things later in turn. It doesn’t mean giving up something very dear to you or enduring something you simply should not ever be asked to endure–or inflicting those things on someone you’re supposed to love.
But that’s what I thought it meant. I had no idea what compromise even meant as a personal dynamic between two people. I thought it meant that I went without something I really wanted and needed–or endured something I really hated–so that the other person got what they wanted, and then later I’d get some concession I really wanted that the other person really hated. It was like a wheel dipping into a pool of fire, with both parties strapped onto opposite sides of the wheel, each dipping each other into the fire and cackling, then cringing when it came time for their own dunk.
Even if that definition of compromise had been a healthy way to conduct a relationship of any kind, which it is not, that’s not how it worked out in reality in my own relationships anyway. Even when I did try that route, I never seemed to get what I want–when it came my turn to get what I wanted at Biff’s expense, for example, he made it very clear that he was deeply unhappy with taking his turn on the wheel and did everything he could to avoid his dunk. And as I said earlier, that was even if he even felt moved to do something like that; more often the “compromise” he came up with was some meaningless gesture he’d throw my way to get himself exactly what he wanted anyway at my expense, just by taking a slightly different route.
And therein lay the biggest issue with this vision of compromise: one person always, always, always loses while the other always, always, always wins.
My religion’s members also often confused all attempts to find common ground with demands that they compromise their ideological purity. Like many fundagelical churches are dealing with today, mine idolized that purity to a really unhealthy extent–even so far as to use that idolization as an excuse to be really controlling and mean-spirited toward those they viewed as inferiors. Compromise was already becoming, in my day, a four-letter word. Only lukewarm people compromised. Unless they were women or non-believers. Then they needed to compromise, because GOD’S CHOSEN PEOPLE™ the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ would not and could not compromise ever for anything.
Now, not all Christians go in for the concepts I’m talking about here. But all I knew then was that I’d never have asked Biff to go through stuff he hated on my behalf to make me happy–so I didn’t get why he was okay with making me do stuff I hated on his behalf to make him happy. We were like a pair of children slapping each other over and over again. It doesn’t matter if the slapping is being done according to some kind of complex relationship algebra. It’s still slapping, and loving people don’t slap each other.
I didn’t realize then that there was a reason why he was making all these meaningless gestures to get what he wanted.
2. I didn’t know that there’s a serious personal power dynamic that comes into play around the concept of compromise.
Look at who is demanding compromise, and of whom, and how, next time it comes up. Look at what is being offered and what is being asked in turn. Chances are you’re going to notice that the idea of compromise is used by people in positions they view as superior to silence and get back under control people they view as being in inferior positions.
“Compromise” is like a bone thrown to dogs to stop them from barking. And I almost never used it. I never once asked my then-husband to do anything I knew he wouldn’t enjoy. I never asked him to skip church. I even helped him settle into being childfree as much as I could by being supportive of his dreams of youth ministry and a career involving children. I’d made clear where my hard limits were, and I’d done so at every single point with as much honesty as I’d been able to muster.
Biff, however, wanted me to buy his approval of not going to church and not having kids by going to church and having kids. In return he’d graciously let me not go to church and be childfree, and in his head somehow that all worked. He couldn’t see why I had a problem with his gracious terms of compromise.
In return for my enduring church and children, Biff offered a succession of utterly meaningless gestures that not only didn’t resolve my objections to going to church or having kids, but also only served to advance his own agenda. All of his gestures were elements I personally heard many times in our mythology’s success stories. “Look how hard I had to fight! Look at all the stuff I had to endure for her sake! But Jesus rewarded it–she did what I wanted in the end!” He wasn’t trying to genuinely find a way through the minefields in which we found ourselves; he was desperately trying to preserve his dominance over me and garner sympathy from his peers. When I rebuffed him, he could point at us and say, look how reasonable he was being! He was the Designated Adult between us, so I might resist and resent his controlling overtures, but Jesus would magically change my mind if he was only faithful, and one day I’d thank him for holding fast to that which was “true.”
