Making Difference Work in Relationships

By Leslie M. Goldstein, LCSW, BCD

November 16, 2009

Many couples seek out therapy when their ability to resolve conflicts has broken down. The differences between their perspectives have become more and more pronounced; their arguments polarize them against each other. What has brought about the increasingly intense and seemingly hopeless impasse? In my work with couples we often find that when the source of the conflicts within each individual becomes clearer, we can see (and therefore change) the way these differences are understood, tolerated and expressed. To the extent that both partners can openly look at themselves, there is greater potential for the couple to move from crisis to resolution.

Jack is working on his computer when his girlfriend Sarah asks him to watch a movie with her. Jack can feel close to Sarah by just being home together and tells her to start watching; he’ll catch up later. But then, Sarah feels lonely. For her, sharing activities creates closeness. She wonders whether Jack truly loves her.

Alice wants to hang out at home with Janet on weekends, but Janet wants to go to the gym and have lunch with a friend before spending the evening together with Alice. They both feel they are loving partners, but their definitions of what constitutes intimacy differ. This leads to friction and erodes their sense of trust for each other.

Cynthia likes to plan out her week to make sure she and her husband Paul have time together while Paul wants whatever free time he has to be spontaneous. Repeatedly Cynthia is disappointed when Paul isn’t on board with her ideas. Paul feels stifled.

What is striking about these examples is how commonplace they are. No two people have the exact same needs. Some of us may identify with certain members of our hypothetical couples, some with their partners. But there are no absolute rights or wrongs when it comes to how much time a couple spends together as opposed to how much time is spent in independent activity. These are personal preferences, all of which can be part of a healthy, intimate relationship. For example, individuals can differ on how much talking versus how much quiet time they need, on how much they want to socialize with friends or family, and in their attitudes towards work and money. So the issue is not who is right, but rather how a couple successfully negotiates their different needs. In the following I will illustrate some of the factors that may determine whether a couple arrives at resolution or crisis. We will choose one of our examples because while people, and of course couples, are different, the problem of our focus is universal.

Paul and Cynthia are in their early thirties and have been married three years. Paul owns his own web design firm and prides himself on being a problem solver. He’s an adventurous and confident person who easily voices his opinions. Cynthia works as a hospital administrator and has strong organizational and people skills. She is a gregarious and open person who is close to family and friends. Paul’s risk taking spirit and Cynthia’s warmth are traits that each admires in the other, traits that drew them together. Their complementary styles could serve them well. Cynthia’s supportive nature and Paul’s optimism may be a help, one to the other, facilitating growth as they face whatever stresses or challenges come their way.

But the couple’s work impinges on their spending time together. They both put in long hours and frequently eat separately. Early in the week Cynthia starts scheduling activities to ensure that they have quality time together on the weekends. Paul assumes that they will share time but wants to play it by ear. Planning leaves him feeling boxed in.

Cynthia makes Saturday plans but Paul says he wants to work on a project for a client. Cynthia is annoyed at Paul’s priorities; Paul is resentful that Cynthia does not appreciate the importance of his work. As Cynthia reluctantly rethinks her day, she feels she is unimportant to Paul. The next Saturday Paul anticipates Cynthia’s reactions and attempts a compromise. He’ll meet with a client early in the day and he’ll be back by noon. But when the time comes, he winds up calling her at 11:45 telling her that he must delay his return by one hour. He believes that giving this notice shows Cynthia he cares. As Cynthia has been looking forward to their afternoon together, she is upset when Paul calls. She wonders if he ever intended to get home on time. They argue about this with the result that both feel misunderstood. Here is a critical point in a couple’s relationship. The capacity of each partner for self-expression, whether each can put him or herself in the other’s shoes and the manner in which each approaches conflict resolution will all have an impact on the outcome.

