The Differences Aren’t the Problem
Leah: “Before Jason and I got married, I thought that couples became more harmonious over time and that their differences naturally diminished as they got to know each other better. Boy, was I wrong! Not only did our different points of view and behaviors not go away, they actually became inflamed and amplified over time. For a while it really seemed like they would be the end of our marriage.
Jason: Things looked pretty hopeless to me for quite a while. Leah and I were both caught up in this impossible cycle in which we were each trying to convert the other into seeing things our way, even though our efforts to do so were destroying the love and good will we had previously shared. I’ve always had a thing about being controlled and I reacted like crazy every time Leah tried to get me to do something or talk me into something that I didn’t feel right about.
Leah: And that just triggered my fear that Jason didn’t love me because I thought that if he did, he would be more open to my input and responsive to my concerns. My fears got me into a panic so I just amped up my efforts to influence him….
Jason: …which not surprisingly didn’t go over so well with me. We kept getting locked into these horrible reactive patterns that kept squeezing the life out of our marriage. To say that it was a nightmare would be an understatement.
Leah: We finally got some help, which we probably should have done much earlier in the process, but that was one of the issues that we couldn’t agree on. I wanted to get counseling and Jason didn’t.
Jason: I’ve always believed that if you put your mind to something and worked hard to straighten out your problems, you should be able to take care of things on your own. I got to be wrong about that! Fortunately, getting help was something that Leah took a stand on and she wouldn’t back down. I knew that she meant it when she gave me the ultimatum about seeing a counselor, so I gave in and grudgingly went with her. I feel grateful to her to this day for her willingness to put our marriage on the line and take that stand. I’m convinced that we wouldn’t be sitting here together today had she not done so.
Leah: For me, it didn’t even feel like a risk. We literally had nothing to lose. Our relationship was completely trashed, we were living like enemies, we hadn’t had sex in months, and day-to-day, things were just getting worse.
Jason: The counselor really helped us, especially me. I probably had a lot more to learn about relationships that Leah.
Leah: Fortunately Jason’s a very good student. If there’s something that he wants to learn about, he throws himself into it wholeheartedly, and that’s the way he engaged in the counseling process. Plus, it didn’t hurt that the counselor was a man who Jason could trust and relate to.
Jason: He helped me to see some of the ways that I was getting in my own way and pointed out positive alternatives to my negative behaviors. He also helped me to see that underneath my anger and desire to control Leah, was a lot of fear that Leah might see me (or I might see myself) as being weak if I didn’t stand up to her. I hadn’t connected the dots enough to see that I was a big part of the problem, that it wasn’t just Leah that was being, at least in my mind, stubborn and unreasonable, but that I was too.
Leah: We both played our parts. I had to learn to understand and manage my fears of losing Jason that caused me to try to control him. One of the most important things that I learned was that it wasn’t our differences that were the problem, but our efforts to convert each other to our perspective, to control each other’s point of view as well as their behavior. As we each began to trust that we could have these differences, that they would not and need not go away, we both relaxed our need to get the other person on the same page as we were.
My greatest fear had been that if we didn’t eliminate the differences and homogenize as a couple that our marriage would self-destruct. This fear caused me to do and say things that intensified Jason’s resistance to being controlled. These days, we each just communicate our preferences and talk over things without the feeling that we need to get the other person to agree with everything that we say. Amazingly, we usually come to a workable understanding almost every single time because we never try to pressure each other into anything… well, hardly ever.
Jason: What it’s taken for us to get here has been a lot of practice. Our counselor got us started but then it was up to us to practice the things that we learned from him. Changing old habits isn’t easy, but fortunately for us, we had plenty of “learning opportunities”. In the process we’ve each become more appreciative of our differences and more accepting of our respective ways of being in the world. We have both become more committed to accepting influence from each other and to stretching into the other’s world.
Leah: We’ve also developed more tolerance, acceptance, patience, and forgiveness and we’ve become more skilled in the art of non-reactive listening. It’s really paid off for us. For a couple of recovering “hot heads”, we live a remarkably harmonious and peaceful life now. And we haven’t homogenized in the process, but rather, we have become more uniquely ourselves.
Jason: We still have the same preferences and values that we had when we first met nineteen years ago, but we’re learning to live with them. Leah’s a cat person, I love dogs; She tends to be kind of introverted, I’m a party animal. She’s very detail-focused, I look at the big picture. She likes to get to the airport three hours early, I like to get there just before they close the doors at the gate. She’s very touchy-feely, me, not so much.
Leah: Jason’s a night person, I’m a morning person. I’m a hopeless romantic, he’s not. I’m idealistic, Jason is what he refers to as “realistic”. I’m more driven by my emotions, he’s more intellectually oriented. There are more differences than I could list on ten pages, but the differences are what make things interesting and help us to open our world more expansively than we would if we were with someone exactly like ourselves. But what really matters is that when it comes to the important things that we value most highly, we’re both on the same page. We love each other, we value family, we both strive to live lives of integrity and honesty, we both value the learning process, and we both love to have fun!”
If the absence of irreconcilable differences were a requirement for staying married, there would be few, if any married couples alive today. Even the most successful marriages contain irreconcilable differences; those differences that cannot under any circumstances be resolved or dissolved completely. Of course, some differences can be deal-breakers if one or both partners can’t tolerate the situation, but in our experience, when there is a foundation of love and respect in the relationship, this situation is less likely to occur.
Only a small portion of the differences that most couples start out with are actually solvable. The presence of differences isn’t necessarily problematic. It’s when they become conflictual that there is trouble. When we appreciate the value of our differences, we begin to see them not as a threat, but an enhancement to our relationship. We may even see that it was the differences themselves that initially attracted us to each other in the first place.
Leah and Jason salvaged a marriage that was on life support by being willing to make something more important than playing out life-long patterns of control and manipulation. They were willing to risk it all to go for the real gold that is available in committed partnerships. They put their relationship at the top of their priority list. There is an old saying, that “you can be right or you can have a relationship.” The key word is “or”. You can’t have it both ways. What’s your choice?
Bloom, L. (2013). The Differences Aren’t the Problem. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 5, 2016, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/relationship-skills/2013/08/the-differences-arent-the-problem/