On Compromise and Shrinking

Category: Personal

I’ve been doing a lot of yoga this year. Therapy is paid by the session, but yoga is paid by the month and I can do as much as I like. I love taking that hour or hour and a half for myself, putting my phone in the studio lockers on silent, and just breathing.

In yoga, you’re invited to set an “intention” at the beginning of your practice. It can be an affirmation, like I am strong, or an aspiration, like I will let go of my anxiety—but either way it’s something that you return to, like your breath, throughout the practice, to focus on and anchor yourself.

Lately, the themes of guilt and blame have been weaving like a silver thread through my intentions, peeking their heads up and making themselves known when I scan my body and my mind at the beginning of practice, asking myself what I need. I will live without guilt has been a common one. I will not beat myself up. I will not shrink. I will be fully myself. Why do I need to remind myself of this so often?

My best friend and I were discussing this essay this week. Particularly this part:

“Women talk ourselves into needing less, because we’re not supposed to want more—or because we know we won’t get more, and we don’t want to feel unsatisfied. We reduce our needs for food, for space, for respect, for help, for love and affection, for being noticed, according to what we think we’re allowed to have. Sometimes we tell ourselves that we can live without it, even that we don’t want it. But it’s not that we don’t want more. It’s that we don’t want to be seen asking for it.”

She said to me, “All this time I’ve been making myself smaller for men and calling it compromise. I thought that’s what I needed to do to keep them. And the way we talk about relationships teaches us that they’re the same thing.”

I learned early in life that the full breadth of my wants, beliefs, desires, needs, and thoughts would be not be tolerated. In the snowglobe world of my childhood, perfectly contained by a thick layer of circular reasoning and safely insulated from the sullying influences of secular society, I learned that there were a set of beliefs and actions that were objectively right, and a set of beliefs and actions that were objectively wrong—and nothing lay between.

Right. Wrong.

Black. White.

In. Out.

Us. Them.

Saved. Damned.

As I’ve said to my therapist many times: you can get out of evangelicalism, but it’s a lot harder to get evangelicalism out of you.

So it is any surprise that we carry over those intimate childhood wounds into our adult relationships? This is what we learned was required to keep our loved ones happy with us. To avoid getting in trouble. To maintain their approval. To maintain God’s approval.

We shrink. Shrivel. Pretend we don’t have any questions—that we’re perfectly happy falling in line and marching on, like good little soldiers. We’re bleeding—hemorrhaging, more often than not—but it doesn’t matter. It’s not the most important thing. Compromise. You can’t always get what you want, right? So pretend you don’t need it. Pretend you never wanted it in the first place. It doesn’t matter if it makes you happy. It matters if it makes you holy.

I did this with so many things. Sex, primarily. Physical affection in general, too. In the snowglobe world, sex—either having it or not—is the most important thing about you. I didn’t believe I could have sex or physical affection and keep everyone happy with me—keep God happy with me—so I pretended I never wanted them. I pretended the heavy, soul-crushing yoke of purity culture was somehow my “choice”—as if a choice made under the gravitational pressure of a thousand suns could ever truly be free.

I did this with love.

I did this with faith.

And what about me and all my friends? Are we all sinners if we sin? Does it even matter in the end, if we’re unhappy?

– “Jesus, Jesus” by Noah Gundersen

So what is the difference then? Between compromise, and shrinking?

Compromise is like cleaning the litter box or scrubbing the floors. Nobody really likes to do it and it’s not usually particularly enjoyable, but it is necessary and you’re better off afterwards. It’s the housework of close relationships. Compromise sometimes means deferring to the other person’s preferences or wishes or movie choice or restaurant plans. Compromise means “stacking your wants”—acknowledging that as humans we often want multiple, sometimes competing things, and that depending on the situation some things are more important than others. Compromise can mean setting aside your emotional needs temporarily to care for someone you love. It means seeking to avoid unnecessary offense and carrying yourself with caution around another’s sore spots. It means, basically, grace.

But compromise never puts your personhood on the altar.

Compromise never demands that you fall in line—or else.

Compromise never holds the success of the relationship hostage.

Compromise never threatens harm or hell.

Compromise never means you have to resign yourself to a painful, barren existence.

Compromise never asks you to hide or give up any part of your identity.

Compromise never tells you that you are too much, or not enough.

“You can’t always get what you want” is technically true. But it has been used so often to elicit forced conformity that I think we should probably stop saying it altogether.

If what you want is to be fully loved, fully alive, fully breathing, fully yourself, fully whoever-you-may-become…

You can get it.

And you should.