I work with many couples in my private practice as a counselling psychologist. They come to me with many different relationship problems and issues, that for many results in seemingly constant bickering, quarrelling and escalating conflicts.
One of the most common problems that underlie so many of these painful conflictual situations is that people often do not feel accepted, or alternatively, they feel unable to accept their partner for who they are. These relationships are often full of judgement, criticism, disapproval and disagreements about the “right” way to see the world.
Many people put unrealistic expectations on their relationship and are unable to accept that their partner has ideas, opinions and worldviews that might be different than their own. It could be differences in how to drive, parenting, how to do the dishes “right”, disagreements about how spare time should be spent, how much sex is “normal” — it could even be bigger things like where to live, how to deal with money, different cultures, different religions, differing political views, or even ongoing disagreements about how much time to spend with the in-laws.
Sometimes people even take these differences in worldview and say:
“Look we’re different… so that means we must be incompatible!”
As someone who has helped many couples to improve their relationships, differences in ways of seeing the world are normal and expected in any and all relationships. They do not mean you are incompatible!!! Almost every couple has a list of differences in opinion about big and little things. The reality is every person has their own ideas, opinions, ways of doing things, their own quirks, foibles, peccadillos and unique weirdnesses.
But isn’t this a bad thing if two people are different? Hell no! If partners in a relationship are different it often actually gives them an advantage in dealing with the troubles of daily life. It’s actually good to have two people with different ways of seeing and doing things, it’s an advantage! Having two perspectives and two sets of ideas is great because it increases our brainpower when we are problem-solving all of the challenges that life throws at us!
An example I often use with couples comes from the world of business. In a business, the last thing you want is two partners who think exactly the same way. Two partners with different ways of thinking and seeing the world makes for a business that is more flexible, better able to solve problems and deal with change. Having a partner with different worldviews is an advantage in business and this also applies to marriage!
Here is one of the most important parts of creating a successful relationship. We don’t always have to agree with our partner!!! And realistically? We should even expect to disagree with them sometimes. How boring would it be if you and your partner were exactly the same?
The cliché of agreeing to disagree.
So how do we learn to accept the differences we have with our partner? The cliché of agreeing to disagree really carries a lot of truth in it. The Gottman research on successful marriages identifies two kinds of problems. Those we can solve and those we can’t. Sometimes this is about accepting that our partner is different from us in their ideas, thoughts, opinions and beliefs; taking a perspective where we accept these differences as they are and not defining them as a problem! A good example is what if two people in a relationship have different religious belief systems? Can they make it work even though religious differences have spurred many conflicts and even wars throughout world history?
Of course this couple can make it work. They just have to set boundaries, being respectful and accepting of this difference. They have to start with the basic understanding that although they may have fundamentally different worldviews when it comes to the way they see the spiritual world, it is not a problem, let alone a marriage deal breaker! They may begin by setting ground rules to not argue about religion or to not judge the other person based on their beliefs. By accepting and not judging their partner, they create a space where both partners can feel safe in their belief system even though they may differ in some very fundamental ways. They make an active and ongoing choice to be accepting and not judgmental!
We DO NOT have to be exactly the same as our partner in all the things we do and believe.
To deal with a big difference like religion, they need to create a “culture of acceptance” in their relationship where each partner accepts and maybe even embraces these differences; where each partner feels safe and comfortable. But this can also apply to other small things too — like how to spend a Saturday afternoon, what books to read, which friends to hang out with or even what to have for dinner!
Conflicts and right fighting
Sometimes couples fight over whose opinion is “right” during a conflict, quite often over the silliest little differences. These fights are often based on little differences in the way we see the reality in front of us. When this happens we can let our ego get in the way and many people will fight to “the death” about silly inconsequential things. We dig in rather than being accepting and open minded. These continual disagreements and arguments can stir up bitterness & resentments and even, over time, end in contempt.
According to relationship expert John Gottman, resentments can build into feelings of contempt — one of the Four Horsemen portending the end of a relationship:
Contempt is the worst of the four horsemen. In Dr. Gottman’s four decades of research, he has found it to be the #1 predictor of divorce.
When we communicate in this state, we are truly mean. Treating others with disrespect and mocking them with sarcasm are forms of contempt. So are hostile humor, name-calling, mimicking, and/or body language such as eye-rolling and sneering. In whatever form, contempt is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust. It’s virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message that you’re disgusted with him or her.
Contempt is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about the partner, in the form of an attack from a position of relative superiority. Inevitably, contempt leads to more conflict rather than to reconciliation.
By accepting our partner as human and flawed and different than us, we can avoid devolving into the negativity of resentment and falling into the relationship destroying trap of contempt! Acceptance creates a safe and positive place where both partners can feel vulnerable and don’t always have to be “on guard” for attacks, criticism and negativity from the person they really should least expect if from.
Successful relationships are based on acceptance, kindness, respect and compromise.
So, take a deep, deep breath. Accept that your partner is perfectly imperfect. Accept and even embrace their quirks, peccadilloes and foibles. Realise that maybe the differences are even part of what makes them your unique little sunflower!
To judge or accept?
One of the worst ways that these little disagreements and differences in opinion over who is “right” can hurt a relationship is that we may start to judge and criticise our partner based on these often minor differences. Some people may even look at these differences and judge their partner to be lacking in some essential quality or believe that they are fatally flawed, a bad match, or even that they aren’t good enough.
Seeing the world as black and white and our partner as wrong or flawed in some way, can then end in a situation where we can become overly critical of our partner — this is often where the relationship train may start to derail and crash into resentment.
Once a partner feels that their mate is wrong, flawed or “less than” — the other picks up this critical, negative energy and they begin to check out, avoiding interaction and closeness. Of course they do, who wants to continually feel criticised and inadequate in the eyes of the person who’s supposed to have their back! This creates a circumstance where both partners begin to adopt deeply negative attitudes towards each other and relationship damaging resentments and contemptuous feelings can start.
Take an everyday argument about shopping for groceries, for example. What if your significant other has forgotten to get one of the dinner ingredients you asked them to pick up on the way home from work? In their mind and even out loud, many people will be critical and judge their partner for being forgetful in this situation with thoughts and statements like:
“What kind of a child am I married too? All they had to do was pick up a few things. Everything is ruined! They never ever listen to me. They probably did this just to piss me off”! They really don’t care about me or my needs!
Instead of judging your partner in such a dark, negative way with such extreme black and white thinking… could you take a deep breath instead, and maybe consider that perhaps your partner’s had a long day, and so what if they forgot one thing? Maybe they just forgot and really, who’s perfect? Maybe you could even order their favourite pizza instead and make this situation better? (with extra cheese even?)
Build a strong relationship. Stop judging, and instead, embrace your flawed and imperfect partner! When they do something you think is really, really silly? (because they will). Instead of rolling your eyes and being critical, look at them with love and say that’s MY silly partner and I love them anyways!
Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Three Rivers Press.
The Four Horsemen: Contempt Ellie Lisitsa May 13, 2013 The Four Horsemen: Contempt https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-contempt/