How to make your relationship survive your differences

Updated: May 6

Our life’s work has been to put ourselves out of business. Hasn’t worked so far, but as you can see we’re still in there punching.


As we said last time, if, for some crazy reason, you wanted to make things easy for yourself, you’d find yourself a partner who was similar to you in as many ways as possible. Because, as we said, similarity between partners reduces conflict, stress, and friction.


But when it comes to putting food on couples therapists’ tables, thank God for differences. We make our living off of them. Or, to be more precise, we make our living off people’s difficulties dealing with their differences. You guys fight and struggle; we eat and buy furniture.

I will say in my defense that the fifteen books we’ve written have all been an attempt to make couples therapy unnecessary. One of our books alone—Is He Mr. Right?—could have put half the couples therapists and divorce lawyers in America out of business in one generation if everyone had read the book and followed what we wrote.


But that’s okay. You guys go ahead “trusting your instincts” and us guys will keep buying Brie and Chablis.


Anyway, there we all are, in a relationship and differences loom. For me too. My husband and I are alarmingly similar. We like the same books, movies, and books. But marriage is like an evil demon: it’ll search out and uncover differences you never knew could exist. One of you is a light sleeper; the other needs to get up a dozen times a night to pee. One of you likes to eat their big meal in the morning; the other in the evening. One of you is afraid of dying in a car crash; the other keeps turning to look at you while driving.


Life itself brings out unforeseen differences. Take COVID. Tons of couples are discovering new differences when it comes to how seriously to take things, what to take seriously, when to take it seriously, and on and on. Who knew!?!


But here’s what you can do about it.

First, believe that in spite of your differences you can get your needs met. Here’s something that most people don’t realize until they work with a good therapist: you think your differences are bigger than they are. The reason they seem bigger than they are is your lack of skill in getting your needs met. The moment you become more skilled, the smaller your differences will seem. Shocking, huh?


Second, follow the recommendations in Why Couples Fight. Now it would be stupid to write a whole book if you could boil the whole thing down to a few paragraphs. But while you’re waiting for the book to be delivered, do this when it comes to getting your needs met:


  • Assume goodwill. Yeah, you’re pissed off because you’re frustrated, but begin your discussion with the premise that you both want the relationship to succeed and that you both want good things for each other.


  • No power moves. This means, sure, talk about your needs and why they’re important to you, but don’t say things to your partner that’ll make them feel put down, demeaned, hurt, slighted, humiliated, insulted, criticized, and so on.

  • As you talk about your differing needs, before you respond, first

  • Listen carefully to what your partner has to say

  • Show that you’ve heard them (and saying, “I hear you,” doesn't begin to do the job!)

  • Ask questions to deepen your understanding

  • Make sure you both do this with each other

  • Explore options, possible solutions. You’re not coming to a solution here, so there’s no need for conflict or argument. You’re just opening up possibilities.


  • If any option seems at all promising, explore it further. How would it work in practice? What are the good things about it? What are the weaknesses? How could the weaknesses be compensated for?


Now to be clear, we didn’t pull these recommendations out of our butts. They came to us from...YOU! From working with people just like you. From working with people who’d gotten stuck in endless unproductive conflicts and a pileup of unmet needs and from our trying out all kinds of possible solutions. What we’ve outlined above not only works, it’s the straight line that’s the shortest distance between where you are and where you want to be. This is what effective people in the real world do to resolve conflicts.


Third, use the number method. There are lots of shortcuts, but this is one of the best. The best way to explain it is with an example. Let’s say you and I are in a relationship, and we have a cat. And I’ve just read that a cat does better with a companion cat, plus I’d just like to have another cat.


So I say, “Hey, let’s get another cat!”


You say, to my great surprise, “I have a better idea! Why don’t you just put a bullet through my head!”

Oh! I get it!! You don’t want another cat.


Now the great mistake I could make would be to assume, from your reference to murder, that you feel very strongly about this. But I’ve learned from long experience that these strong responses are typically power moves not based on strength of preference for no more cats but instead for strength of preference for no long conversations about more cats. You just want to shut me up.

The reality in most cases is that you may be misunderstanding how much I do want another cat and I may be misunderstanding how much you don’t want another cat.

So we go to the number method. “Okay,” I say, “let’s each say on a scale from zero to ten how much we want or don’t want another cat. Zero being don’t care at all, ten being ‘I feel as strongly about this as I’ve ever felt about anything.’”

There’s a pause. We say our numbers. Surprisingly often, most often in fact, this resolves the problem. The higher number wins of course. In a scenario like this on, I’ve seen tons of case where the no-cat person says 8 and the yes-cat person says 9, and they just look at each other, and it’s like, okay, we’re getting another cat but you are definitely dealing with the extra kitty litter.


Or the no-cat person says 8 and is surprised to hear the yes-can person say 7. “I thought you were so gung-ho on getting another cat!” “Yeah, but I guess not as much as you thought!”

Sure this doesn’t work every single time. But still, it’s worth its weight in gold. As is Why Couples Fight, which is way cheaper and way more helpful than if you had to pay for it based on its weight in gold.

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