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Relationship Tips: How to Handle Differences for a Successful Relationship

In a Wall Street Journal article, columnist Elizabeth Bernstein writes about the challenge of marriage between an ardent planner and a partner who prefers to be spontaneous. Perhaps you’ve known people in a marriage like that—or maybe you’re one of them. In my work with couples, I have heard many a planner name-call their spouse passive-aggressive, or the spontaneous one refer to their spouse as a control freak. Regardless of what differences, marriage conflict is inevitable!

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

An aerial view of a couple sitting in the living room eating pizza.Opposites attract. Unfortunately, after the proverbial honeymoon is over, we can begin to indulge in a human tendency to judge our spouse for not operating the way we do. The truth is that each person's behavior has pros and cons, gifts and pitfalls, and we have much to learn from one another if we are willing.

Relationship Conflicts: Successful Relationships Honor Differences

The real challenge of relationships is not the differences between spouses but how we respond to those differences. 

Whether we view our differences as a thorn in our side or an opportunity to grow determines whether a couple will learn to value each other, their relationship, and their closeness more than their differences.

A planner writing a schedule and a to-do list in a daytimerAre you a planner? Probably you have great planning and time management skills, and possibly you’re goal-oriented. Typically, you’re a doer and know how to make things happen—and you’re always on time. Also similarly, you might not be as good at relaxing and adapting to change or the unexpected.

Or do you prefer to “wing it”? Probably you are great at just being, going with the flow, and seizing opportunities. You may be a risk-taker, open to new experiences, and have a lot of fun and adventure. Keeping to a schedule and getting things done, though—that’s another matter.

Now, planners, tell the truth: weren’t you attracted to your partner’s spontaneity? Risk-taking? Sense of adventure? And adventure and spontaneity junkies: didn’t you admire your partner for being organized and able to get so many things accomplished? Oh, and how you love them planning and setting up the logistics for traveling!

So, what happened?

Often, couples look to each other to fill the gaps within themselves and then try to lean on one another instead of standing securely in their individuality. Then we may begin to resent the very things that attracted us to each other in the first place—because they are different from the way we do things.

In marriage conflict, love is saying how you feel rather than making your partner wrong.

For example, a person who wings it and easily goes with the flow may rely too heavily on the planner to make things happen in their social life, and then feel claustrophobic and confined by a set or too hectic of a schedule. And the planner may find their partner’s refusal to think ahead excruciatingly uncomfortable.

Related reading: Relationship Rescue: Turn Complaints into Closeness.

Relationship Conflict: Don't Fall into the Trap of Making Your Partner Wrong

So we can fall into the trap of using our differences as a way to make our partner wrong, which only generates friction, distance, and perpetual conflicts that wear couples down. We fight against our partner’s differences and judge them.

But wait—isn’t this a perfect situation for exchanging our unique qualities and gifts?

What we want to create is a thriving relationship in which each of us is stimulated by our differences to become better. We can use our differences as a springboard to balance our perceptions of the world, develop skills that may be underdeveloped, and make our lives together a fun adventure.

Deep Dive: "The Stop, Drop, and Roll of Successful Communication in Relationships."
A couple embracing with snow coming down creating a special time of closeness as a couple.

How to Make a Relationship Work Even with Differences

TIP 1:   Get curious.
Often when we get curious about our partner's behavior and what they value, it can quickly turn frustration into understanding. For instance, if your partner is a planner, find out why having a plan is so important to him or her. And if you're spontaneous, find ways to maintain spontaneity while also planning ahead where it matters most to your partner.

TIP 2:   Call to mind specific ways your partner's trait helps to strengthen your relationship. 
By putting your attention briefly on the gift of their quality (instead of the frustration), it helps shift negative emotions to appreciation. Once we regain our perspective, we start recognizing that they really aren't trying to make our life hard! In fact, their view of the world opens a new viewpoint for us!

TIP 3:  Carve time for quality togetherness.
With schedules too full, we can find ourselves only relaying logistics or details necessary to make life work. Differences are magnified and most testy when our lives are stressed. If you find yourself grumbling about your partner, chances are you haven't had an enjoyable time together recently. Regularly reserve fun or relaxing time as a couple. Find activities you both enjoy. Invest in the relationship by doing more of the things that create greater closeness.

Keep your eye on what you love about your partner!

And that just might be the recipe for living happily ever after!

To fine-tune your relationship, consider couples mentoring or premarital counseling to ensure you have the skills for a long and healthy marriage.


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Jennifer A. Williams / Heartmanity FounderJennifer A. Williams / Heartmanity Founder
Jennifer, as the Heartmanity Founder, has coached couples for over two decades. With her extensive experience and vast knowledge of emotional intelligence and brain science, Jennifer provides profound insights. She specializes in communication and teaches EQ skills needed to create healthy relationships. Jennifer is happily married and the mother of three grown children who are incredible human beings.

Posted in Love, Marriage, and Relationships

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