The scenario repeats itself. Cynthia begins to listen for clues that Paul will not be available for her. Paul tries to avoid conflict by leaving his plans undecided – he’ll “try to get home early.” Paul imagines that this indirect communication is more palatable than more assertively stating his needs. But what Cynthia hears is that Paul won’t commit. She blows up in anger when Paul returns. Paul responds aggressively. A dysfunctional pattern of communication emerges in which each partner unwittingly reinforces the trait of the other that accentuates their differences, and thereby magnifying a sense of incompatibility. The more Cynthia wants from Paul, the more Paul resists. The more Paul stresses the importance of his independent activities, the more Cynthia experiences him as unavailable. This cycle may generalize to other areas of the marriage. Each partners’ style of self-expression may become exaggerated as each defends rather than asserts, demands instead of asks, refuses instead of disagrees. Now the traits of each clash rather than complement each other, setting the stage for polarizing conflict. “You’re too needy,” says Paul. “You only care about yourself,” says Cynthia. These accusations become the couple’s mantras.

How can we understand this couple’s shift from love and respect for each other to an emotionally tense standoff? Looking at how this couple negotiates being connected partners as well as separate individuals is central to finding a solution. Equally important is starting from the premise that both depending on others and attending to one’s own interests are essential components of a satisfying life, and certainly for a healthy and rewarding relationship. Cynthia is accused of overly needing connection, Paul of being too self-interested. The capacities for dependence and independence are divided between the two partners. The argument gets solidified with the result that Cynthia becomes the guardian of dependence; she fiercely protects the couple’s intimacy. Paul becomes the guardian of independence, complementarily protecting individuality. This masks the truth that we all face the challenge of how to balance both these needs within ourselves.

Though this type of pattern may have multi-determined causes, avoidance of individual conflicts is a central factor. Let’s hypothesize that Cynthia’s people skills, while serving her well in the workplace, also reflect her need to please. She may avoid having strong differences with others for fear of disapproval. Despite an overt picture of competence in the world, being independent may cause her anxiety. Now let’s imagine that Paul’s pride in problem solving reflects his strong need to be self-sufficient. Perhaps asking others for help is difficult and leaves him feeling inadequate. Though committed to his relationship, depending impinges on his self-esteem.

Let us remember how Cynthia and Paul each valued the “opposite traits” of their partner. Initially, there was the possibility of learning from one another. Now they face the challenge of how to balance time spent together and separately, and how to interpret the meaning of choices in attempting to create this balance. Cynthia’s anxiety about independence and Paul’s discomfort around dependence now collide. To the extent that both are unaware of or unable to express their own internal conflict, an impasse occurs. It becomes easier to argue with each other than to address one’s own anxieties.

How can this couple change their negative pattern? The cycle can be disrupted if each member of the pair can look inward. For instance:

Can Paul question himself as to why he believes neediness is bad, and examine his discomfort at showing vulnerability or expressing dependence?

Can Cynthia reflect on whether she feels comfortable being alone and whether she believes that a desire to be independent is basically selfish?

The aim in this exploration is to de-polarize the repetitive argument that “Cynthia is too needy,” and “Paul is selfish.” When both partners become aware of the individual issues that fuel their criticism of the other, the intensity of attacks can lessen. Then there will be room for effective communication around the couple’s differences. Beyond this, some couples may find ways to utilize difference to enhance the relationship and at the same time promote individual growth. Key to this successful outcome is accepting the premise that we each contain “difference” within ourselves. Learning to balance our opposing needs for dependence and independence, for communication with others and private reverie, for immersion in the world and inner directedness strengthens our capacities as individuals and enriches our relationships.

When a couple does become locked in the dysfunctional patterns described above, it may be a good time to seek professional help. As an outside observer, a therapist can help identify why negative patterns persist by examining interactions in detail and exploring the different meaning that each individual attaches to their words and behaviors. In my work with couples I strive to create a safe atmosphere where each member can learn about his or her part in the polarized communications. Only then can both partners rework the underlying issues towards better self-awareness and hence the acceptance and valuing of differences in a satisfying balance of independence and intimacy.