The Only Way to Succeed in Your Romantic Relationship
Rethinking personal autonomy and romantic compromise
Posted Nov 27, 2016
At the beginning of most love relationships, hormones and brain chemicals flood the body and brain (Brogaard, 2015: Chapter 2). Many of these hormones and brain chemicals make us act as if we are in a trance. We overlook flaws in each other as well as early warning signs of later relationship problems. Fueled by the feel-good, reward and motivational neurotransmitter dopamine, we feel ecstatic when around each other, we idealize each other, and we just can’t seem to get enough of each other.
But once the feel-good hormones and brain chemicals return to normal levels, and the feeling of being in a trance leaves way for life as usual, we suddenly notice each other’s flaws and the many relationship problems we need to work on. Even if you enjoy each other’s company, you are no longer dying to see each other, and you feel inclined to spend more time apart. Your need for alone time increases—at least if you are securely attached and don’t tend to drift toward an anxious (clingy/dependent) attachment style.
When our hormones and brain chemicals return to normal levels, many of us mistake this shift in our feelings for a sudden absence of love. If we are used to the drug-high feeling of being in love and then we suddenly feel nothing but occasional closeness and sexual attraction, we are bound to think that something is wrong with the relationship. Add to that our sudden perception of the behaviors and facial expressions we used to consider cute little quirks as incredibly bothersome traits and habits.
Initiating communication about desired adjustments of the little annoyances that make us unhappy in our relationship can feel like opening a can of worms, especially if the relationship is already on shaky grounds. As a result, we often do not discuss potential or actual relationship problems until it is too late. Instead we pray that the irritants will go away on their own, if only we carry on in silence. Eventually, the longing for the times when feelings were running high, and when being in each other’s company was smooth sailing becomes unbearable, and we break off the relationship and move onto the next new crazy love.
It is not surprising that most relationships suffer this fate. In a culture of consumerism, narcissism and beauty- and immediate-gratification centrism, most of us have forgotten what it is like to appreciate the little things in life that deserve recognition and to express gratitude when appropriate. We prefer immediate gratification and satisfaction of our own needs to seeing a fellow human being smile in response to selfless or altruistic behavior on our part.
The main culprit here is that we in the West are becoming increasingly more selfish and superficial. We cling to our freedom to do as we wish, behaving as if the world would collapse if we had to do something that did not benefit us. We grow up being told by parents, teachers and philosophers that one of the most valuable goods in our possession is our personal autonomy (Frankfurt, 1999).
But we don’t understand that preserving our personal autonomy does not entail only doing what benefits us in the sense of bringing us immediate pleasure and gratification.
You are personally autonomous if (upon reflection) you are fully satisfied with what you choose to do (to the extent of never having to question your decisions). If you choose to sit by the bedside of your dying grandmother, reading her favorite book to her, and you are fully satisfied with this choice despite the gravity of the situation, then you are fully autonomous—and this is so even if you would experience greater short-term pleasure being out clubbing with your friends. Reading to your dying grandmother may not make you smile and scream in delight, but as long as you can fully identify with your choice to engage in the activity, the activity helps reinforce your personal autonomy rather than subtracting from it (Frankfurt, 1999), which is to say that you are the author of your own actions, you recognize yourself in your actions. You are not acting out of character or taking a moral holiday, and your actions can be attributed to you, meaning your mental states do not repudiate what you are doing.
Despite the value of humanitarianism, compassion and kindheartedness: when it comes to romantic relationships, giving without expecting anything in return is often considered a freedom-buster, a major threat to our personal autonomy and self-government. Because of the superficiality and ego-centrism of modern culture, we are often unable to find satisfaction in activities that are inconvenient to us or carry no immediate personal pleasure.
Healthy long-term relationships, however, are built on the ability to find fulfillment in, and taking pleasure in, making our romantic partner content. You cannot have a healthy relationship if you only think about satisfying your own short-term desires and preferences.
In committed long-term romantic relationships you need to compromise. If, like most people, you are old-fashioned enough to become involved in this type of partnership with another person, you cannot continue all your old single-person habits: you cannot work all day and night, even if you are up for promotion or are looking for a new job. You cannot insist on continuing to meet up with your friends every Saturday morning for brunch or expect to continually frequent your favorite clubs and bars.
