How To Deal With Differences In Your Relationships

How To Deal With Differences In Your Relationships

This is part 3 of a five-part series.

People have different skills

Because we are all unique, we have different skills, strengths, capabilities, and interests.

It can be hard to see the strengths of other people clearly. It’s easy to see where they fall short: they forget to pay bills on time, don’t tidy up, or anything that, for you, is the obvious, efficient way to do things. But maybe you are overlooking their skills or giving them little credit. How do you value the ability to soothe a grazed knee against balancing a checkbook? Different contributions are not easily tallied up like Olympic scoring.

Coming to terms with the fact that people are different from you can be a challenge. It might be your partner; it might be anyone. It’s fine when you agree, but when you don’t, how can anybody be so stupid? Obviously, your way is right: you know the correct route, can stack the dishwasher properly, know how to fix the homeless problem, and know the best way to handle a tantrum in a supermarket. You’re right and everybody else is…less right.

Everyone acts in the world differently. Maybe there’s more than one approach to doing something, but you never saw it before, or maybe they just like doing it that way. When you can relax into that and appreciate and enjoy those differences, you expand your view of what is possible and how to be in the world, and you can see that the two of you are more effective together than either one of you alone.

Differences can become sources of contention

When the strengths of the other person are not recognized as such, they can become sources of contention.

Finding that balance is challenging for some people because they clash, not on a basic level of emotional support (like how they make you 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. A comment on one of our blogs said “I had two friends who attended marriage counseling. One of the major gripes in their marriage was over the dishes.”

The things that bother you in other people may be things inside yourself that you don’t want to look at. You can be initially attracted to people with opposite qualities that fulfill a suppressed side of yours, but with time, those traits become characteristics that irritate you. For instance, a spendthrift is attracted to the fiscally responsible person, and they in turn are drawn to the capacity to indulge, but over time, these very behaviors cause each person to resent the other. An extroverted partner can be seen as embarrassing, exhausting, flirtatious, or unattentive. The difference that causes such a schism could be anything.

The woman who initially valued a man for his reliability, predictability and the sense of security he offered her, may–farther down the line–condemn these same qualities as dull, boring and constricting. – Maggie Scarf

Are they irreconcilable?

It might seem that some differences are irreconcilable. That is seldom the case; there are ways to find common ground. Most issues arise from how these differences are handled. By looking closely at your own response rather than just reacting, you can evaluate how real and important these differences are to you. Is there another way to satisfy the same thing without emphasizing the difference, and instead finding a place that works for both of you? Are you truly listening to the other and hearing what they express? And if so, is it a real difference or just a different way of expressing the same thing by another individual? Can you incorporate it or work with it and still stay true to your values?

How do you distinguish between a critical difference and just an ordinary one? A critical difference is when you expect and need the other person to think or act like you, as opposed to going “Meh, that’s just how they are.” Is this an issue of control that you need to dial back, or is it a core value that is unacceptable?

By looking at how other people are different, and the extent to which that is okay but just not for you, compared to being plain unacceptable, you will acquire a much stronger sense of self. This is indeed a sense, not a reason; it arises from within, and the words describing it follow.

You need to look at yourself

To answer these questions, you have to know yourself and be willing to reflect on your words and actions. The way differences are perceived holds the key to peaceful interactions and it resides in coming from love not fear. If you see differences as a criticism or a threat, you will respond defensively to protect yourself, and there lies the kernel of discord. But that need not be the case. Differences exist because we are all unique and we express the same values differently according to our own unique personality and experience.

One of the keys is in how you see the differences – differences in wants and needs, differences in behavior, in timing, in the need to be right, in the desire for harmony, and in how important it is to each of you for the other person to be fulfilled and at peace with the mutual experience.

Look at benefits

An important part of looking at differences is to see their benefits. They bring diversity and broaden the possibilities available to you. They add to what you have, rather than taking away. They bring other ways to do things, see things, think about things. When you can relax and appreciate and enjoy those differences, you are expanding your view of what is possible and how to be in the world, and you can see that the two of you are more effective together than either one of you alone.

Another aspect of differences is the pleasure that they offer. They can be a great enrichment to your life. As someone we interviewed said, “It would be so boring if all I had in my relationship was another me. I already have me!”

Look at similarities

The obvious way that you compare things is by looking at how they differ. Which oven is self-cleaning? Does this bank charge overdraft fees? Less obvious is to look at the similarities, because they don’t help you make choices at all: every toaster makes toast; both these cars have ABS. Similarities and differences co-exist like yin and yang, but our survival mechanism primes us to pay attention to differences from the norm because they are where danger might lie.

