There have been a few key moments in my marriage when compromise did not seem possible. At those moments, I have gone walking.
I have stomped out the door, not trusting myself to say anything more, lest I worsen an already fraught situation. I told my husband, Ned, what I needed. He said he couldn’t provide it. He told me what he needed, which I found unacceptable.
So I walked and raged and wept, ignoring the cool dusk air and relaxing chirp of crickets around me. I said aloud all the things that I knew I shouldn’t say in front of Ned—about how much I resented his constant prioritization of his business, of how tired I was being what some call a start-up widow.
I walked when I felt stuck, unsure if my needs were ever going to be met in this marriage. I walked when I felt overlooked, unseen by the man who had pledged his life to me. Most of all, I walked because I was so frustrated that I didn’t know what else to do.
One of those walks happened while we were living in China. We had moved to an industrial city named Shenzhen, leaving behind family, friends, and my career so Ned could set up a manufacturing office.
After about 10 months there, I spiraled into a deep depression. Despite—or perhaps because of—the fact that I am Chinese-American, China had not been kind to me. I was resoundingly rejected by the locals on a daily basis for my poor Mandarin skills and cultural ineptitude. I was also overwhelmed with the demands of working for my husband’s start-up.
I felt like I desperately needed to move back to the U.S. But Ned wasn’t yet ready to leave China.
So, one night, I walked to the rooftop of our forty-story apartment building because there was no other pleasant area to walk in our neighborhood. I stared up at the smoggy night sky and asked God how in the world we were supposed to make this work. I asked for a way out when it seemed there was no way.
To this day, Ned remembers that night as one of terror for him. He knew I had gone out, but I didn’t tell him where I went. He knew I was terribly depressed, and he worried that I might do something desperate to escape my awful existence in China. When he finally found me on the top of our building, he was simply relieved that I was still breathing.
We eventually did find a compromise to that impossible situation, moving just across the border to Hong Kong a few months later. Living in Hong Kong allowed Ned to commute to Shenzhen, and it allowed me to establish a life for myself in a much more westernized city.
It turns out that God doesn’t get stuck the same way we do. He regularly points us toward pathways out of even the toughest of stalemates. The question is whether we are willing to recognize them.
I went walking again just a few months after our first son was born. Now back in the U.S., we had a heated argument about the frequency of Ned’s business travels, which were fraying my new-mom nerves to no end. He claimed he couldn’t travel any less; I told him I was going to lose my mind if he kept traveling at the same pace.
Ned, probably thinking of that terrifying night in China, asked to come walking with me. I snapped that someone had to stay with the baby—or had he forgotten that we even had a baby now?
Longtime friends had patiently listened to me complain for years about my husband’s workaholism and his devotion to his company. Their sympathy, however kind and well-intentioned, didn’t give me the kick in the pants that I actually needed to stop playing the victim and to start proactively seeking those unexpected pathways God was laying out before me.
The truth was that, while there were some adjustments Ned could have made to improve our situation, there was also plenty I could do independent of him. I had to stop looking to my husband to meet all my needs. I had to get over my pride and overdeveloped sense of self-sufficiency, and learn to ask for help. I needed to ask what more I could do to be a better wife, rather than fixating only on how Ned could be a better husband.
A marriage-family therapist I spoke to recently told me that marriage is like sandpaper to the ego. When I went on those angry, tear-filled walks, I was running away from our marital conflict as much as I was running away from the ways in which my pride and sense of control were being challenged. I saw only one solution to our problem—my solution—and when Ned wouldn’t go along with it, I felt hopeless and stuck.
Now, 12 years into our marriage, Ned and I still disagree over how much he works and travels. But as we’ve practiced different and more creative approaches to problem solving and compromising, as we’ve become more committed to truly listening to one another and trying to honor the other’s requests, we rarely find ourselves in stalemates anymore. There are always different options, different pathways—as long as we are willing to try to see them.
It’s been a long time since I’ve stomped out the door. Part of it is the fact that being a mom of two doesn’t really allow me the luxury to run away anymore. But it’s also because I choose to stay now—to keep engaging with my husband, to keep talking through our conflict, to keep seeking ways to make our marriage better and stronger.
Staying, looking my husband in the eye, and telling him I want to find a solution that works for both of us isn’t easy. It’s humbling to swallow my hurt and anger, and to focus on his needs instead of my own.
Yet I can stay because fear and anxiety no longer have the same grip on me. I have come to see that our relationship is not a zero-sum game in which only one of us can win. Having experienced the possibility of unexpected compromises, I can act with confidence in our commitment to one another and in the creativity of a good and generous God.
Guest post written by Dorcas Cheng-Tozun. Dorcas is an award-winning writer and the author of Start, Love, Repeat: How to Stay in Love with Your Entrepreneur in a Crazy Start-up World (Hachette Center Street). She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two adorable hapa sons. Connect with her at www.chengtozun.com or on Twitter.