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6 Ways to Manage the Differences in Your Relationship

Things are never perfect. That doesn't mean they have to fail.


Mary* loves romantic comedies. Her boyfriend Sam* likes action movies—the more violent, the better. She’s a vegetarian; he's a carnivore. “I love him, but we seem totally mismatched,” she says. “We can’t agree on a movie or a meal; how can we make important life choices, like where we’ll live or when we’ll start a family?”

With all the electronic data available at our fingertips today, it seems like it should be a breeze to find a partner who's a perfect match. But as you know if you’ve done any internet dating, what looks right onscreen doesn’t always fly in the real world.

One problem is that we often think of compatibility as similarity. But too much sameness can be boring. Besides, do you really want to be married to yourself, with all of your flaws and weaknesses? Most of us want someone who will make up for our own failings, enhance our strengths, and enrich our lives.

So differences are important. But while it may sometimes be true that opposites attract, some differences can drive us crazy—like when you’re a neat freak and your girlfriend's a slob, or you're a ballet lover but the person you love will only leave the house to see a hockey game.

And I haven’t even mentioned religious, ethnic and cultural differences. As your parents may be quick to point out, it’s hard enough being married when you have the same background; why complicate your life further by getting involved with someone who is so different from you?

Why indeed?

No matter who you are with, you will run into some conflict. It’s simply part of being in a relationship. For example, one very common struggle comes up around holidays each year—how are you going to manage the conflict between your desire to be with your family and your partner’s wish to be with his or hers? How do you cope with the pull from both sides?

And what about money? What happens when you want to save for a home and your beloved just wants to buy more electronic equipment? Or one of you wants to buy lunch out and the other wants to make sandwiches at home? Sure, sexual compatibility is important, but conflicts over families, finances, and even friends can disrupt a relationship just as quickly, and sometimes with more serious consequences.

But even if difference is the spice of life, at least as far as successful relationships go, you still have to deal with conflicts that emerge from these differences (just as perfectly-matched couples inevitably must).

[It is crucial to recognize that conflict is different from abuse. If you are in a situation where you are being physically or emotionally harmed, I encourage you to get some help from someone else—family, clergy (it does not have to be someone in your own religion), a teacher, or a professional person. Taking care of yourself (and your children, if you have any) needs to be your priority.]

But if you are in a relationship with normal ups and downs, a few basic guidelines can help you manage disagreements, restore equilibrium, and move forward together:

  1. Recognize that some conflict is part of any relationship. Whether the difference is something simple—you prefer the window open while you sleep and your partner wants it closed—or something more complex, like a difference in religious beliefs, what’s really important is not so much what the disparities are, but how you manage them, both as individuals and as a couple.
  2. In another post, I discussed a study that found how much our expectations can impact the success of a relationship. We look for a partner who'll make us feel admired, valued, and loved. Since conflict and criticism and can diminish those feelings, it’s important to find ways to reinstate them. One valuable tool comes from the business world: Rather than giving criticism on its own, it’s useful to make a “sandwich,” putting any negative comment between two positive ones. For instance, “You are really good at finding solutions for all kinds of problems. It would be so great if you could find a solution for the clutter in our bedroom. And you know, I love that you take such good care of the plants! They are just beautiful!” (Just be careful that any compliment you give is one you genuinely mean. The sandwich only works if it's honest.)
  3. Criticize a specific behavior or situation, not your partner’s personality. When I’m working with a couple, this is one of the first ground rules I ask them to set up. Complaints about personality are extremely unproductive, in part because the other person's automatic response is to defend himself or herself, and in part because such complaints undermine the feelings of being valued and loved that are key to any relationship’s well-being. And, of course, personality is a lot harder to change than behavior, so you’ll get a lot further if you present your concerns in terms of actions.
  4. It’s always tempting to put a complaint in terms of time. “You always leave your shoes lying around,” or “You never pay the bills on time.” But once again, specific concerns are easier to address and to change than generalizations. It’s also helpful to address conflict in terms of what you feel (most conflict resolution manuals start with this idea) instead of what the other person has done: “I know I’m a neat freak, but I felt so uncomfortable when I had to step over your shoes when I walked into the house just now.”
  5. When possible, a genuine offer to help with a difficult situation can ease conflict. For instance, if your partner is often late (while you are often on time), ask if you can help along with talking about how you feel in specific situations and offering concerns compliment sandwich-style: “I hear that you need to see the opening credits of this movie to get the full story; I really would like to get there a little early. Is there anything I can do to help you get out of the house early tonight?”
  6. Finally, remember that some things simply can’t be changed. Some differences may be deal-breakers, but many are simply part of a package of someone who is not the same as you. And that package may be enriching your life.

*Names and identifying information changed to protect privacy.

Helpful books

  • Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen
  • Getting the Love You Want, 20th Anniversary Edition: A Guide for Couples by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D.
More from F. Diane Barth L.C.S.W.
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