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How to Make Differences Work for a Relationship

Are similarities important for a happy marriage?

Google/Free Use
Source: Google/Free Use

There is no question people believe that having things in common can lead to a strong marriage. The evidence supports it, too.

But what if those shared interests fade for one or both partners, or if, in fact, you don’t really like that many of the same things in the first place? Can you still build a strong foundation and share a lasting relationship?

According to actor Bill Pullman, the secret to a happy marriage is "putting our hands in the dirt; it’s parallel play of digging and planting.” In other words, he and his wife can do their own activity while being together. "It's helped us keep in tune with each other,” he says. For them, a successful marriage seems to be about embracing their common ground. But if you don’t have that, how can you maintain a supportive connection?

Clearly it can be easier if you agree on extracurricular choices—movies genres, favorite cuisines, types of books, travel destinations—and even how often you're intimate with each other. All of that allows you to smoothly spend quality time together. But what happens if suddenly your husband doesn’t like to ski anymore while you still do? Or your wife has developed an aversion to Thai food, which is always your go-to Friday night choice for dinner out and you still love it?

Or what if you have always had sex twice a week, which worked well for you both, and suddenly your husband wants to only do it twice a month? What if none of this was the case to begin with, and you were swept away by intense chemistry but once the dust settled you realized you didn’t like doing that much together? Can you still make your marriage work?

Discord in any arena, especially if things change over time, can create problems. For example, if one person is feeling deprived of affection, both partners will suffer the fallout.

Appearance is another domain that can catapult couples into a downward spiral. Very often couples get so comfortable with each other that they no longer feel they have to maintain their appearance or appeal. If suddenly you are no longer dressing up and going out, or your partner stays stuck in the same shirt day in and day out, or stops shaving, you may find yourself not only angry but turned off to the point of avoiding intimacy.

On top of the wear and tear of everyday life and its responsibilities, such factors can contribute to disappointment and resentment. So, what can you do to generate harmony and happiness rather than discontent?

The first and most important thing is to keep your desire to please your partner on a full flame. It is helps to realize that when you met your partner, you very much wanted to please him or her, sometimes at the cost of withholding your feelings about some things.

Once married, though, it's difficult to conceal who you really are. Hopefully being authentic doesn't conflict with your intent to satisfy your partner and meet their needs. If one partner asks the other to put on a different shirt, it may be head as a demand in which you are ordering them what to do, not as a request to do something that brings joy. It can make a partner feel controlled, igniting a power struggle with one partner saying if you loved me you would and the other demanding not to be told what to do.

A second important step is to learn to include your partner in the decision process before settle on a choice. Very often people assume that because they want to see their family, their spouse will be just fine with that. Or since they are social and want to hang out with their friends every weekend, their partner will be on board.

Making choices based on what you want to do without getting your partner’s input makes your partner feel unimportant and not cared about. By learning to come to joint decisions and discussing your needs as well as theirs before organizing a plan, even though you may not always agree, your partner at least comes to know that they are important to you, valued, and loved. Finding some middle ground and learning to compromise can facilitate making choices that leave room for the pleasures and preferences of both partners.

Finally, if you have few shared interests, it is never too late to be open to participating in your partner’s hobby or activity. While you might not always enjoy it yourself, you can derive pleasure from seeing their enjoyment. It is a way to extend yourself and show love as well. It can also be used as an opportunity to grow together, a way to discover activities you both like, whether it's playing card, dancing, or cooking together.

Learning to tolerate differences and make room for them can help partners stay connected, rather divide them.