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Can You and Your Partner Agree to Disagree?

Expert advice on why we hate disagreement, and how to live with it.

"Let's agree to disagree."

Certainly, you've heard the phrase before, perhaps so often that it's ceased to have much meaning to you. But the fact is that in a long-term, committed relationship, when circumstances oblige you to confront significant differences with your partner, nothing could be more crucial than agreeing 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.

Not that such a near-paradoxical accord, adaptation, or accommodation is easy to accomplish. Most of the time it can be extremely challenging—for most couples, reaching the point where they're able to comfortably agree to disagree can take not months but years, if their relationship ever achieves that enviable state of grace at all.


Well, if you operate the way most people do, when your partner takes exception to your viewpoint—or introduces one sharply contrasting with yours—you may find it almost impossible not to experience them as invalidating you, personally attacking you, or striving to defeat you. And if this is how you perceive them in the moment—not as your lifetime companion but as your willful adversary—then you're compelled to strike back, defend yourself, or even exit the situation entirely, whether mentally, emotionally, or physically.

After all, in that instant of disagreement, their words have managed to morph them into your enemy. How could this not be the case if, somewhere deep in your gut, you experience their contrary point of view as somehow puncturing your own? (And incidentally, there's an awfully good chance they'll be reacting to you similarly—i.e., experiencing your position as aiming poison arrows at theirs.)

This, of course, is when you're most likely to summon all your mental energy to prove them wrong. For it may feel as though it's absolutely critical to defend your position. In that moment of perceived threat, you may feel (without really understanding why) as if your viewpoint represents something intimately connected to your essence, so that making any concessions would be to sacrifice the innermost core of your being.

And to the extent that you identify yourself with your mind—that you unconsciously regard yourself as equitable to it—then the thought of changing your mind, or simply detaching from it, can feel untenable, even hazardous. So it can be exceedingly difficult to avoid taking your partner's disagreement personally, especially when you can't help attributing a certain authority to them; they are, after all, your "match."

Additionally, when your partner takes exception to what you're saying, it can feel like a total withdrawal of their loyalty and support—all the more so if you're dependent on their approval.

Yet what's imperative to understand is that on most occasions your disagreements merely mean that the two of you happen not to see something the same way—or that your wants or needs on a particular matter differ. Not being each other's clones, naturally, you're not going to share all the same preferences.

No big deal, right?

If in that moment of disagreement you actually feel abandoned by your partner, it can be a very big deal. You can feel completely out of harmony with them—frustrated, demeaned, disregarded, disconnected, alienated, and/or betrayed. At least that's what the child part of you may be experiencing—and it can be intensely uncomfortable and disconcerting.

Move from Menacing Disagreements to Safe Ones

What's required in such problematic situations is that your adult part immediately embrace that anxious, befuddled, or indignant child part, and reassure it that its intimate partner's contrary viewpoint doesn't represent any kind of threat—though to your "kid self" it undoubtedly may feel like it.

Never forget that the emotional part of you is—and will always be—"in the custody of" your inner child. Not that we adults don't have emotions, but our emotions come from our younger selves—and so can easily be governed by issues unresolved from the past. Our adult self, on the other hand, is the reasonable, logical, calm and collected part of us. It's everything we've consciously cultivated over the years to operate more effectively in the world.

At times when your spouse's disagreement causes you to emotionally react (or overreact), it's crucial that you access that scared, lonely, vulnerable part of yourself. Then—in your mind's eye—you need, lovingly, to let that it know that their intimate companion's contrary preferences don't really relate to them, that these preferences simply define their partner as in some ways different—but safely different—from them.

Such "caring correction" can be difficult. Your inner child, depending on how well (or poorly) they're integrated with your adult self, needs to be reassured that they're not bad, wrong, or unlovable just because their partner disagrees with them. As long as the adult in you hasn't left the scene entirely at the moment your partner pushed your buttons—and virtually all your buttons go back to childhood—you can appreciate that it's okay (i.e., non-threatening) for your spouse not to want what you do, think like you do, or feel like you do all the time.