It’s hard to hold two contradictory views at once, like a figure and ground drawing, and so it is with differences in relationships, whether the choice is where to live or when to clean house. It’s the differences that catch your attention, grate, or irritate you. The more you look at them, the more they loom and the less you see what you have in common, yet commonalities are the foundation of any relationship. When you look at what you have in common, the differences don’t vanish, but they move to the corner of your vision.

In all your relationships, the issue of whether you put your attention on similarities or differences plays a big part in whether those relationships are harmonious or acrimonious. By looking at similarities, you can see how you are united. When you look only at differences, you see division, where conflict is always implicit and sometimes is actually happening. When you look for similarities in your wants and needs and in your desired outcomes, you will most likely find them. Once you do, it often just comes down to working out the methods to achieve your similar goals.

Reframe your viewpoint

Your attitude, the position you come from in an exchange, can dramatically change the outcome.

A relationship is made up of the connections between two people, and it only takes you to change how the relationship goes. This applies to every relationship you have. When you alter your approach and acceptance of others, it will change you, and it will change the person you are relating to as well.

When you can look at someone and in your core know that they are a unique being, and not just a slightly different version of you, everything changes. You are much less likely to expect them to do what you do, think what you think, or express themselves as you do.

The key to peaceful interactions lies in coming from love not fear. If you see difference as a contradiction or a threat, you will respond defensively to protect yourself. When you feel there is an attack, or that you are being criticized or rejected due to a difference in behavior or desires, you will fight the invading idea. But it exists because everybody is unique and responds differently according to their unique personality and experience.

When apparent differences arise in your relationships, look at their source and look for similarities. Is this really a difference that innately causes separation and distance between you, or is it something worth looking into more deeply? Is it a matter of enlarging your view or is it a true variance of values? Are you wanting to be right or to find a mutual solution?

Intend to be peaceful

Much depends on your intention. As you become more attracted toward having a peaceful relationship, your intention to make it happen will increase. By seeing it in this way, you re-frame how you see the world. When you are looking at things from this perspective, the differences between you are not seen as a challenge but an asset that adds variety and new perspective to your lives.

Be open to growth

Differences have the potential to help you in areas you find weak or lacking in yourself. They need not be antagonizing, but rather can offer a way to improve your imperfections. You can use them as inspiration for growth and greet them as opportunities rather than threats.

You have to want to grow and be open to change. It takes some form of self-reflection or mindfulness to know ourselves better, recognize our weaknesses, and work on them.

You see how you are by looking within, but you see how you could be by looking at other people. That might be your partner, a friend, a therapist, a famous person, or a fictional character, and it might be their bravery, determination, empathy, generosity, or resilience you admire. Maude says:

I have experienced this and countless other things from many of my close relationships. I have a friend who is dedicated to helping with whatever limited resources and time she has. She makes lunch bags for about 20 people each weekend and delivers to a place that distributes them. She has volunteered at thrift stores to help various causes and in general spends a portion of her time doing things within the community to help others. My approach is usually more one on one with the many people I am connected to, offering emotional support, a listening supportive ear and counsel when asked for. Seeing her active in the community has filled me with wonder and expanded my view of all we can do.

It can be so inspiring to see your very same values manifested in ways you would never think of and that add so much to your world. It is like when someone has cataract surgery and all of a sudden they can see full color without the filmy sepia that is present before the surgery.

Embrace the differences

For an enrichment of your relationships and a more joyous way of being together, ask yourself, “What stops me from embracing differences?” “Why am I rejecting or trying to modify what seems different?” and “What will it take for me to move into trust and acceptance?”

The more we have relationships of trust where we are celebrating and open to the diversity, the more expanded our world will be. We don’t need to be the same, we don’t need to act the same. Let’s open our hearts and create the kind of trust and lack of fear that lets us see and experience the colors of the rainbow, the power of our uniqueness. Differences can be a great enrichment to our lives.

Photo credit: Maude Mayes
Photo note: Neighbors of ours

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5 Comments on “How To Deal With Differences In Your Relationships

  1. I appreciate your views on handling the wide variety of people we live with. It’s refreshing to hear ideas that resonate with the heart of Jesus’s message, especially in light of the discussion I’m having with someone who wants to persecute a small percentage of our population because they don’t fit his idea of what’s “normal.”

      • Maude, yes! You’d think that message would be clear enough, but unfortunately there are a lot of other messages people would rather focus on instead.

  2. I really loved todays in depth description of the perception of similarities and differences, and how we each have the opportunity not only to expand our individual perspectives, but to embrace the benefits of each others uniqueness.

    • Hi Iris,
      Thank you for your comment. Its great to ear how much you understand what we shared!!

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