When couples struggle in their marriage or relationship, they often talk about their differences. Sometimes the differences have to do with personality (e.g., he’s too lazy, she’s too uptight). Other times the differences have to do with wanting different things (e.g., one spouse wants more connection and the other spouse wants more independence). Whatever the topic, differences can be tricky to navigate. If we can’t work through our differences, the relationship can suffer, and might ultimately end.
Thinking about Differences Differently
Sometimes, however, we think about differences differently. This often happens at the beginning of a relationship, when we are falling in love. Sometimes about the difference might have even drawn you to your partner in the first place. For example, I can be anxious and uptight about things, so one of the things about Jenn that was attractive to me was that she was more of a free spirit. The problem is that as the relationship goes on, we start to shift our perspective. For example, what used to be “organized” now feels “controlling.” What used to be “laid-back” now feels “lazy.”
Differences Can Be Good
Differences don’t have to be a bad thing. Especially in a marriage or dating relationship, differences can complement each other, if you are open to it. For example, Jenn and I completed a marriage assessment, and one of the things that came up for us in the results was that Jenn was more of a “dreamer” and I was more of a “planner.” If we’re open to it, these differences can complement one another. For example, Jenn dreamed up the idea for her non-profit organization Replanted that provides support for adoptive and foster families. I was the driving force behind organizing and drafting the various sections of our book. If both of us were dreamers, we might have a lot of great ideas but not get anything done. If both of us were planners, we might get everything done in a timely manner, but it might not have much impact.
3 Steps for Dealing with Differences
Here is a 3-step process for dealing with differences in your relationship.
- Identify the difference. Think about a difference you are struggling with in your relationship with your spouse or partner. What is the difference exactly? Write down a few sentences that describe the key aspects of the difference as you understand it. Connect with your partner and ask them what they think. Do they see the difference in the same way? Or do they perceive it differently?
- What is frustrating about the difference? When things go wrong, what bugs you about the difference? What is frustrating or aggravating about the difference? What problems does the difference cause in your relationship? Again, connect with your partner and ask them what they think. What is frustrating for your partner about the difference?
- How might you complement each other? Now, try to think about the difference in a different way. How might the difference work to your advantage as a couple? In other words, are there any ways your difference might help you to complement one another? For example, does your strength complement his weakness, or vice versa? Again, connect with your partner and ask them what they think. Write down a few examples of how you might complement one another regarding the area of difference.
What came up for you during this exercise? Was it tough to think about differences in a new and different way? How might you remind yourself to think about differences in this way moving forward?