When I realized what he was really trying to accomplish with his “compromises,” I learned the last thing I didn’t know about that topic.
3. I was totally unaware that sometimes there isn’t going to be a compromise that works for both parties.
Unfortunately, if common ground cannot be found and neither party is willing to bend at all, then there might not be a possibility that it’ll happen.
Having kids is one of the best examples of one of those areas of conflict. When a couple differs on this question, it’s anybody’s guess if they’ll find a way to work it out such that both parties are happy. Some folks become child-centric volunteers or find a vocation that lets them work with children. Others won’t be happy with anything less than a bundle of their own DNA gurgling up at them. Biff fell into that latter group, unfortunately. He at least tried the other stuff, but it wasn’t enough for him; he wanted a baby of his own, and he wanted to be a parent. And I absolutely, positively refused to budge on the matter no matter what “compromises” he threw my way–because every one of them involved me getting pregnant and becoming a mother, which is absolutely what I had always refused to do. There wasn’t some magic way that he could become a father without my involvement at some level. I knew that a child deserves loving, passionately-devoted parents who want to be parents; I couldn’t take the risk Biff wanted me to take. I could manage his other demands to some extent because the only people we were fucking up were ourselves, but dragging an innocent child into that mess? No, I couldn’t do it.
We’d been taught by our church that no matter how serious the conflict, if Jesus meant for two people to be together, it’d magically work out. Biff had been told by our pastor, as well, that young women often got these silly ideas about children and so he should just humor me till I got bitten by the baby bug and wanted one of my own. I took him at his word when he agreed to my condition before we married, and he took me at the exact opposite of mine. We both foolishly thought that there was some way around this problem that involved us both getting exactly what we wanted.
It’s okay that sometimes there just aren’t ways to compromise on all questions. In our modern world, it feels like everything should have a third way, a compromise, a way to make both people happy. But it doesn’t always work that way. We’re not failures if we can’t make something work that just can’t work. Not every couple or group is going to find a compromise that works for all conflicts. At that point, people have to start thinking in terms of “Is this where I’m happy? Does what we actually do have here work for me on some level? Would it be harder to find something else or to be on my own than to deal with not getting what I want and need in this particular relationship?”
And one person’s workable compromise is another’s absolute dealbreaker. Nobody can tell another how much to endure, how much to change, how much to deny oneself.
I’d just say this: if we truly love someone, then it should absolutely appall us to imagine putting that person through anything they really don’t like or don’t want to do. It should horrify us to know that someone is enduring something totally unwanted because we demanded it. We should never want anything, ask anything, demand anything that would cheapen our mates or cut to the heart of who and what either of us is. We should never be in a position where we’re okay with hurting someone to make ourselves happy.
Knowing what I do now, if Biff had looked at me the night before our wedding and said, all hangdog and pouty and grudging and morose, that he would put his lifelong desire for fatherhood “on the altar” at my demand so he could marry me, I’d have dumped him anyway because I would have known that it was not right to demand or accept that kind of sacrifice from someone I loved, and that even trying to live that way wasn’t okay.
The trouble was, I felt, rightly or wrongly, like I didn’t have much time in which to figure this stuff out. There was a narrow stretch of time after my then-husband realized I’d deconverted when I sensed we were laying down new paradigms for interaction and testing out new ways for treating each other. I didn’t want to mess anything serious up or be capriciously reactionary, but I also didn’t want to get sucked back into something equally unhealthy for me out of expedience or a desire to keep the peace. Some of it I couldn’t put words to for years, but I got it worked out. A lot of that time limit was in my own head. Nobody actually requires that we know everything right out of the gate. It might take years for some of it to get finalized in our minds. While that was going on, I tried to focus on being kind and holding firm as politely as I could, and it worked out about as well as one could hope.
Here’s the takeaway: once I understood what compromise was not, the rest of the equation kinda fell into place.
Next time we’ll talk about what compromise actually is–see you then!