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If You and Your Spouse Are Incompatible, Who Should Change?

Coping with areas of incompatibility gives the relationship strength.

Key points

  • All couples experience some form of incompatibility.
  • The way the couple approaches the incompatibility determines the strength and durability of the relationship.
  • A three-step process can turn an incompatibility into an opportunity for closeness.
Image by Ilona Ilyés from Pixabay
Love is changing together.
Source: Image by Ilona Ilyés from Pixabay

Almost all intimate relationships have areas of incompatibility that may come and go throughout the duration of the relationship. Incompatibility is each partner taking a position that is exclusive of the other. For example, one person wants to have another child and the other spouse does not. How a couple resolves these differences is so fundamental that it may determine whether or not the relationship will withstand the test of time.

Many couples meet the challenge of incompatibility with competitiveness. They each insist that they are right and argue each time the issue comes up. A very common example concerns being on time, or not. In the dialogue below Andre and Melinda become increasingly competitive in their conversation about being on time to a wedding.

Mel: It is really important to me that we show up on time for the wedding.

Andre: I will do my best.

Mel: I will be very embarrassed if we miss the ceremony.

Andre: I know how uptight you are about it.

Mel: It’s not that I am uptight. You are rude.

Andre: You think it is going to ruin the wedding if we are few minutes late?

Mel: No. It will ruin it for me.

Andre: That’s your problem You are too uptight.

Mel: Maybe you should find someone who is not uptight to share your life with.

Andre and Melinda have this conversation every time they go to an event. They become competitive, each believing that they are right and the other is wrong and the whole exchange becomes divisive. Sometimes they end up not going and being mad at each other for days. That is the last thing you want in an intimate partnership. Healthy efforts to resolve the difference are themselves an act of intimacy and strengthen the relationship while adding to a sense of partnership and closeness. Here are two tools to help you and your partner achieve this result.

Compromise: Make an incompatibility compatible

Andre might offer to Melinda to go in separate cars to the wedding. That way she is in control of whether or not she arrives on time and he gets there when he gets there. If Melinda is comfortable with this then it may work. But it is not optimal. Melinda has to arrive at the wedding alone and she may be embarrassed by Andre arriving late even though she is not physically with him when he arrives. This approach is also likely to yield a sense of giving in and sacrifice rather than the desired sense of unity. The best approach will require more effort from both Andre and Melinda, but isn’t it worth it?

Joint Ownership

This requires that both parties own both the problem and the solution rather than blaming the other and trying to get them to change. This leads to a cooperative approach to the incompatibility and Andre and Melinda will feel like they solved the problem together and not in spite of each other. How do they do this?

Step 1: Define the problem

The problem should not be defined as Andre choosing to be disrespectful, nor should it be defined as Melinda being too sensitive. The problem should be defined as they are different with regard to their preferences and abilities in the area of timeliness and they need to find a solution that they can execute together as partners.

Step 2: Strategize

The parties then work together to form a strategy that is likely to be successful at resolving the tension associated with differences between them. The strategy should be focused on what is most healthy for each person as well as the relationship. The relationship can only be well if both parties are well.

Step 3: Execute the strategy

This phase should be approached in a fully cooperative format. Each party should support and assist the other in resolving the difference in the agreed upon manner.

The following is a conversation that Andre and Melinda might have that illustrates use of the three steps described above to resolve their differences with regard to timeliness.

Andre: I see that it is important to you to be on time for important events and I make that difficult for you.

Mel: I understand that you are not trying to make me uncomfortable but that it is difficult for you to be on time. The same thing happens with your work and your friends.

Andre: I will make more effort to be on time. But if I am late again, I will take responsibility with your friends so that it is on me.

Mel: Maybe I can help you be on time. Are there any things I can do to help you?

Andre: It helps me if you shower first and I have access to the bathroom for a while without interruption.

Mel: I can do that.

Andre: It also helps me if you could put less pressure on me. I don’t want to upset you but I get anxious about this and it makes me take longer.

Mel: Knowing that you will take responsibility if we are late helps me feel less anxious. But I agree, it would be healthier for me not to feel judged as a person based on whether or not I am on time to an event.

Andre: That’s right.

In the above example Andre and Melinda defined the problem by validating each other’s feelings and challenges and designed a strategy that they can execute together. If they execute this strategy consistently, they will both experience personal growth and feel closer to each other as a result.

Intimate couples should try to always avoid competition by focusing on cooperative approaches to solving incompatibility and other issues.

More from Daniel S. Lobel Ph.D.
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