Couples and conflicts: difference and differences
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Simon Parritt C.Psychol, AFBPsS, MSc, BSc(Hon), MBACP
4th September, 20130 Comments
“One rarely falls in love without being as much attracted to what is interestingly wrong with someone as what is objectively healthy.” Alain de Botton
It seems obvious to say that people get together because something attracts one to the other. Most people, most of the time, do not linger on why or how this happens. Whatever our sexual orientation, age, cultural background or health, as humans we are attracted to another human, some of us many times and in different ways and degrees throughout our lives. Of course we do not, cannot, and sometimes, should not always act upon these attractions. But they are none the less real. It may not be reciprocated or healthy; we may be already in a relationship, or have any number of reasons to ignore it. It may be a fleeting thought or feeling, or it may just be that we know it would not work as a relationship.
Whatever the reasons are that we end up in a relationship, ‘a couple’ of differences always exist. Those differences that were originally unknown, insignificant, ignored, endearing or attractive, can later become a part, or even the focus, of why or what we argue about, or causes us to become distant, live with unhappiness, cheat or even break up.
Differences come in many forms and guises and they are not always the more obvious cultural, ethnic or religious differences. Many couples in cities like London who felt a romantic and/or strong sexual attraction when first meeting have come, not just from different backgrounds, but profoundly different life experiences. Difference can be exciting, enticing, fascinating, interesting and can enrich the relationship; but it isn’t always easy as subtle different ways and styles of emotional communication can lie at the heart of conflict. After that initial excitement and passion, the challenges and conflicts that all of us face may be all the more problematic as the beliefs, lifestyles and reactions of our separate life experiences are brought together under the same roof, in the same bed day after day. Work, family and children can make communication in all forms all the more difficult. The pressures of modern living invade our original love and attraction as different expectations and assumptions become evident.
Somebody once said it's what you don’t see you're interested in, and this is true.”
We perhaps overlook the more subtle differences between couples because they are less obvious or may even be part of the initial attraction. The list of subtler combinations are endless and can include such elements as place of birth, disability, class, income, education, job etc. It can be important to recognise how differences influence emotional responses and physical closeness as well as the unspoken attitudes and beliefs around partnerships, marriage, sex, religion, parenting and the influence of the wider family. These issues are especially challenging and difficult to explore when couples arrive for therapy in a state of distress and often conflict. Indeed, whilst these issues may not even be the core of the problem, they have contributed to a breakdown in communication and closeness that further distances the couple and therefore exacerbates the difficulties.
‘What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are, but how you deal with incompatibility.’
It is a shame that therapy is often a last resort, the A&E of relationships. One person can often be portrayed as being, or having, ‘the problem’. Most arrive with feeling of incompatibility, sometimes even reluctantly arriving together in the therapy room. Many couples turn up tired, exhausted from having to ‘sort it out’ as well as leading their lives together day by day, having ceased to be friends let alone lovers. They may have also been dealing with children and all that being parents brings to the situation. Are they there to convince themselves they have tried everything and get permission to finally end it? Maybe, but therapy has to start where we are and just being there says something about hope.
Therapy isn’t a quick fix or a dark art, and therapists are not purveyors of some magic formula. They work in different ways; they are all different, and are not perfect or the possessors of the answers. One therapist may work better for one couple but not another; all however will have something to offer which comes not just from training, but that has been developed and shaped by experience. Couple and relationship therapy offers a place to attempt to communicate differently and sometimes say the unsaid. It can be a place to honestly communicate what you feel, what you have felt and what you want. It is rare that everything can be ‘fixed’, and this is upsetting. But whatever the future holds, there is no going back. It is also about coming to terms with the reality that things will never, could never be ‘as they were’ and not thinking in terms of ‘if only’. Once you have shared and explored the past, there is only going forward and hope.
‘Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.’
Ending is usually painful. What therapy can offer is a less destructive, if not painless path, be that to reconnect and build something new and different or to end it. But, there is always hope when a couple is still connected enough, beneath the disappointment and hurt, to still be able to accept and acknowledge their difference and differences. If they can really explore and accept what that means in reality in their future day to day life together, then there is always the possibility of a happy end, or rather a happy new beginning.
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