Welcome! Today we’re going to be talking about how to stay married to someone who is different from you. Does this apply to you?
Of course it fricking applies to you. It applies to everyone. Picture-perfect couples who align on all their values, personal qualities, hobbies, preferences, and toothpaste-squeezing styles are exceptionally rare. The vast majority of couples line up in certain categories – hopefully most of the important ones – and diverge on many other ones – usually at least one pretty big one.
I have met couples where one is a real go-getter and the other is Captain Chill; where one is very persistent and the other is a never-finish-a-project creative; where one is loud and boisterous and the other is a quiet minimalist.
In my own marriage, I am chronically punctual, while my wife doesn’t mind getting somewhere a few minutes late. (I start to progressively tense up the closer we get to the necessary departure time.)
These may seem like cute differences, and often it is these very differences that attract people to each other: someone who doesn’t have much drive might be drawn to someone with a lot of ambition to compensate for what they feel they don’t have.
But this is also fertile ground for conflict: if I’m not terribly motivated to get up and do, do, do, then your constant doing might not only get on my nerves, it might lead to me feeling pressured, insecure, unworthy, and on and on. (In fact, the arguments about the toothpaste squeezing are never about the toothpaste or the squeezing, and generally hinge on much bigger issues like this.)
So how do two people who are different – perhaps even opposites in some ways – manage to get along, even to thrive, over the long term? Here are some approaches to staying married in the face of those differences.
- Accept it: people are different.
- Appreciate the ways those differences add to your life.
- Savor the things you do share in common.
- Encourage your spouse to be who they are.
- Learn good communication skills.
- Don’t assume.
1. Accept it: people are different.
We all enter the world believing that our experience is the only experience – the only possible experience. Kids believe brussels sprouts are objectively disgusting and have trouble understanding why grownups don’t eat Froot Loops.
Part of the work of maturing is coming to terms with the fact that some people do like brussels sprouts.
People are different. That which you find enjoyable, others may not find enjoyable. That which you think important, others may not think important. This doesn’t make them wrong; it just makes them different.
It’s critical to understand that this doesn’t just apply to tastes and preferences. It applies at a fundamental level of how we see and experience the world. One person feels sad but hopeful when saying big goodbyes; another person might dread them so much they try to avoid them entirely. One person might feel deeply loved at the receipt of a very practical gift; another person might be totally turned off. (See posts on the Five Love Languages.)
Trying to get someone to adopt your way of seeing the world is generally a losing proposition. But more than that, trying to engage with someone without first understanding their way of seeing the world is an equally losing proposition – at least if you’re trying to have any kind of relationship.
If you have a child that is expressing misgivings about their lacrosse practices, their math teacher, their household responsibilities, etc., you can clamp down and force them to do what they need to do; or, you can seek to understand what their experience is, what the hesitation is, and try to operate from within the framework they are currently in. The former approach may work, but I submit that the latter approach will get you far better results in the long run.
Likewise, in your intimate relationship, forcing your partner to accept and function within your point of view is definitely not going to get you where you want to go. Pressuring, coercing, or arguing them into being firmer with the kids, less chatty at a social event, or more serious about the budget is going to get very short-term results at best and is also going to totally mangle your relationship.
Recognize that people are different. We are different from each other in ways so fundamental that we often don’t realize that anyone could see things differently in a given situation. Making space for that to be so is a crucial step towards living in harmony with another human being.
2. Appreciate the ways those differences add to your life.
Accepting differences is a good start. Valuing differences is the next stop. The fact that your partner is not like you in some important ways is not just something you have to tolerate. In fact, it’s likely that this trait is part of the reason you were attracted to them in the first place.
I once met with a couple we’ll call Dave and Tina. Dave was super even-keel. It took a lot to move his emotional needle much in either direction. Tina, on the other hand, was a full palette of robust feelings, and she did not keep them hidden by any means. They had gotten to a point of total frustration with each other, with Dave complaining that Tina was completely irrational, and Tina accusing Dave of being an unfeeling stone statue.
Of course, these complaints revealed the very characteristics they actually valued in their partner. Dave was attracted to Tina because of the richness of experience she brought to his life, the fun, the spontaneity – all these things he wanted but didn’t find in himself. And Tina was drawn to Dave because he was so steady and reliable; her life had always been rather disorganized and more than a little tumultuous, and he kept her anchored and functional.
Every character trait has positives and negatives. People who are fun and spontaneous are often disorganized. People who are very organized can sometimes be, well, boring.
I can promise that you will not find anybody who has only positive qualities and no negative ones. It’s a question of which combo package you want. It may be frustrating to you that your partner is always busy talking to friends, neighbors, strangers on the street, etc. But it’s that same gregariousness that makes them fun to hang out with, that keeps you both part of your community, that allows them to keep open channels of communication with your kids – things you might not be very good at yourself.
You’ll have to think this through for yourself – every human being is different, and what unique constellation of personality traits makes up your partner is something I can’t begin to guess. But I am dead sure they have a lot to offer.
Look at the ways they are different from you, especially the ones that annoy you. Those things they do that get on your nerves – what aspect of their personality does that come from? How else is that aspect expressed? In what ways does it add to your life?
You can choose to focus on the negative products of this quality, or you can choose to focus on the positive ones. Both are there. You may need to work at this to find the good stuff (talking to a coach or therapist can help). But it’s surely there.
3. Savor the things you do share in common.
Of course, there is value in the differences between you; but don’t let your focus get hijacked by those differences, which can sometimes take up a big chunk of your field of vision.
Just as every two people are different, every two people share some things in common. Even Bert and Ernie, opposites as they were, both held friendship to be important to their lives! Hopefully you and your partner share basic values, whether it’s the importance of marriage, of religion, of social justice, or whatever it is that moves you.
