I met a lovely woman the other day who works at the children’s clothing store where we shop. She was in her late fifties and, as she saw that I was buying winter coats for my boys, asked if they enjoy winter. I said, “Oh, yes! Everest asks every day when it’s going to snow.” She asked if we ever go snowshoeing and I said no, not yet. She said that she and he husband were planning to go later that day and that it was one of their favorite activities. “But it wasn’t always like that,” she said with a smile. “I had to convince him to start snowshoeing with me. You see, I’m Tigger and he’s Eeyore. I bring him up and he grounds me to earth. That’s why we’ve been married for so long!”
One of the most common concerns among my clients in committed relationships is, “We’re so different. I’m an extrovert and he’s an introvert. I love being around people and he can spend days or weeks on his own.” The nature of the described difference varies, of course, but there seems to be a cultural confusion around a belief that says that the person you marry needs to be exactly like you! This flies in the face of the adage “opposites attract”, so somewhere in our cultural code we know that being different isn’t a strike against relationship compatibility. Yet, on the threshold of marriage, people seem to look at their partner and over-focus on the differences.
Why is this? When conflict arises as a result of the difference, the underlying belief says, “If we were exactly alike, we wouldn’t fight so much.” There are several problems with this statement. One: Your clone doesn’t exist. No matter how similar you are to your partner, differences will always present themselves. You could look for someone who’s more similar, but eventually the differences would still arise. Two: The fighting isn’t actually because of the differences but because of how you’re responding to the differences. When a difference arises (whether of opinion, restaurant choice, political belief) the habitual response is usually characterized by judgement. Inside you’re thinking, “Wow, I can’t believe my partner thinks that way,” and the judgement is inevitably felt by the other, who then either responds with judgement or goes silent with shame.
But the primary issue is connected to a belief that says, “If my partner and I were more alike, I would be happier. If he shared my passion for psychology, I would spend more time engaging in psychologically oriented activities. Or if he was more outdoorsy, I would be hiking a lot more.” This points to one of the most common beliefs that people in relationships: my partner is supposed to make me happy. My partner is supposed to complete me. If I was with the right person, I would be lifted out of my misery (or anxiety or depression or boredom) and would feel more happy and alive and passionate.”
What if you could respond differently? What if you could re-train your mind to respond with curiosity and openness instead of judgement and criticism. Not only would you avoid conflict but you would grow as a person. And herein lies the gold of embracing your differences: it’s an opportunity to grow, to expand the boundaries of your tolerance and acceptance. And, more importantly, it’s an opportunity to learn to take responsibility for your own passion, aliveness, and well-being.
We don’t grow when life is easy. We coast through the times of flow, then arrive at a current and are offered the opportunity to stretch ourselves into unknown territory. It’s obviously much easier when life flows along and you and your partner are aligned, but it’s not reality. Differences exist, and the real question is how can you learn to tolerate and even learn from the differences instead of wishing them away or longing for someone else.