“Don’t sweat the small stuff,” the saying goes, “and it’s all small stuff.”
I love the sentiment behind that and it’s often true. But in marriage, it seems like a lot of the decisions you sit down and make together are about the really big stuff: where to live, what jobs and opportunities to pursue, how to raise and discipline children, how and when to see the in-laws. When you hit an unexpected disagreement on one of these topics, it’s nerve-chilling. How can you compromise on something that matters so much?
I have a confession: my relationship with my husband began with just such an acknowledged disagreement. On our very first date in coastal North Carolina, where we both lived at the time, we talked about how he longed to moved back to the rural American West and I wanted to return to a big East Coast city, preferably New York. At the time, we settled on a tongue-in-cheek compromise: we would somehow become rich enough to own houses on both coasts and divide our time between them.
But here we are, five years later, and we still haven’t really come up with a satisfactory solution. The thought of moving to a sparsely populated town in cowboy country still really scares me, because it’s so different from what I’m used to. His desire to return to the West hasn’t diminished. We’re still on the East Coast with no immediate plans to leave, but I know we’re just biding time until we have to confront our big disagreement again.
In the meantime, we have been practicing our disagreement-navigating skills on smaller big issues. Here’s what we’ve learned so far.
Figure out who cares more.
Sometimes, in the knee-jerk response to discovering a Big Disagreement, it can feel impossible to budge from your point of view. But when you take time to think it over, you begin to realize that one of you cares more … and the other one can give way. When I got pregnant, I wanted to find out the gender of the baby, but my husband really, really didn’t. We bickered about it for nine months, but at some point I realized that my husband felt really strongly about this, and I was beginning to appreciate the fun in being surprised. After I decided to let him have this one, we both enjoyed the suspense and the big moment of discovery together.
Seek wise advice.
One of the reasons I’m not freaking out about a future moving decision is that I know whenever the time comes to make it, we will draw heavily on the wisdom of people we both trust, who are more experienced in life and marriage than we are. We ask for advice early and often — in fact, my husband consulted three couples he trusted before asking to date me! If nothing else, a wise outside perspective can offer clarity and help a couple better understand the decision they’re making, the stakes involved, and the options available. Sometimes, there’s a compromise possible that didn’t occur to either of us.
Know where you stand on the really big things.
Regardless of what else my husband and I disagree on, we know we have our Christian faith in common, and that drives a lot of our thinking and beliefs about how to spend our time and energy, how to parent our children and even how to handle being at odds with each other. My father once told me it was a great source of comfort to him to know that, when he and my mom were angry and at odds, they both turned to God in prayer for insight and wisdom. I hope we’ll be able to say the same of our marriage 20 years on.
Realize most things are temporary.
Relatively few decisions are forever. Marriage and having children are some of those few, so proceed with care. But much as I think it would be hard for me to live in a part of the country far away from what I know and enjoy, I could see us coming up with a time-limited compromise in which we agree to spend a few years out West and see how it goes, or a few years in the northeast with an agreement to re-evaluate at a certain point. The jobs we take, the career paths we try, the places we move — all these choices can be undone if we determine there is something healthier for our marriage and our family.
I hope and pray our commitment to each other stays stronger than any tough disagreement we face. I’ll keep you posted as we navigate more of these big decisions together.