Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Married with Differences: Can That Work?

at the alterIt depends. It most cases it’s not the differences that threaten a marriage, it’s how the partners experience and react to those differences.

There Are Always Some Differences

Whether you were drawn together by the attraction of opposites or finally found your ideal match in terms of similar looks, education or socio-economic background, most partners at some point realize they are married “ with differences.” The fact is that no two people have the same goal, react the same way or enjoy the same thing, at the same time – ALL THE TIME. ( Thankfully)

  • “ You really like working in the garden?”
  • “ You don’t mind driving the kids for 8 hours to ski?”
  • “ You really want that many pairs of shoes?”

When Do Differences become Problems?

Working with couples, it seems that differences become problems when they are unexpected, imply change or are experienced as a threat to either partner or to the relationship. Often partners react to the assumed threat with accusation or judgment which sets the stage for conflict. For example,

While most partners can live with having different tastes in foods and music, differences that emerge in the face of life events ( jobs, children, financial burdens) often threaten partners.

  • How can you think about changing jobs again when we both agreed to stay in this town?
  • Neither of us wanted to have children – Don’t tell me you changed your mind?
  • How can you even think about charging that flat screen TV when we never had credit card debt?

Feeling judged the partner often becomes defensive and in the worst of situations the difference is misconstrued as a total definition of the other, eclipsing other dimensions – “If you want children now, you can’t be the person I married.”

While most people can accept changes in themselves over the course of a marriage, they fear that their life will negatively change if their partner changes and becomes different in an unexpected way. After all, what if changing and growing means growing apart?

  • Since when are you so religious?
  • Now that we can retire, you want to go back to school?
  • How can you even think of becoming a vegan?
  • You want to reconcile with your insane family?

Accusation and judgment in the face of differences rarely maximize potential or bring good results. Often the accusation by one threatened partner actually threatens the other with the fear of losing the relationship or the option to grow, be different or make changes. Neither outcome is good.In the first case, a partner resentfully complies and doesn’t change jobs or go back to church – Actually both stay stuck.In the later, the accused makes his/her difference a definition of self or a proclamation that is bigger than the relationship can handle – You will never stop me from re-connecting with my family.

Handling Differences – A Constructive Way

Given that some of the best of what couples have is the constructive mix of their differences, it becomes important to consider a few steps for moving differences from becoming problems – to becoming possibilities, points of discussion, issues to address, aspects to accept or signals for seeking help.

Making Meaning

In the face of differences that seem upsetting, it is valuable for each partner to make meaning by considering:

What does the difference mean to me and to my partner? How different does it really make my partner? Does it really affect me? Does it affect our relationship?

How does it make me feel? What might my partner be feeling? ( Frightened, envious, confused, threatened, anxious, hopeful, proud)

Why do I feel this way? (History, expectations, insecurity, fear of not being happy, fear of being overlooked, wish to grow, wish to grow together)

Making Room for Discussion

In their work on Acceptance and Change in Couple Therapy, psychologists Neil Jacobson and Andrew Christensen, offer couples techniques that we can build upon to make differences less threatening and more transforming.

Remove The Expectation Or Need To Change The Other

When there is no need to change the other, the verbal and non-verbal tone can be one of curiosity instead of fear and demand which inevitably trigger resistance and withdrawal instead of discussion.

Pain plus Accusation Equals Conflict

If you are threatened, frightened, angry, shocked i.e. in pain from the difference you hear or observe in your partner and you respond with accusation- the result will be conflict.

Pain Without Accusation Equals Acceptance

If you are able to listen and accept what you hear without accusation you set the stage for a discussion where you can share your feeling. “ I get nervous with the thought of your changing jobs.” “ I don’t know how to react when you say you do want children.” Essentially you are accepting the others expression of a difference. You may in fact realize through discussion that her job change poses no threat to you and can be accepted. You may want to think about children or try to make clear your hesitations and  fears.

Use Soft Disclosures

Whereas many couple communication techniques suggest speaking about your own feelings by giving an “I-Message,” it is worth refining this to a soft disclosure that can be heard and accepted by a partner. There is a very big difference between “ I will not live a life without religion in my life. ” and “ I think I need to find a way to reconnect with the spirituality I once felt.” The idea is to be known in a way that invites empathy not resistance.

Put the Difference Back into the Broad Context of the Relationship

Take your time and work together to put the difference you are discussing into the context of your total relationship. Once you are not reacting with fears and threats, you may be able to reassure each other that being a vegan or reconnecting even with an insane family is something that you can handle – much like other similarities and differences that work for both of you.

Hang on and Build the Relationship around the Differences

If a relationship has the depth to support two individuals who choose to benefit from their individual and mutual growth- the partners will be able to build a relationship even around their differences. He may never completely understand why she visits her family abroad a number of times a year. She may never understand why he plays competitive sports – but they accept the other and the other’s differences.

Address Dangerous Differences

When the differences you observe in your partner are clearly dangerous to them, you, your children or others ( alcohol, drugs, violence, gambling etc.) your aim is to find a way to address the needs of your partner. Whether you go with your partner, or alone or enlist family support, these may be differences that warrant professional help.

You and your partner will know if married with differences can work.

“ I know there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort where we overlap.” ( Ani Difranco)

Photo by Larry Lamsa, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.