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Why Those Little Differences Needn't Be a Problem in Your Relationship

Two fallen leavesA reader emailed us about last week’s blog: “It sounds simple but not easy. I certainly haven’t mastered it yet!”

We maintain harmony in our relationship the same way a bike stays in balance when being ridden. It happens with very little thinking, because we can feel when it is not quite right and make adjustments to bring it back into equilibrium.

We think that finding that balance is challenging for some people because they clash, not on a basic level of emotional support (like how you make me feel), but about the different habits that each has developed through experience. Everybody has made choices about things like how they wash dishes, sort the laundry, handle bills and follow the news; they may have reasons for those choices like efficiency or aesthetics, or they might have been taught things are done that way and never questioned it. One of the links this week said “I had two friends who attended marriage counseling. One of the major gripes in their marriage was over the dishes.”

These habits become familiar and comfortable, but when merging lives with someone, there are bound to be differences, and they can be a source of constant irritation. They aren’t a problem for us for a number of reasons.

  • We are lucky to live in a large enough house that we each have our own space. This gives us a sense of control and the freedom to do things our way. Even if we were more constrained, we think it would work because we each have a similar sense of the amount of connection and autonomy we are comfortable with.
  • We each respect the other person and don’t want to manage their lives. Lots of choices the other person makes do not affect us directly, and the impulse to interfere needs to be recognized, laughed at and ignored. If you think “I would never open the package that way,” you can tell them how it should be done; you can watch and learn a different way; you can take it as permission to behave differently; or you can relax and admire the variety in life.
  • We don’t take these differences in style personally, realizing they are not about us. We rarely seek for sameness in ways of doing things, and we recognize that differences in style are quite different from disagreements and are not a source of conflict for us.
  • We are not invested in being right or having everything done our way. When it comes to things that affect both of us, we try to be open to other ways of seeing and doing. For instance, Maude liked to save up each month for big annual bills like property taxes, and Phil thought it wasn’t necessary and those bills could be paid from a regular savings account, but now we pay monthly into a tax account and Phil loves it.
  • We are not disturbed by small changes in how things are, like whether cups are stored upside down or not. You could say we’re lucky enough not to be entrenched about most things. Another way to describe that is to say that we practice a kind of non-attachment.
  • We think we have an appropriate sense of proportion about how important such things are in the greater scheme of life.

You might see these as compromises, trading off one thing for another as a price for peace, but for us, there is no sense of that at all. It comes from the freedom that we give each other to be exactly who we are, coexisting with the joy of connecting with another human being.

Photo credit: Maude Mayes
Photo note: Different leaves from the same tree.

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Successful Relationship Reading Corner


Books on shelfThis week we wrote that finding balance in a relationship is challenging for some people because of  the different habits that each has developed through experience. Here are some other authors writing about how to handle differences.

We’re Total Opposites! Can Our Relationship Work? "You’re in love with your total opposite. Is this your true love? Can your relationship last forever? Do you guys stand a chance? You’ve heard “opposites attract” and you’ve definitely felt that attraction, but you can’t deny how opposite you are either. (Your friends and family constantly remind you…) Then, maybe in quiet moments, the nagging questions creep in…"

11 Hints for Resolving Relationship Irritations "Dirty socks left on the floor — the fifth time this week — texting during your dinner date, forgetting to take the trash out — again — and what seems like endless interruptions when you talk. These are just some of the irritations couples deal with on a day-to-day basis. But while we’re taught not to sweat the small stuff and to pick our battles, it’s these tiny transgressions that can build and become big stumbling blocks in a relationship."

Can You and Your Partner Agree to Disagree? "In my 30-plus years of doing therapy, I've found that helping couples learn to truly accept their inevitable dissimilarities—and to take them in stride—serves not only to protect marital harmony in situations of potential conflict but, even more, to help the relationship reach its full potential."

Spreading peace one relationship at a time
Phil and Maude
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