Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

One Marriage = Two Realities

What’s embedded in the curiously paradoxical math of marriage?

No matter who you marry, there’s one thing you can count on. Unless you’re able to create an opposite-sex clone of yourself, then walk down the aisle with it (and the technology doesn’t exist yet!), the person you wed will bring with them a reality that at times will feel alien—even unacceptable—to you. Inevitably, your reaction will include disappointment, frustration, and an unsettling anxiety. In some instances, you’ll experience not only disenchantment with them but downright betrayal.

However unconsciously, in courtship you tend to hide, minimize, or ignore your differences. After all, the whole process of falling in love embodies the myth of blissful compatibility: the illusion that your dreams of a relationship where your deepest needs for empathy, understanding, validation, and support are finally to be fulfilled. And also that your (idealized) partner is going to view things the same way you do, that they’ll gladly commit themselves not only to you but to your unique reality.

But (as, sadly, many of us have already learned) few things in life are more likely to deceive than courtship. For starters, when you’re in love you’re somehow “gifted” with the ability to intuit just how to present yourself to maximize your attractiveness to the beloved. Additionally, in your desire to see the other as “the one,” you blithely disregard various hints that substantial differences do exist between the two of you. Marriage’s rude-awakening stage relates mostly to the growing realization that your significant other really is other than you.

Therefore, the central (eternal?) challenge in committed relationships is to learn how to appreciate, respect, and even embrace the other’s reality as being just as legitimate, justified, and sincerely held as your own. If despite your dissimilarities you’re to live together harmoniously, it’s imperative that you don’t sit in judgment on them when they express a perspective that clearly diverges from yours.

The main thing to grasp here—and this takes a great deal more effort (and evolution) than most people realize—is that your viewpoints toward people and situations always feel valid to you . . . as do theirs to them. Unless they’ve become mentally and emotionally unhinged, their perspective logically connects to the sum total of their personal learning. An educational history involving both what they were taught in growing up—informally through family and friends, and formally through schooling—and also the interpretations their nature and temperament predisposed them to make about all this “life instruction.” In short, they came by their subjective reality exactly the same way you did. So, of course they’d experience it as every bit as authentic, or valid, as you do yours.

Consequently, trying to talk them, or argue them, out of this reality (for it may well feel threatening to your own) is not only futile but guaranteed to generate greater distance between the two of you. Which is to say a distance incompatible with the romance and intimacy both of you originally established during courtship—and precisely through tacitly agreeing not to let your dissimilarities stand in the way of becoming united (i.e., one) with each other.

The ultimate reality of marriage is that it involves two realities. To the extent that both you and your mate can appreciate this, you can begin to repair whatever damage may have been done to your relational intimacy. Damage caused by how you’ve dealt with your differences: namely, how your reacting to your dissimilarities has created a power struggle between you (i.e., the fight over whose wants and needs should get higher priority).

As I regularly point out to couples I work with, marriage hardly necessitates that you pretend to agree with your spouse when you really don’t. It only requires that you refuse to allow such disagreements to prompt you to inform them that they’re being ridiculous, irrational, or (worst of all) stupid. If you simply assume that their differing viewpoints have their own logic, make sense to them, and (in their own distinct way) are quite as valid as yours—as well as equally deserving of understanding and empathy—your relationship can turn around more quickly than you might ever imagine.

And such a profound perceptual shift can keep your relationship turned around. For your differences can now be viewed in a far more favorable light—no longer as threatening, or exasperating, but as natural, inevitable, and even positive. Permitting your partner’s viewpoint and ways of doing things to peacefully co-exist with your own enables you to grow your outlook into one that’s more mature. In a word, wiser. And such a transformed orientation and attitude will probably benefit you and your relationship infinitely more than whatever tack you may have taken before.

So when the two of you don’t see things eye to eye, can you at least imagine what it might be like to view things as they do? Can you put yourself inside their head and identify with their (subjectively meaningful) viewpoint—one that, just like yours, was molded both by their earlier environment and biological heritage?

True, this contextual change may never equal the unworldly tranquility of marrying your opposite-sex clone (which, frankly, might get rather boring over time). But if you can better understand the unique individual you married, then even when you simply don’t—or can’t—see things eye to eye, by taking the time to enter into their reality, you may realize the very highest couples ideal of seeing them "I to I."

NOTE 1: This piece is just one of various posts I've completed on the challenges of intimate relationships. If you'd like to delve further into the topic, here are links to six earlier writings of mine that should provide you with additional ideas:

“4 Essential Rules for Approaching Couples Conflict,”

“Couples Agreeing to Disagree: What’s It Really About?”,

“How to Optimize Your Relationship: The 70/70 Compromise,”

“Stop Criticizing Your Mate—or, How to Learn What You Already Know,”

“Criticism vs. Feedback—Which One Wins, Hands-Down? (in two parts),” and

“In Families, Blood May Be Thicker . . . but Skin is Thinner (Part 3 of “Why Criticism is So Hard to Take”).

NOTE 2: If you know of anyone who might find this piece useful, please consider sending them the link. Additionally, if you'd like to explore other (non-relationship) posts I've done for PT, click here. 

© 2013 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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