Compromise in relationships; does it all even out in the wash?+comment
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the ways many of us alter our behavior when we’re in a relationship and about how much change is acceptable before we risk sacrificing our own identity.
I find that often times big questions come out of the tiniest, most seemingly insignificant things, as was the case this week. My questions began out of a small incident with my guy. Incident is too strong a word, actually. Really, it was nothing. A few weeks ago my guy and I ran some errands, one of which was picking up a t-shirt to replace one that had gotten stained. We were meeting some friends later that afternoon, so when I got out of the shower I cut the tag off the shirt and put it in. My guy looked at me funny. “Aren’t you going to wash that first?” he asked. And then I looked at him funny, because honestly it had never occurred to me. It was brand new. Why would I wash it? We continued to look at each other like we were alien species. He would never not wash clothes before putting them on. It would never occur to me to do so. We’ve lived together for years, and this was one of those reminders that no mater how well you know someone, you can still surprise each other – in both good and bad ways. I told Claudia about this clothes-washing conversation and it turns out she’d had a similar conversation with her guy.
Cut to this week. I had purchased a pair of pants and a few pairs of underwear, and when I went to take off the tags I hesitated… should I hang the pants up as would be my norm or should I throw them in the hamper? Was there something wrong with wearing clothes without washing them? Was that somehow dirty? I don’t think so, but living with someone can be a strange mirror to your own behavior. I ended up hanging up the pants and throwing the underwear in the hamper, but something in me felt torn. I’ve been wearing new clothes without washing them first my entire life without any ill effects. And yet here I was debating with myself what was the best thing to do. Granted, this ‘debate’ took all of 3 seconds and was not something that caused me internal strife. But I was surprised that I was even considering washing the new pants.
It is fairly normal, perhaps even healthy, to adjust a few things about how we function in order to accommodate the needs of our partner to make a committed relationship work. That’s the nature of compromise. As long as both partners in the relationship are equally accommodating, things work fairly well. Whether or not I wash new clothes before wearing them is not necessarily one of these things, because my guy doesn’t really care if I do. But there are many other things that I have changed in order to be a better partner. I’m a very messy person. I like clutter. My guy likes things neat and tidy. As such, I try to be neater and he tries to be flexible about my occasional piles of stuff that collect from time to time. For the most part, it works and if one of us slides on our compromise, it isn’t a huge deal.
But sometimes the changes we make are necessary. When we enter into a monogamous relationship, we change our behavior and stop dating other people. Other changes are much more subtle and murky. If you’ve been with someone for a while, particularly if you live with that person, you may change without ever realizing it. Many of these changes have nothing to do with compromise. They instead are a consequence of being subtly (or not so subtly) influenced by the person who has become one of the most important people in our lives. It is possible that 20 years from now, I’ll wash everything I before I wear it and won’t remember I started because my guy mentioned it once. Or maybe not.
We may not even be aware we’re changing. For example, if your guy has a favorite sports team, over time you may very well find yourself becoming a fan, provided that you don’t already have some allegiance to another team. At first you, you might cheer his team on as a supportive act; he wants them to win and he’s happy when they do, so you want them to win because you want him to be happy. Then you may cheer his team on in a completely self-interested way; he’s super grumpy when they lose and you don’t want to deal with a super grumpy guy. But over time, if you’ve been with your guy for a while, chances are you’ll watch some games with him, you’ll get to know the team and eventually they may become your team too. Of course, I’m not saying that women only like a sport or team because their guy likes them – I know a number of avid female sports fans who’s enthusiasm and allegiances have nothing to do with dudes. But I’ve seen this dynamic happen a lot. It happened to me. I wasn’t a baseball fan until I dated a die-hard Red Sox fan. I started going to games, I began to know the players, and my affection for the team outlasted my affection for the guy. This dynamic goes both ways in good relationships. A guy may find himself enjoying things he never liked before because his lady introduced him to them. This can be a great thing and can broaden our interests. This flexibility allows us to share more things with our partner. But there can be a dark side to this phenomenon.
When your interests or opinion begin to be eclipsed by those of your partner, that is an unhealthy and even dangerous thing, because you begin to lose your own identity. Let’s call this the Runaway Bride/egg syndrome (For those unfamiliar with the Julia Roberts cannon, in Runaway Bride, Julia’s character always changed her personality according to whomever she was dating/engaged to. She always ordered her eggs how her dude liked his eggs and eventually (after leaving several men at the alter) she realized that so longer knew how she liked her eggs). So the trick is to know when rooting for a team or watching a show is a genuine expression of your evolving tastes, and when you’re losing site of who you really are and what you really like. If your find yourself changing so much that you no longer resemble the person you were before your relationship, you might want to take a good look at why you’re being so accommodating. Inequitable compromise can lead to resentment and eventually to a full-blown identity crisis. When it comes down to it, you should always know how you like your eggs.
Okay. So I was planning on asking a very philosophical question about the nature of identity within a relationship and what constitutes an acceptable blending of tastes in a long-term partnership… but honestly, what I really want to know is…
Now that is settled… Happy Halloween!