Like most women in my post-feminist generation, I grew up knowing exactly what I did not want when it came to love and work. I did not want to sacrifice my personal life at the altar of the all-consuming career. Nor did I want to surrender professional success in a fit of passion or panic over my biological clock, only to wind up dependent on an unappreciative man. I never had considered myself a fervent feminist, but I respected modern feminism’s first commandment when it came to relationships: Never give up more for a man than he gives up for you.
My resolve on that last point was tested in my late twenties, when I found myself facing a work-life dilemma I had never imagined as a girl. I had to choose between continuing my work as a presidential speechwriter in the White House and marrying the man I loved, who was smack in the middle of medical school in a city 800 miles away.
Facing that choice pained me. As someone who had drafted her first résumé in sixth grade and clutched it as a security blanket ever since, I prided myself on keeping a level head when it came to the give-and-take of relationships. I believed in work-life balance, but I always made my decisions with that order in mind: work, then life.
Of course, that was before I met John, before I fell in love with a man of such warmth, good humor, strength and faith that an additional three-year delay to our wedding day felt like an eternity. Before John, I wanted marriage in the abstract. But after he proposed, I yearned for the forever promise of marriage in a brand new way. For the first time, I felt in my bones that I belonged with another person and that the adventure of our life together should start as soon as possible.
In seeking to balance that conviction with my long-standing belief that a woman should not sacrifice career opportunities for a man, I found good advice in short supply. On the one hand, I heard from a secular feminist establishment that gave me the “you go, girl” speech about putting my interests first in a relationship – but offered me little help in dealing with my own intense desire for marriage. There were antifeminist voices that supported that desire, but they often gave short shrift to my legitimate longing to do meaningful work in the world.
In the end, I turned to my faith – and specifically, to the women saints – for guidance. Their transcendent perspective, generous hearts and track record of finding happiness by ignoring conventional wisdom emboldened me to see my situation in a new light. I began to focus less on what other people might say about my decision and more on what I heard in my own heart. Instead of asking which option would conform to my pre-conceived ideas of happiness or prove least costly, I began asking something simpler: Which will bring the greatest peace?
Answering that was not easy. But the experience left me with a few bits of advice for others facing similar dilemmas:
Listen to your own deepest desires. This is especially important for women today, as many of us feel not only reluctant to change our professional plans for a man but downright guilty about it. That said, it’s important to distinguish between profound longings and passing whims, particularly when a relationship is new and infatuation can masquerade as love. Following your deepest desires never requires sacrificing your integrity, values or self-respect.
Forget 50/50. Today’s egalitarian ideal for relationships says that each partner should give only as much as he or she gets. This can be a good rule of thumb in the beginning of a relationship, but in the context of marriage and serious relationships headed for the altar, the “I’ll-only-do-my-share-and-not-one-ounce-more” attitude is a recipe for disaster. Making sacrifices is never easy, but if you find yourself chafing at the idea that love requires any, you might need to rethink your marital expectations – or reconsider if you have found the right mate.
Count the cost. Sacrifices are an important part of love and marriage, but that does not mean they should be undertaken without considering the consequences. Even if you conclude that a sacrifice is worth making, you will never regret taking the time to reflect on it, to make sure that you are making it for the right reasons, at the right time, in the right way.
Look to the future. Ask yourself how you will feel about your choice at the end of your life. What will you regret more: Making this sacrifice or refusing it? The answer may not be possible to know with certainty, but taking the long view can help you make a decision that brings lasting joy.
This article originally appeared on eHarmony and is used with permission.