This raises the question: how much compromise is too much? Compromise can be accompanied by a loss of personal autonomy—that is, your ability to completely and fully identify with, and (upon reflection) be fully satisfied with the outcome of every decision you make (Frankfurt, 1999). For example, if you hate action movies, you may not be fully satisfied with the outcome of your decision to join your partner in the cinema for a mindless action movie. But if your partner loves them, you will need to give in occasionally. If you are a big fan of subtitled French movies, then your partner should join you for a French movie night on other occasions. A 50-50 balance is good to aim at on average. For example, you may give 80 percent one week, and (hopefully) your partner will then give 80 percent back the next week. This type of arrangement will increase the chances that you can both maintain your personal autonomy within the boundaries of your relationship. You can learn to take pleasure in seeing your partner delighted and content.
Compromise does not happen when one person in a relationship is a narcissist and only is concerned about his or her own well-being (Campbell & Foster, 2002). By "narcissist" I don't mean a person with diagnosable Narcissistic Personality Disorder; I am referring to a person who first and foremost thinks about his or her own short-term needs and wants, and who is not willing to give, roughly, 50 percent in a relationship, romantic or otherwise.
Granted, one should be careful not to judge a person too quickly. Communication failures can lead to an uneven balance in a relationship. If you never express your needs, your partner does not have a fair chance at satisfying them. It should be evident that such compromising behavior is mandatory for healthy long-term romantic relationships. If it is not happening in your relationship, one of you may have an inflated sense of entitlement and a disregard for the feelings of others—factors that could lead to a split. If, however, the lack of compromise is grounded in a lack of communication, then it may be possible to resolve the conflicts. If you have decent communication and negotiation skills, you should be able to settle (and change) these issues through conversation. But if, even with efforts at communication, you continually find that you need to give in, and you find yourself in a situation where you give and give without receiving, then it is most likely time to rethink your relationship.
Being able and willing to make compromises and negotiate mutually satisfying relationship behaviors and attitudes requires a mindset that is not self-centered and is not characterized by a sense of entitlement. It requires understanding that you need not dispose of or hand over your personal autonomy in order for you to respect and appreciate your partner and meet his or her emotional needs. The right mindset is one that allows you to be truly satisfied simply by the act of giving to another person, not just material gifts, but also time, commitment, concern, respect, appreciation and expressions of love.
Richard Paul Evans, bestselling author of The Christmas Box, explains how he saved his marriage by changing his mindset in this way. When he realized that he needed to change, his marriage was falling apart:
For years my wife Keri and I struggled. Looking back, I’m not exactly sure what initially drew us together, but our personalities didn’t quite match up. And the longer we were married the more extreme the differences seemed. Encountering “fame and fortune” didn’t make our marriage any easier. In fact, it exacerbated our problems. The tension between us got so bad that going out on book tour became a relief, though it seems we always paid for it on re-entry. Our fighting became so constant that it was difficult to even imagine a peaceful relationship. We became perpetually defensive, building emotional fortresses around our hearts. We were on the edge of divorce and more than once we discussed it.
But then Evans came up with a strategy for finding satisfaction in giving to his wife. Each day he decided to ask her directly how he could make his day better. He recalls the beginning of his new approach:
The next morning I rolled over in bed next to Keri and asked, “How can I make your day better?”
Keri looked at me angrily. “What?”
“How can I make your day better?”
“You can’t,” she said. “Why are you asking that?”
“Because I mean it,” I said. “I just want to know what I can do to make your day better.
“She looked at me cynically.
“You want to do something? Go clean the kitchen.
“She likely expected me to get mad. Instead I just nodded. “Okay.”
I got up and cleaned the kitchen.
The next day I asked the same thing. “What can I do to make your day better?”
Her eyes narrowed. “Clean the garage.”
I took a deep breath. I already had a busy day and I knew she had made the request in spite. I was tempted to blow up at her.
Instead I said, “Okay.” I got up and for the next two hours cleaned the garage. Keri wasn’t sure what to think. The next morning came.
“What can I do to make your day better?
Evans continued this approach, until his wife fully understood what he was doing and adopted a similar approach in her interactions with him. Of course, once they developed better communication skills, they didn’t need to ask each other this question each morning. They simply knew.
Berit "Brit" Brogaard is the author of On Romantic Love.
Brogaard, B. (2015). On Romantic Love: Simple Truths about a Complex Emotion, New York: Oxford University Press.
Campbell, WK, Foster, CA. (2002). “Narcissism and Commitment in Romantic Relationships: An Investment Model Analysis,” Pers Soc Psychol Bull 28, 4: 484-495.
Frankfurt, H. (1999). “Autonomy, Necessity, and Love” and “On Caring,” in Necessity, Volition, and Love, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 129–41, 155–80.