Don’t you see what’s happening? We are taking the only person here who has never compromised her ideals, and turning her into an ideal compromiser. And I don’t mean an ideal compromiser, one who all the other compromisers look up to.
We’ve been talking about compromise this week, and we’ve focused a lot on what it is not. Today I want to talk about what I think compromise actually is. (These are my opinions. Yours might differ somewhat and that’s okay.)
The reason I’m focusing on this concept is that often people rejecting religion don’t have the faintest idea what it is or how to do it in a healthy way. And even more often, those around ex-Christians who are still Christian can make really unreasonable demands in the service of the misunderstood ersatz version of “compromise” that Christian culture has redefined for itself–demands that serve mostly to re-enshrine those Christians’ privilege over or to emphasize their imagined superiority over the new apostate. Because these demands are cloaked in conciliatory language and it takes time to learn how to assert ourselves or set boundaries, we might have trouble identifying when someone’s being unreasonable or rejecting such attempts. When conciliatory language is misleading, these tasks become even more difficult.
Here is what interpersonal compromise really seems like to me: coming to an awareness of what our real goals are and then finding different ways of reaching those goals if necessary so we can have peaceful relationships with others.
It is not giving up one’s goal or changing it–though it can be sometimes. It is likewise not enduring something you totally hate for the greater good of a relationship, though it might involve you sometimes doing stuff you’re not thrilled doing because you want to make your friend or partner happy or show solidarity. In a healthy compromise, you won’t deny your own dignity or get taken advantage of.
Here are some suggestions for how you can compromise without losing yourself.
1. Identify the goal on both sides: what it is claimed to be and what it actually is.
It’s not usually that hard to figure out what we want, but it’s a lot harder to definitively nail down someone else’s goal–especially when falsely-conciliatory language is used. The person making the demand might not even realize what the real goal is. If you can identify what’s really being asked and offered and why, you’ll be a lot further along.
For example, “I want you to come to church with me because it’ll make me feel like we’re a family again” is a frequent demand made of ex-Christians by their still-Christian spouses. The person saying this might even believe that it is true. And sometimes it actually is. As you work together to find a way to meet that desire, it’ll become abundantly clear if the stated goal is really the actual goal. Here’s one way that played out for me:
I was working customer/tech support for a large company that offered a monthly, fee-based service. A woman called in upset that her friend had gotten a promotion on her account that saved her $10 a month on the service, but she hadn’t gotten that same offer. Well, the reason she hadn’t gotten it was that she totally wasn’t eligible for it, which got her very angry because she’d been our customer for a good while longer than her friend had (never mind that she’d gotten much better offers in the past already; what had we done for her lately?). But her real goal was to be able to tell her friend that she’d gotten $10 off her account; exactly how she got that savings wasn’t really that important to her. I found a way to restructure her account with some new monthly plans to save her $10/month, and she was totally happy with our solution.
I still remember that moment of clarity when I said, “Wait. What you really want isn’t the offer itself; it’s the ability to tell your friend you saved $10/month on your account because you’re such a great customer of ours.” She paused to consider, then burst out, “Yes! Exactly!” Once we knew what the goal was, we could find a solution that got her there and she was totally happy. Until we figured out what the goal was, though, we were going around in circles: “I want that promotion.” “You’re not eligible for it.” “But I wantsssss it.” “But the system physically won’t let me attach it to your account.” “I’m really upset about that.” “Being upset won’t make this database work a single bit differently.” All we were doing was frustrating ourselves. (I was a lot more diplomatic than I’m summarizing here.)
I’m sure a lot of ex-Christians are chuckling to themselves right now at that story–or wincing. And I’m not implying that there’s a magical out-of-the-box solution to fix all of the dilemmas we face. When the stars all align and it happens, though, it’s the most wonderful thing in the whole world next to chocolate for everyone involved.
2. Find ways to honor the ideal that sparked that goal’s formation.
If the goal is really to “feel like we’re a family again,” then there are usually tons of ways of doing that. Setting aside more time for family or couple activities, starting a Date Night tradition, or even group volunteer work might be terrific ways to compromise.
As you find other solutions to reach the other person’s goal, you might well discover that the stated goal isn’t really the real goal. In the above example, church attendance is obviously not the only way to do things together as a family. What the still-Christian spouse may truly mean in this case is not “I want to feel like a family again” but rather “I want my fantasy vision of a Happy Christian Family to swim back into focus again”–and in that case, there isn’t much help for it; church attendance as a family is one of the most important ways that this common Christian fantasy expresses itself in real life. But even when the stated goal really is the goal, sometimes people get really focused on the path they think would reach their goal. See if you can short-circuit that. Ask your mate, in this case, if there is any way you can achieve the goal of being together as a family without you going to church. Stress that you’re on board with the goal (“feeling like a family again”) but the methods suggested so far to reach that goal don’t work for you.
