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Lessons Learned: The Power of Compromise

I'm penning today's Lessons Learned essay in honor of Jon and my anniversary:

Fourteen years ago today Jon and I got married. I have learned so much about myself and how to be in a partnership during these 14 years, but it wasn’t until last year that I learned about the power of compromise. I’m almost a little embarrassed to write that, but it’s true and I feel that the story of this revelation is worth sharing because compromise is a crucial part of making a marriage work. And I know lots of couples who struggle with it.

I’ll back up and be plain and say that traditionally, I’ve not been the best at compromising. I mean, I think in the past I have felt as if I have been compromising, but in reality, I haven’t. Or at least not where it’s mattered most. I imagine this is rooted in how powerless I felt during the stressful events of my childhood, as well as the hard headed aspects of my personality.

Anyway, my current profession has brought many gifts and opportunities, but one of the related tradeoffs is travel. In 2012, everything in my life was stretching my time (and the residual demands on Jon’s time) to the max: in addition to my general palette of writing, consulting, and design work, Violet was just a baby, I was writing a book, and my travel was at an all time high; notably, there was a 6-week stretch where I was in California, Las Vegas, and Ethiopia (for 10 days). My last day in Ethiopia, I had a complete meltdown during breakfast; I was scared to return home because I knew there would be tension and unhappiness.

I always thought it was stressful for me to put each travel opportunity in front of Jon because I knew it would lead to a stressful conversation. Looking back, the way it usually played out was that I would position each trip as imperative (sometimes it was, if I was working for a client but sometimes -- I now realize -- it wasn’t...it just felt imperative to me), Jon would push back, and I would lock up and freeze (my typical response to stress) until I got a green light. I often would counter with, “But I have said no to x, y, and z” but I now realize that those weren’t really compromising points because I’ve actually become really good at saying no to things that I don’t want to do. It’s saying no and compromising around the things I do want to do that have been the issue.

As a result of the toll that my 2012 travel took on my family, in 2013 I reigned things way in, only traveling when truly essential (e.g., client work) or for very select advisory type work (e.g., ONE Moms). The stressful fog happily started to lift just as the offer to speak in New York at a high profile event was offered to me.

My brain immediately jumped into “how can I make this work?” mode. The reality was that I was already feeling pretty maxed out with client work but I figured I could do a quick overnight to New York. I could feel the stress and anticipation welling up as I looked at the calendar and realized that the trip would immediately precede Jon’s first university teaching engagement. I think part of me knew I needed to let this opportunity go, but I brought it to Jon anyway. It was a difficult conversation and we basically left things at a standstill.

I decided to call Asha (ever a source of wisdom for me) and during our conversation she said something that finally penetrated. It was something along the lines of, “I know this is a hard decision, but the sadness you will feel about not going will be so trivial compared to the hit your marriage will take if you do go. You have shown time and again that there will always be more opportunities...let this one go.”

And with those seemingly simple words, I finally realized how little I had been compromising. I realized that while yes, part of me did feel as if I was letting something big slip away, I wanted to compromise. I wanted to support Jon’s new journey as a professor and have his back if he needed help to get ready for his class. I wanted Jon to know we were a team.

When Jon and I sat down again to discuss the New York trip, it was a turning point for me and for us. I think I probably shocked him by saying that I wanted to let this opportunity go and play a supporting role to his work that week. And you know what? It felt damned good. It changed the way I have handled every opportunity moving forward and it changed how we talk about travel and events. The stress and angst that typically clouded our conversations is now gone. Because we’re truly having a two-way conversation, and making decisions together as a couple.

+ + + + +

Happy anniversary Jon; thank you for being my beloved partner in this journey. I'm so grateful for you every day.

Do you want to submit a Lessons Learned essay? See submission guidelines here.

Image credit: Christine Koh

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Reader Comments (18)

Christine...this gave me chills. I remember that conversation clear as day. You and Jon are such an incredible team, supportive of each other and strong in your own positions as well. Speaking as your teammate in a different context, I want to point out that you absolutely know how to compromise. You manage to be supremely confident and humble at the same time, decisive yet always open to others' ideas. Seriously, you blow me away. Love to you both. Life is amazing. #dornlovefest #kohmance

June 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAsha Dornfest

@Asha, that conversation was truly pivotal. I'll always be grateful to you for that (and much more).