When you're truly able to get in compassionate touch with that tender and exquisitely vulnerable part of yourself, you can appropriately respond (rather than automatically react) to perceived provocations that in the past may have thrown you off balance. The trick is learning how to settle yourself down when your feathers begin to get ruffled.

Never forget that self-soothing always involves the adult part of you effectively soothing the child part. It's only then that you can begin to respond differently in moments of relationship discord. (To learn how to become more proficient at self-soothing, see part 3 of my earlier post, "The Power to Be Vulnerable.")

It can hardly be overemphasized that your harmony isn't necessarily at risk simply because the two of you have differences. In fact, confiding in your mate about such discrepancies might even be good for you—and, ultimately, relationship. As long as you share your dissimilarities with grace, diplomacy, and tact, you should be able to let more of your hair down, and—comfortable in making the more "contrary" parts of yourself known—be more of yourself with your partner.

Unquestionably, this is the way toward greater intimacy. For what, after all, is intimacy if not the closeness engendered by feeling the freedom to share yourself fully with another human being? On the other hand, to the degree that you feel you have to keep a significant part of yourself hidden—for fear of the friction that might result otherwise—you risk sacrificing something vital in yourself. And no one should have to conceal basic parts of themselves simply to keep things (superficially, at least) harmonious at home.

Still, to become more comfortably open and self-disclosing in your relationship, you need to regularly remind yourself the differences don't of themselves put your relationship in jeopardy. It's not a prerequisite to harmony that couples agree on everything—just that both of you can appreciate the subjective validity of the other's viewpoint. What, finally, may be only an inconsequential discrepancy between the two of you can be placed in the more enlightened context of a "live-and-let-live" harmony.

Owning up to such apparently "irreconcilable" differences doesn't mean that the two of you are incompatible—or that when you disagree you can't continue to feel close and connected. A strong relational bond hardly requires unanimity in all things.

So "agreeing to disagree" can at last be seen as an affirmation of a much deeper, virtually unassailable, rapport—one that's sustainable even in the face of differences which, beforehand, you may not have known even existed. Additionally (assuming you've grown beyond your adolescent insecurities), you won't need your partner to validate you, because you're perfectly capable of doing it yourself.

Obviously, if you haven't yet learned to be self-validating, very little of what I've said is going to seem tenable. If during disagreements you routinely argue your point of view, endeavoring to convince your partner of its superior merits, then what I've described here will probably seem remote at best. (If this is the case, see part 2 of my post, "The Power to Be Vulnerable.") If these recommendations are to feel viable, you'll first need to become less reliant on your partner's validation

All perspectives are subjective and imbued with personal bias. They're based on biological predisposition, early environmental experiences, and one's unique comprehension of these experiences. Think about it: There's simply no way your partner could be genetically identical to you, or have been exposed to precisely the same experiences, or, for that matter, attribute the same meaning to these experiences.

That inevitable human variability is exactly what you need to keep in mind when you experience conflict. From their point of view—every bit as authentic and genuinely felt as your own—they're always right. And so are you. Once you view your differences in this way, you'll cease to feel invalidated by your partner. Once you come into your own adult authority to validate yourself, they'll no longer possess the power to "de-certify" you.

I'm hardly recommending that you become complacent, self-righteous, or smug. Of course, there will be times when you—and your partner—will be wrong, or at least wrong-headed. Still, at any given moment, what you say and how you feel will have internal validity.

Once you and your partner accept this fundamental assumption, "reconciling" or "re-harmonizing" your contrasting viewpoints is just a matter of better appreciating and respecting these core dissimilarities. Such a transformed attitude will enable both of you—even as you share the reasons supporting your individual positions—to co-create the enduring harmony you've longed for. At which point your disagreements will no longer separate you. On the contrary, they'll actually strengthen feelings of love and commitment—the bond—between you.

Note: Agreeing to disagree may be essential in evolving your relationship. But generally, it's not enough. You also need to know how to work out effective compromises when your preferences differ. In this regard, you might want to take a look at two other couples problem-solving posts I've written, "How to Optimize Your Relationship: The 70/70 Compromise" and "Compromise Made Simple: 7 Handy Tips for Couples."

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© 2010 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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