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When Differences Emerge in Relationships

Navigating the complexities of interpersonal relationships.

By Jessica Borelli, Ph.D., and Debra Mashek, Ph.D.

February 14th conjures thoughts of interpersonal connection, and ideological polarization seems far from images of roses and romance. But it seems to be everywhere, these days. This Valentine’s Day, as disagreements dominate the headlines, we find ourselves thinking about viewpoints and perspective.

To provide a bit of context, we are both close relationships researchers. We are also professors and people navigating the complex world of interpersonal relationships at work, home, and in our communities.

Annette Shaff/Shutterstock
Source: Annette Shaff/Shutterstock

Close relationships researchers delve deeply into questions about the challenges and opportunities of divergent perspectives and beliefs in relationships, as well as the strategies people use to successfully navigate differences of opinion. The lessons learned just might help all of us navigate with a bit more grace the divergent perspectives we encounter in both our romantic relationships and beyond.

As people, we are driven to increase our agency in the world, and one way we do this is by entering into close relationships in which we take on the perspectives of our partners. Over time and across contexts, we develop a rich understanding of our partner’s worldviews, and this richness both complicates and enhances our own understanding of the world. We see it in a new way, consider angles we haven’t previously thought about.

This process is likely to result in growth for both parties. We come to understand the world anew, leading us to have a greater understanding of other people, their experiences, and their beliefs.

As any psychologist will tell you, in terms of its impact on our lives, perception is more important than reality. This is certainly true when it comes to our emotional worlds. What we perceive, and the narratives we tell ourselves about those perceptions, inform our emotional reactions to situations.

Imagine coming home to find a disaster zone in the normally tidy kitchen—dishes piled high in the sink, a half-eaten banana browning on the counter. If the automatic story we tell ourselves sounds something like: “My spouse is an inconsiderate jerk,” our downstream emotional reaction will feel really different than if the story sounds something like: “Something important must have come up all of sudden to warrant leaving this mess.”

When someone—a romantic partner or an acquaintance on Facebook—says or does something that offends us or grates against our moral intuitions, we can slow down our thoughts—and our emotions—by asking ourselves, “What else could be going on here?” Taking the time to step back and consider other possibilities can go a long way in terms of fostering positive relationships and saving much stress.

Clinical psychologists working with couples often conclude that the worst form of couple gridlock occurs when both members feel so rejected by the other that they can’t give an inch, resulting in total system shutdown. The path to resolution and increasing closeness involves opening oneself up to the other. Only in that space can couples see the values they share—the fundamental human desire to be understood, accepted, and loved—buried beneath their differences.

When contentious differences emerge, it can be helpful to remember that all of us are complex and that no one idea defines a person. Look behind and beyond the difference to find shared ground as a basis for productive exploration of difference.

Whether in childhood or adulthood, we benefit from relationships that provide security and reassurance to go out into the world, to take risks, and to sometimes fail—knowing that we can return to the unconditional positive regard of our secure base. The sorts of behaviors that allow others around us to take risks are not all that different from the behaviors we afford our romantic others that embolden them to tackle new challenges.

Assume others have good intentions. This goes a long way in creating positive relationships. Acknowledge the potential for fallibility in our thinking. Respect the thought processes of others as careful and reasonable. and above all, persist in the quest to understand others

This is perhaps the best Valentine’s Day gift of all.

Jessica Borell, Ph.D.,is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Social Behavior at the University of California, Irvine, and is the clinical director of emPATH Clinical Services in Newport Beach.

Debra Mashek, Ph.D., is Professor of Social Psychology at Harvey Mudd College, and is also the Executive Director of Heterodox Academy.