June 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterChristine Koh

The last paragraph made my eyes sting. There must be onions (or a bad compromiser) somewhere around here.

June 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSharon

Compromise. This is a lesson I seem to be learning in tiny bits and pieces over and over.

Thanks for sharing this.

June 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterElan Morgan

Always. #dornlovefest #kohmance

June 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRookieMom Heather

I think compromise is essential and has to come from both partners as it relates to time, money, and work (in and out of home). Too often conflict comes from neither partner being willing to compromise and resentment comes from only one partner compromising (i.e. only one person being the one who always "lets it go").

I love this in so many ways. Marriage is hard, compromise is clearly a challenge, but the ability to put your marriage and partnership first is a gift. I clearly remember a friend saying to me (2 years ago), you need to remember, every time we travel, we are adding to our spouse's load - so the decisions to 'go', must be worthy. You've got this covered. Happy Anniversary, my friend.

June 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDanielle Smith

That Asha is one smart gal. You will never regret putting you marriage and your spouse ahead of your career. A great team is give and take, and the travel dance is a tough one for us too. I'm grateful that my husband and I are a similar kind of team. Happy Anniversary!

June 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSarah Hubbell

I loved reading this Christine, a very happy anniversary to you both. Mich x

June 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle Twin Mum

Going on 24 years ova here, and my husband and I continue to make compromises, because we're worth it :) Happy Anniversary, my friend.

June 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLiz

I totally get this. This was 2012 for me- I scaled waaaaay back on the travel in 2013 and realized that everyone in my family- including me- was MUCH happier and less stressed. As a result, now it has become easy to just say no. As you said, more opportunities always come along and few are TRULY must-dos- and I've discovered that my husband is good at recognizing the MUST DO trips, and he encourages them.

So happy for you that you are at this point and that you can write about it!

June 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLindsay

Thank you for opening up about something personal for the benefit of others. Great article!

June 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKaren

@Annie AGREED. That's the model we've really been working towards. The imbalance has been there for a long time and I own that.

June 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterChristine Koh

This was a very brave and beautiful post. I too have had to look at opportunities and ask "How will this help US?" as well as "How will this help ME?" and it is really tough to answer truthfully. Thank you so much for deciding to share this private struggle to which so many working, juggling, married people can relate

June 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJessica

This is a really beautiful and powerful post. And I wept. I thought I was really doing my family a solid by running a neighborhood-based non-profit organization in Brooklyn...where we live. Super easy commute. Super easy I can be available and flexible. Hyper local. Well, this year I have traveled (like on an airplane) for work every. single. month. It is freaking hard. Sometimes I love it, and sometimes I feel horrible and I don't want to go. And it is really hard on Glenn and Kabir. THANK YOU for writing this and for reminding me that I get to choose. And for reminding me how grateful I am to have a partner who is patient, kind and supportive. And a 3 year old who tells me, every time I go on a trip, "Mommy always comes back." Breaks my heart, and I can choose differently. XOXO

June 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRasmia

This was so good to read. It is something that I think blogging or not every couple deals with on meany levels. I'm happy for you and your family that you can see beyond what you saw before. We're always learning and changing habits is so hard to do!

June 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLeah

That was a refreshing story! Thank you for being so honest and willing
to share such a personal part of your life.
God Bless!

June 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDarlene

You are very lucky to have a friend like Asha who can tell you so clearly what needs to be done and what is really going on in the situation. That is so valuable. Thank you for sharing this, it resonates with me as I have gone through this many times in the last few years and struggled with what I thought was compromise but really wasn't. Ronald Reagan once said that marriage isn't always 50/50 like we want/think. It is sometimes 90/10 for one partner and 10/90 for the other. I'm paraphrasing but his point was that it goes in cycles and should and working in that way with grace and actual compromise and love is what makes a marriage work. I have to remind myself of that more often than I would like to admit.

June 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVicky

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