Maybe you have interests in common, and that’s how you met to begin with, whether it’s a particular activity like tennis, hiking, or crossword puzzles, or a subject of interest, like chemistry, or philosophy, or Polynesian history.
And although your personalities are different in certain ways, they are probably similar in certain ways too. Dave and Tina, for all their disparities, were both very independent people. They loved to put effort into a project and enjoy the fruits of their own labors. This was something they could (paradoxically, perhaps), savor together – working in parallel on their respective projects, sharing updates about them, encouraging each other.
It’s so easy to get sidetracked by things that are going wrong. Paying attention to the things that are right takes a lot more effort.
Put in the effort.
4. Encourage your spouse to be who they are.
People are generally not too attractive to each other when they are irritable, resentful, or constrained.
Let’s look at another couple, Marco and Molly. Marco was a giver. He would give a guy on the street the shirt off his back if he had to. They weren’t wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but to Marco, they had enough, and what they had was there for sharing.
It’s not that Molly was stingy or selfish; she was just a lot more nervous about the future. She wanted to make sure they had enough for a rainy day, for their kids to go to school, for retirement. Marco’s generosity stressed her out. She would criticize and pressure him until he would rein in his largesse (at least for a while).
But Marco didn’t feel like Marco during those times. It was during one of these periods that they reached out for help with their marriage. Marco felt caged like he had to be someone he was not. He couldn’t be who he really was. He was often short-tempered when he was holding himself back like this, and while Molly felt less worried about the future, the present was a lot less enjoyable.
We had to work through the giving issue both as a financial and relationship challenge, but once we did that, I urged Molly to not only accept who Marco was but to support him for it too. Of course, there had to be safeguards to make sure they didn’t go broke. But when Molly was able to appreciate this part of Marco and to cheer him on in his charitable endeavors, their connection really blossomed.
Marco felt loved for being Marco. He felt supported. They both felt a renewed sense of investment in each other. And Marco was a lot more pleasant to be around to boot.
Can you find ways to express your appreciation for the qualities that make your spouse who they are, and to encourage them to be themselves all the way?
5. Learn good communication skills.
Even once you get these mindsets down, you will inevitably come up against disagreements, deadlocks, and conflict. This is normal.
One of you likes to get to the airport 3 hours before the flight; the other one tends to start packing around the time they make the first boarding call. One of you thrives on new experiences; the other one could eat a salami sandwich with pickles for every meal and be totally 100% content.
How will you manage vacations? How will you do mealtimes? You are going to bump heads sometimes. You can’t get around it. The trick is to know how to communicate about it when you do.
The first step is to remember, as we’ve discussed at length above, that people are different. You can’t talk about what’s happening between the two of you if you’re starting from the assumption that your way of doing things is right and they are just messing it up.
Once you’re in the right headspace to hear how they see and experience the situation, it’s time to do a lot of listening. (See this post for some guidelines on this part.) Don’t start by trying to find a solution (or, worse, to convince your partner they should just adopt yours). You need to understand what the problem actually is before you can solve it!
At the end of the day, you are both going to be the people you are. You are unlikely to change your fundamental personalities. So a successful relationship can’t depend on that happening.
It is totally possible to be in a loving, happy relationship despite significant disagreements. The trick is to be able to keep talking about it. (Couples counseling can be a great learning experience for how to do this.)
6. Don’t assume.
Keeping all this stuff in mind is not so easy. As we noted in the first point above, we all tend to think that our way of seeing things is the only way. It’s easy to view our perspective as the norm, and everything else as a deviation from that.
(Incidentally, this is why politics can get so nasty. It’s hard to believe that the other side truly believes that their position is true and good, and isn’t just trying to get their way, or at least in denial about the “obvious” reality.)
When you experience friction with your partner, it’s critical not to jump to such assumptions. If your spouse asks you where you’re going, it may feel to you like nosiness, or judgment, or any number of uncomfortable feelings. But in their eyes it might be an expression of concern and love, without any implication of mistrust or suspicion.
If you are a person who strongly values independence, you might be saying to yourself, “but doesn’t it mean they don’t trust me if they have to know where I’m going?”
This is the key point here, folks: no, it doesn’t. The same words, the same actions, can mean different things to different people. This is true not just for this example but for many, many different examples.
Don’t assume that your interpretation of a certain comment or behavior is universal, or extends even as far as your partner. Instead, ask them how they see it. What does it mean to you when you say X? What motivates you to do Y?
You will be surprised time and time again at how your significant other sees things in a way you didn’t consider. This has happened to me personally more times than I can count. Here’s a good personal example:
I was trying to laminate something with my spiffy new laminating machine when it let out a disconcerting beep and clocked out. I was very not happy. As I was trying to determine whether it was totally defunct or not, my wife came and asked me whether I had put the plastic in right.
I was livid. The last thing I needed was to be second-guessed and judged about whether I was responsible for the malfunction, as if somehow this was my own fault (it wasn’t).
When I talked about this incident with my wife later, she assured me that she wasn’t judging or blaming me, and that she was simply trying to locate the source of the problem so she could help me out of my distress. It took me a good bit of effort to swing around and see things from her point of view. But there you have it. I was angry at being blamed. She wasn’t blaming me. Go figure.
You too no doubt have had many scenarios like this come up in your own life. Do yourself a favor and before you lash out or double down on your own position, check your assumptions and see how your partner actually views the situation.
There’s no way around the fact that you and your partner will have many differences large and small to work out over the course of your relationship. Keep these points in mind and you will find that not only do these differences not injure your relationship, they enhance and deepen it.
I know, I know, easier said than done. But the good news is, the folks at the Baltimore Therapy Center are great at helping people do precisely this kind of work to get past the relationship bumps and into healthier and happier patterns. Reach out to us if you need help getting there!