Can your relationship survive your differences?

Updated: May 4

If you want to get right into the guts of how relationships really work, you have to understand the role differences play: the differences between the two people coming together to share a life.


Here’s one story about two very different people coming together. She was Irish, but the three-generations-of boarding-schools-and-Ivy-League-colleges kind. He was Irish too, but the slums-of-Dublin-undocumented-immigrant kind. She said, “But I love him! He’s so REAL!” Everyone else said, “She’s just marrying him to poke a stick in her parents’ eyes.”


What everyone could see was that their differences were wildly appealing and highly romantic to both of them, and that the marriage would never last.


Now I would have certainly bet against the long-term survival of their marriage, but the odds against them went way up when he suddenly developed full-blown paranoid delusions, violent tendencies, and out-of-control alcoholism. And that was the end of that.


Of course this is just one story. But when it comes to the role differences play in making relationships work, there are some sturdy generalities that you can usually count on.


One. The more similar you are to your partner going in, the better off you are. Yes, I know: they say opposites attract. “I’m kinda crazy, but he’s really a very steady guy, so I know he’ll balance me out.” “Yeah, she’s kinda ditsy, but the fun part of her will add spice, because I’m probably too boring.” Something like this might work if you’re making a stew, but the principle is pretty simple:


Similarity between the partners

reduces conflict, stress, and friction.


Just think about it. Which is going to make your life together better: your both liking the same music or your both having very different tastes in music? Your both preferring to save more and spend less or one of you being a spender and the other being a saver? Your both preferring a very active social life or one of you liking that and the other rarely wanting to go out?


It’s a no brainer. And very important to keep in mind when choosing a partner.


There is an escape clause. Suppose you both like a lot of distance in your relationship. You prefer not being together to being together. Well, in that case...


Two. Differences in a relationship can be good if you like distance, bad if you like intimacy. So if it works for you to not spend time together, then differences are a way to make that be okay. I like, say, duck hunting and you like, say, antique hunting, so we get to spend entire weekends apart. Yay! Then on Sunday night you show me your antiques and I show you my ducks. And we’re as happy as clams.


But, to be clear, for this to actually work in real life, the preferences for difference have to be very similar!! If it turns out that you like a lot of distance—“How was your day?” “Good. Yours?” “Good.” “That’s good.”—then this works. But if I am just going along with your preference for distance and in fact I’d really like us to be much closer, then you’re living in a fool’s paradise and we are cruisin’ for a bruisin’.


Now in the real world, differences do creep in between people despite the most careful vetting. “I thought you said you wanted to live in the country! It never occurred to me that meant the suburbs!!” “Well, I never imagined that meant you wanted to live on a freakin’ farm!!!”


Inevitably we all end up staring at a partner who in some ways, in some key ways, is different from us. Now what?


Three. The first condition for intimacy is accepting the ways your partner is different from you. Henry Higgins, from My Fair Lady, sang “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?” and shows quite clearly what an utter idiot he is. But this isn’t about male/female differences. It’s about any differences that you wake up and find are...there.


Our first instinct is to point out to our partner how ridiculous it is for them to be the way they are. Ridiculous, or erroneous, or ignorant, or crazy, or stupid, or unlike normal people, or something else shameful. And of course as soon as this is pointed out, our partners immediately change. No, wait a minute. I said that wrong. They never change! Yes, that’s what I meant to say.


They may say they’ll try to change. They may try to try to change. They may also tell us to go shove it. One way or another, sooner or later, the data will come in and...no change!


And this not changing will feel like defiance or perversity or cluelessness, and we’ll double down on our attempts to get them to change. Which will...what? You circle the correct answer:


Which will...

a) work

b) make them enormously grateful

c) spark endless fascinating conversations

d) cause conflict and misery

A huge prize if you said d). Attempts to get our partners to change cause conflict and misery. And its effects on intimacy are to make both people...

a) horny as hell

b) yearn for each other

c) feel closer to each other than they ever have before

d) feel driven apart

Another huge prize if you said d).


Now the problem is, what do you do with your partner’s difference if by some miracle you’re able to let go of trying to change it? We say, “Accept it,” but what does that mean, actually? How do you live that?


Answers next time. Meanwhile, here’s a hint. Differences don’t mean you can’t get your needs met, which is very good news. And for the best possible help for getting your needs met, do check out Why Couples Fight.

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