Until then, though, only capitulation is a recognized option. And you’ll have to decide if the relationship as it stands is worth your capitulation. I’d just say this: when dealing with religious zealots, don’t imagine that they’ll be happy with just one capitulation or never demand another one from you. Often they think that a god is telling them to hold firm and that bending even a little to “sinners” is itself sinful. They may feel that what they want is the only proper, moral route to go and that you’re the totally unreasonable one for refusing to comply with their demands. They may offer non-solutions that serve their goals wonderfully but totally ignore what you’ve said was important to you.
Extremist tendencies can make it very difficult to find a good compromise. Add to that the pain and anger felt by still-Christian partners who may want to lash out to punish their ex-Christian mates, and sure, that could lead someone to take advantage of an ex-Christian’s guilt and confusion. It’s like the moldy cherry atop a bull-patty sundae.
3. Change course if you really think it’s the right thing to do. If you don’t think it is, then hold firm in a respectful but firm way.
Sometimes we ourselves must reconsider our own goals in light of new information and ideas. Sometimes to get along we forego things we want or endure things we really don’t like. Plenty of ex-Christians sometimes (or even often) attend church services with their still-Christian mates, for example. For others, such a request amounts to a dismissal of the pain and heartache that was endured in deconversion. We all know folks who bent their own goals a little–or even outright denied themselves those goals–and things worked out all right in the end.
But that’s not something we can say works for everyone. Only we know how much is okay and how much is too much. And sometimes we won’t know for a long time if we did the right thing–while sometimes we’ll know right away but not want to admit it to ourselves.
One really beautiful and awe-inspiring and amazing thing about people is that our natural human dignity will always out.
You can deny that dignity for a while. You can refuse it a place at your table. You can wave it away. But sooner or later it is coming out.
You’ll know eventually if you’ve allowed or perpetrated a denial of your own innate dignity. If it’s something you can do and not worry about much afterward, or crave or miss or feel regretful about doing, then you’re on the right track. By contrast, if it’s something you agree to and it’s always bothering you, something you lay awake thinking about and regretting, and–worst of all–something you’re sliding into resentment of your partner over or arguing about all the time, then maybe you need to revisit that conversation.
It could well be that when you said you didn’t want kids, what you wanted was to avoid signing up for the Mommy Wars or losing your focus on your beloved partner. It could well be that when you said you didn’t want any religion in your life, what you meant was that you didn’t want to deal with religious overreach and preaching. As your partner tries to find solutions too, you’ll be able to work through why some options don’t sound workable and why others might–and you’ll be able to see if these workarounds actually fit in with what you both need.
You’ll figure out what’s really important to you. You’ll notice that your ideals don’t change much, while the goals built around those ideals might.
4. If there are no other ways of achieving the goal except for you to do things you really don’t want to do or to endure things you really don’t want to endure, then you might not be compatible with that person.
It’s okay to have limits. It’s okay to have a whole different life direction than someone else. You might not find a solution for every difference. Our society no longer recognizes only a few basic ways of handling being an adult. An enlightened society recognizes a whole range of gender roles, identities, philosophies, personalities, and sexual orientations. We understand that there is near-infinite valid expressions and modes of behavior in humankind and so we no longer condemn people for not wanting the same goals or not having the same dreams.
But the flipside of all that freedom is that it can be harder to find someone whose personality, life goals, and dreams align with our own. If we’re not okay with and accepting of some differences, we run the risk of never finding anybody who’s even halfway compatible with us. If we in turn contort ourselves into knots trying to please someone who isn’t really compatible with us, then we risk trying way too hard to force a relationship to happen that has no business happening–or to stay in one that really isn’t good for either party.
The best antidote to this uncertainty is experience. We’ll likely fall in love with and feel friendly toward all sorts of people in our lives, and we’ll learn that we aren’t morally obligated to try to make a relationship work with all of them.
So here’s what I think is a good, healthy way to approach the subject of compromise:
Figure out what your real goals are and how they fit into your ideals. Be flexible about exactly how you reach those goals, but be really wary of sacrificing something really important just to make someone else happy. Know where your limits are and how far you’re willing to go. Learn to say “That just doesn’t work for me” and “I’m sorry, but I just can’t do that.” And look beneath the surface of demands to see if you can figure out what’s bringing that demand to light–and see if there’s another way to satisfy that need.
Again, this post is my opinion, but I thought it might be a useful launching-pad for someone to start forming an opinion about compromise after deconverting. If where you end up is totally different from where I ended up, then that is totally okay. You’re allowed. It’s your life and your relationships. If you end up giving up some stuff that’s super-important to you in the name of staying together and you’re okay with that, I’m not here to criticize and I’m just glad you’re happy. My goal is to give people permission to think critically about the subject, not to tell anybody what to think about anything.
That said, I think most folks would agree that compromise should be about negotiating to find a way that works for both parties in the relationship and honors both partners’ ideals, not just one at the expense of the other. It shouldn’t be a way of forcing yourself to accept and allow something that isn’t good for you or coming to terms with giving way all the time.
We’re going to talk about how some of these compromises look in the wild and discuss some of the unreasonable demands that ex-Christians might face next time. If you have some that you want to talk about, the comments are right below here–sometimes it can feel really good to get this stuff off your chest, and you’ll probably discover very quickly that you’re not alone.