By Nathan Cobb, Ph.D.
Are your differences causing tension and conflict between you? Are you finding it hard to get to common ground? Does it feel like you can never talk about your differences without escalating into an all-out fight? Perhaps your differences are not the problem.
Let me clarify what I mean with an example.
Karen and Dave have been married for a number of years. Their dishwasher has broken down. Karen wants to buy an expensive brand. Dave wants to repair their current model. Here is part of their dialogue:
Dave: It costs too much money to buy a new one. Let's just call the repair man.
Karen: It will only break down again in another six months and we won't be any farther ahead. I want something that is going to last and be reliable.
Dave: No, you just want to impress your friends. You're too materialistic, Karen.
Karen: That's not fair. I'm trying to cut costs wherever I can. You're just too cheap to spend money on quality.
This is just a brief example, but notice that their dialogue is not really focused on their differences but on their "deficiencies".
If we listen further we would likely see an argument escalate as Karen and Dave both try to convince the other person of their faults.
For example, imagine that Karen goes on to accuse Dave of being a tightwad, that he doesn't care enough about what is important to her, that he is stubborn and pig-headed and never listens to her. Dave counters with his evidence of Karen's spendthrift nature, and her lack of commitment to a budget.
They may never even discuss the real issues - their differences or the reasons why it is important to Dave that they fix the dishwasher and the reasons why it is important to Karen that they buy a new one.
I see this frequently with couples. Arguments typically escalate when one or both spouses try to convince the other person of their weaknesses and faults instead of talking frankly about their differences and making the effort to understand why something is important to the other person, even though it may not be important to the listener.
In other words, marital arguments are often fueled not so much by differences, as by accusations of deficiency. Instead of discussing your spouse's need for spontaneity and fun, you see your partner as irresponsible. Instead of acknowledging your spouse's anxiety about being around a lot of people, you say your spouse is a stick-in-the-mud.
When the discussion moves in the direction of pointing out each other's deficiencies, typical self-perpetuating patterns emerge where both spouses attack and counter attack each other in an escalating fashion, or where one spouse continues to be critical and blaming, while the other spouse withdraws or shuts down. In either case, nothing gets resolved.
A different dialogue between Karen and Dave might start something like this.
Instead of accusing Karen of being materialistic, Dave could seek to understand Karen by asking questions such as, "Why do you think we should buy a new dishwasher?" and following this up with, "What is important to you about that?" or, "How will that be of benefit to you? Why are those benefits important to you?"
Karen could also ask Dave similar questions. "How do you feel about spending that much money on a dishwasher?" and, "How is that an issue for you? What does it mean to you?" or, "What are the benefits to you of repairing the dishwasher? Why are those benefits important to you?"
These types of questions can lead to a more productive dialogue where you learn to acknowledge and manage your differences more effectively, rather than trying to convince the other person that their differences arise from character defects or from personal incompetence.
So the next time that you come up against an upsetting difference between you, instead of believing that your spouse is deficient or that your spouse must change, assume that there are good reasons why he or she feels the way that they do. Seek to understand and discuss those reasons, including the context and the history that supports them. Your spouse should do the same for you as you strive to reveal and define what is important to you.
Your communication will then seem less like fighting and more like productive dialogue, even when you don't see eye to eye on things. You will also be more likely to find common ground and to come up with creative solutions for managing your differences in ways that honour what is important to each of you.
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