Having Nothing in Common Doesn't Spell the End
How indifference can save your relationship.
Posted Jan 20, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
Having ‘nothing in common’ is often understood and experienced as incompatibility, or being so different that we cannot co-exist harmoniously. Yet whilst difference in a relationship is inevitable, the conflict that often accompanies it is not.
Conflict thrives in our inability to tolerate difference, which in turn grows out of a deeply rooted, ancient threat brain fear. Our reptilian ancestors with their basic brains reacted to differences in the environment as a potential danger. As we evolved and learned that living in groups and caring for each other conferred significant survival advantages, being different felt like a threat because it risked being rejected and isolated from the safety of others. Thus it is not our fault that difference makes us feel alert and defensive, but it becomes our problem when we allow these basic emotions to control our behaviours.
One reason conflict thrives is because too often our focus is wholly on the other person or the situation that is triggering our threat response. This is helpful in the rare (for most of us) occasions when people and situations are life-threatening. However, most of the time threat emotions are stimulated not by actual dangers but by memories of socially and psychologically painful experiences that have sensitised us to disapproval, criticism, and judgment. By cultivating indifference we turn our attention away from the other and towards ourselves. This 'inward turn' helps us to learn about and distinguish between the threats we must react to quickly – such as running from an attack ‒ and those we can deal with through calming our emotions – such as feeling angry at being criticised. For most of us the threats we must react to quickly are thankfully few.
Indifference grows as we let go of or loosen our attachment towards the way things 'should' be. Shoulds, musts, and oughts control and constrain the way we understand our world and our relationships. When we are indifferent we hold 'truth' lightly and become open to multiple possibilities for living and relating. When we are centred and calm, indifference is felt as compassionate detachment where we can love, 'without the shadow of self-interest cruising below the surface like a surly shark.' (Hollis, 1998).
The psychologist William James described indifference as, 'every view of the world which makes infinity and continuity to be its essence'. James was describing states of consciousness in which categories, divisions, and polarisations become unnecessary and unimportant as we start to see the interconnectedness, commonality, and unity of all things. This kind of consciousness arises when we are able to centre and soothe ourselves and when we are able to stay receptive to our experiences without prematurely judging, criticising, or rejecting. Indifference is a state of mind not fixed or pre-occupied by past or future concerns but one that is present, open and curious. So, for example, when you criticise me I no longer defend myself or attack you but instead receive your criticism with open curiosity—after all, your criticism is not going to kill me, and you may have insight I can learn from.
When your partner annoys or upsets you because they are being or doing something you don't like, want, or expect, you can try the first practice that takes us towards indifference, which is returning to our centre. It works like this:
- We notice we are in threat, which means paying attention to our bodies and inner life more openly and more often.
- We use our breath to support a threat regulating response in our bodies, which means understanding how breath works and practising breathing well.
- We interrupt our mental habit of judging, analysing, or criticising what is happening in, to, and around us with kind self-talk, and by using our breath as a focal point, or anchor, to ‘hold’ us in centre when we become distracted or overwhelmed.
- We continue to talk to ourselves gently and breathe regularly until our body and mind have calmed.
- We forgive ourselves if we cannot do this and if we momentarily - or significantly - lose ourselves to threat.
- We try again.
Once we are able to calm our threat emotions we can take the next step towards indifference which is understanding why it distresses us. This involves a deeper exploration of our many unconscious memories and associations. For example, when my partner’s spontaneity infuriates me because I like to plan in advance, I may discover through a deeper inquiry that my need to have control and order in life is a legacy of how I survived the unpredictability of parental alcoholism.
As we practice indifference we start to notice the many polarities that draw us into conflict such as spontaneous-controlling, introvert-extrovert, submissive-dominant, order-chaos, vocal-silent, commitment-freedom. And we learn that problems arise from living in the extremes of these polarities without acknowledging or accepting the opposite pole and the continuum in between.
When we can promise to love 'in difference and in health' our relationships will flourish.
Hollis, J. (1998) The Eden Project: In Search of the Magical Other. Inter City Books.
James, W. (1977) The Varieties of Religious Experience. Collier Books.
Wickremasinghe, N. (2021) Being With Others: Curses, Spells and Scintillations. Triarchy Press