Are we too different? Does difference always meet discord in relationships?
This is a question that many couples wonder about when they arrive for their first session of relationship counselling. Over a period of time (usually years) couples can shift from a feeling of love, excitement, anticipation and connection into a feeling of hopelessness about their relationship. They often arrive in therapy saying they are too different, they feel they no longer have anything in common, they appear to see the world too differently and they seem to have such different values. So perhaps they should split up they wonder out loud.
Jane: I love going out whereas Bob never wants to go out, he’s always at home gardening or pottering about, he’s so boring.
Despite seemingly insurmountable differences, many of these couples come to counselling because they sense, deep down, that they could be happy together and so they’re not ready to give up on the relationship. Often there are great strengths in the relationship and a deep love, but their differences cause such pain that the couple have lost hope.
Often it is the difference between partners that initially attracted them to each other, such as finding a partner who is more outgoing, more sociable, more intellectual, more family orientated or more disciplined etc than they are. But over time, if this difference isn’t celebrated and embraced within the relationship it can often polarise the couple and push them apart. Jane (mentioned above) explains her initial attraction to Bob and how this has now become a source of discord between them:
Bob was so settled and calm and I was such a party girl – I felt safe and secure with Bob whereas all my other boyfriends had been wild and unreliable and had ended up letting me down and leaving me heartbroken. I needed someone I could feel safe with and Bob made me feel safe. But now he drives me mad – I just think he is boring and never does anything interesting.
Whether we reject or embrace the differences in our partner is largely down to the extent to which we incorporate their qualities into our own personality and embrace them as assets for the relationship. For instance, Sophie grew up in a very religious family where she was not allowed to be angry (it was considered a sin) and so all her strong emotions were suppressed and Sophie’s philosophy of life was ‘peace at any price’. Sophie married Barry despite the fact that he expressed a lot of anger – she hoped she could rescue him in some way. But Barry’s anger was a mask for other emotions (fear and sadness) that his domineering father had ridiculed (don’t be a sissy was how Barry’s father would often respond to the young Barry when he felt nervous or fearful). So Barry had buried his sadness and fear as a child and instead felt hatred and anger towards his father. So whenever Barry felt fear or sadness with Sophie he would express this as anger that, in turn, Sophie rejected and criticized his anger, which merely escalated Barry’s fury.
Often we are drawn to our partner because of the unconscious work we can do within the partnership. Bannister (1955) explains this as ‘sometimes the partner may characterize a repressed or split off part of the other’s personality; often very dissimilar partners seem to find in each other what they have most sternly repressed in themselves’. Couple psychotherapist Ruszczynski (1993, p.8-9) who worked at the Tavistock Centre in London in the 1950’s said that ‘by mutually receiving one another’s unconscious projections, each partner gives the other an initial feeling of acceptance and attachment. This externalization of the internal conflict into someone who has to be contended with each day may enable that part of the personality to become gradually more tolerable within the self; however it may alternatively produce a fierce effort to control or punish it in the partner. Tensions within the couple relationship can therefore be thought of as internal conflicts externalized and acted out in the partnership’.
The unconscious contract between Barry and Sophie was that Barry could help Sophie to feel and express anger as a normal human emotion and not one to be fearful of. And Sophie could help Barry to feel his more vulnerable emotions such as fear and sadness without feeling these represented weakness. But because they didn’t realize this, they instead turned against each other, externalizing their internal conflict by each criticizing the other and polarizing away from each other, meanwhile escalating the feeling of irreconcilable difference between them.
Arguments about difference often focus on whose approach or way of thinking is correct. But in order for someone to be right the other must be wrong and this what makes the arguments within these relationships so toxic. Neither partner will give up the idea that they are ‘right’ because they don’t want to be ‘wrong’. But this misses the point completely.
Working as a couple means listening to each other and working through our differences so that we grow as individuals and strengthen the relationship by incorporating both our perspectives into our combined approach to life. This is especially the case where we have unconsciously chosen a partner can help us evolve and grow as an individual by reconnecting us to parts of ourself that we’ve suppressed or cut off from.
We have so much to gain from our differences provided we incorporate them into our relationships as assets rather than disadvantages and provided we accept our partner for who they are rather than wanting to change them.
Often we need these differences, even if we’re not aware of it. Hence we are often attracted to people because they are our ‘opposite’ not despite their opposite-ness.
Now I am excited when I hear couples saying that they are ‘so different’ as there is so much potential for love, excitement and personal fulfillment to develop in these relationships if the couple are willing to work on how they manage their differences. So if this is you and you are wondering if you and your partner are just too different, don’t feel it is hopeless. However, sometimes differences are a reflection of incompatibility and counseling can help you to work out your own situation and the best way forward for your relationship. For some couples the resolution of irreconcilable differences is to separate. A well qualified couples counselor can help you explore whether your differences can be transformed into assets for the relationship rather than being a source of division and disunity or to work out.
Note: All names have been changed in this article to protect client confidentiality.