This is a chapter from William George Jordan’s book Little Problems of Married Life. A book he wrote in 1910 at the age of 46. He did not marry until 1922. His insights on marriage are perhaps a function of having a close relationship to his family and being someone who truly cared about others. Once again his words demonstrate a keen insight to human nature.
Little Compromises for Happiness
This life of ours is a constant series of compromises, of concessions, of surrenders of what we hold dearest, and acceptances of what seems second best. That for which we have nobly struggled may fail us and we find what consolation we can among the wreckage of our hope. We make sacrifices of our desires on the altar of expediency; we pocket our pride in the interest of our purse; we smile over present loss in the hope of possible future gain. We travel along the line of ambition by slow freight when we had fondly dreamed of whizzing through on the “limited.” We surrender at the Waterloo of a hope and bravely look to regaining at the next battle. We bow to custom while we inwardly rebel at the obeisance. We play at battledore (a game, from which badminton was developed) between fear of the world on the one hand and approval of conscience on the other.
It is compromise, sacrifice, paying tribute, placating power, making terms with the inevitable—compromise with someone, something, some system. Sometimes it is involuntary; sometimes under protest, with the same variety of cheerfulness we manifest when we surrender our watch to a highwayman. Some of these compromises are unjust, unwise, cowardly; some are necessary.
There is one place where the spirit of compromise has only its beautiful side—that is, the home. In the home where we can turn a key and lock our world in and the smaller world out, compromise reaches its highest dignity. It is love manifesting itself in kindness, thoughtfulness, tenderness, forbearance and self-surrender. Love makes such compromise an instinct of the soul. It is as inseparable from real love as perfume is from the rose that exhales it. Compromise, in its true sense, is settling differences by mutual concessions. To be real it must ever be mutual. If the spirit of compromise be ever on the part of the husband only or the wife only, it is unjust. It then means absolute selfishness on the part of one, stimulated and intensified by the unselfishness of the other. It makes a Dead Sea of love wherein the waters of affection flow without issuance—constant assessments with no dividends.
If marriage meant the wedding of a saint and an angel there would be no problems to solve, no perfection to attain, no progress to make. This may be why there are no marriages in heaven. On earth, except in the pages of fiction, it is different; husband and wife are usually strongly human. No matter how lovingly united or how sweet their accord, they never have the same temperaments, tendencies and tastes. Their needs are different, their manner of looking at things is not identical, and in varying ways their individualities assert themselves. Concession is merely a buffer or spring in the home machinery. It eases the jolts, lessens the friction, distributes the strain, reduces the wear and tear, prevents each part from injuring itself or another. Concession in the home is the fine diplomacy of the heart. It is delicate self-adjustment to the individuality of another. It is self-sacrifice in trifles without sacrifice of principles.
A man who before marriage used to write his initials fourteen times on an evening dance-card may, after attaining the dignity of husbandhood, claim he is too tired to go into society, too wearied to go to entertainments or to make calls, though his wife may still desire to see her old friends and to keep alive some of the wires connecting the home with the outside world. Here is an opportunity for a compromise, for him to realize that the pleasures of both are to be considered, that a graceful surrender occasionally to her desire is but equity. If he do it under visible protest, with the disguised cheerfulness of one going to the dentist’s, he has killed the merit of his compromise.
If she feel that during the whole evening away from home he is suffering the orthodox after-death fate of the wicked, he has spoiled it all, wrecked the pleasure of both. He should make her radiant in the thought that he has been glad to do it if it gave her a little change and extra happiness. His deference to her wishes will stimulate in her a desire to reciprocate, to make some sweet little sacrifice for him and never let him know how much it may cost her.
There may be some simple dress of hers that he loves to have her wear. It has memories or associations or something else that pleases him. She knows it does not fit well in the back, and that the sleeves are actually two seasons behind the times, and no one wears them that way now. He may be in blissful ignorance of the awfulness of a woman daring to defy fashion, but at home, some rainy night, when no one will make a call, it really would not hurt much if she were sweetly to put on this dress unexpectedly—just to please him. Little compromises and concessions make up much of the poetry of married life; standing ever squarely on one’s rights constitute its prose.
At any critical moment if both express, at the same time, a desire to defer to the other’s taste, the result is foreordained for happiness. This makes matrimony not merely union, but unison and unity; it makes it a duet rather than two solos. Matrimony is not a game of chess where one must be victor; it more resembles true conversation where the pleasure arises from the united contributions. In the choice of a home, in the matter of furnishing, in the question of servants, in the management of the household, occur daily little problems that seem to solve themselves in the spirit of compromise, of quietly talking matters over, of gentle conference of two, working to the attainment of a common aim and a single ideal. These, after all, are only questions of taste and of judgment; often more subtle and vital are those problems that relate to temperament.
Sometimes a word of impatience may bring its echoing reply in the same spirit to the lips of the other, but a second’s firmness, just a momentary self-control, an instant’s translation of the thought into another key, of sweetness and sympathy, and the desecrating discord has been passed in safety. Sometimes, too, a silence of gentle reproof may be oil of compromise on the troubled waters.
Most of the surrenders in married life are in trifles where it really makes no difference which surrenders. The great questions, the large problems, usually unfold all their phases under the sunshine of conference, and the issue is the dual wisdom in a single verdict which is unanimous. If the matter be vital and the jury of two cannot agree on a verdict, then it seems part of the wisdom of compromise for the one who is the abler judge of what is proper and fitting in the special instance to decide the momentous question with the force of a final vote.
There are occasionally topics of conversation upon which the two cannot agree, where the husband or the wife feels the rightness or wrongness of a certain subject with an intensity that seems to brook no opposition. It may be as far outside of the field of logic as the most distant star is beyond the solar system,—then what is the use of trying to put new life into a dead issue by discussion? When the signs “Thin ice” are conspicuous, it really might seem like prudence to confine the conversational skating nearer to the shore line. Argument in general is dangerous, and often a graceful dropping of the subject is a kindly admission that there may be two sides to the question.
Do you not think we often expect too much of those who are dear to us and that this very exaggeration may often render us unjust? The optimistic effort to make the best of things, to look as closely as possible on the sunny side of life and its problems, to keep away from needless worry and useless regret will do much towards lubricating the wheels of the domestic regime. It is a talent worthy of cultivation in the home—the special ability not to see certain little inharmonies that may adjust themselves if they are unnoted.
The spirit of compromise does not demand a continuous performance in the way of self-surrender and self-sacrifice; it does not require ceasing to be a voice and becoming an echo; it does not imply or justify any loss of individuality. It means simply the instinctive recognition of the best way out of a difficulty, the quickest tacking to avoid a collision, the kindly view of tolerance in the presence of the weakness and errors of another. It is the courage to meet an explanation half-way, the generosity to be the first to apologize for a discord, the largeness of mind that does not fear a sacrifice of dignity in surrendering in the interests of the highest harmony of two rather than the personal vanity of one. The spirit of compromise rolls away many of the stones from the pathway of love and happiness.