Can you get cooperation and fix a marriage when you are very different from each other? Absolutely!
The main reason couples have difficulty solving their relationship problems is because they don’t work to find common ground. They want to fix the biggest differences so badly that they tackle those head on.
The big differences reflect differences in values central to how we see ourselves. We want to feel right about our values and become defensive if they are challenged. We take it personally. It’s not just about our interests–it is about us.
Telling your spouse you don’t like something about your spouse is psychologically the same as saying you don’t like spouse. It doesn’t motivate your spouse to become like you. It pushes your spouse away, making him or her care less about your relationship. It contributes to bigger differences.
The common advice therapists give is that you need to tell your spouse what bothers you. In most cases, makes relationships worse rather than better.
There are far better and more positive ways to promote similarity and reduce differences. I regularly help my clients to increase similarity, in positive ways, to re-interest their spouse in their relationship. That is something you will never do by telling your spouse that you two are very different or that you don’t like things about him or her.
People want to be with others who validate them. They change, on their own, to become more like those people who do validate them.
I help my clients to reconcile by having them validate and totally get away from debate, convincing, arguing, and persuasion. Often, before working with me, they were becoming more and more disconnected by talking about problems, criticizing, and other invalidating behaviors. You cannot build your relationship by these methods.
Start by learning how to sincerely agree
Persuasion doesn’t connect; it disconnects. If you want someone who is different from you to like your ideas, you have to first help them to like you.
Even if your spouse is withdrawn from you, divorcing you or having an affair you need to look for common ground. Many people fear validating their spouse’s negative views about their relationship. They think that if they do, their agreement will make the other person want to end the relationship even more. The opposite is actually the case.
When our spouse says our relationship is bad and we say it is good, what happens? An argument will follow and we will become more distant. If we instead recognize that there are parts of our relationship that are bad and sincerely agree, we validate our spouse. That helps our spouse to connect with us. Sincere agreement is only one way to become similar, but creates connection every time.
Test this idea! Try sincerely agreeing and disagreeing with your spouse. Notice what happens. Which one damages your relationship more? Which one improves your relationship more?
When people discover the power of agreement to rekindle their relationship they become excited, but still have difficulty knowing how to agree. I recommend such people to use my book, Connecting through Yes! to learn how to agree in even the most difficult situations.
Most people, when they agree this way, want to immediately start working on their differences. They agree, but immediately say something like, but we can fix it.
- Your spouse says: Our relationship is bad.
- You say: Yes, we don’t talk about anything anymore except work, but we can work on it.
- The result: arguing or distancing.
It is natural to want to solve problems right away. But, unless our spouse is also wanting to do that, it will prevent any connection we are trying to create. Without connection, our spouse will just feel like the differences are irreconcilable.
Building similarity comes before working on problems
Here is a good progression of steps for reconnecting a relationship:
- End difference-creating behaviors such as arguing, persuading, complaining, and so forth.
- Use similarity building behaviors such as agreeing, empathizing, and developing similar interests.
- Use boundaries to further improve the relationship, without talking about differences.
Each of these steps needs to be done in order. They also involve skills that people commonly work on in coaching, leading to reconciling that would not otherwise be possible.
Just like making friends, your spouse has to perceive that you are similar and you will connect around those similarities. You certainly won’t become friends with people who perceive you as very different from them and that won’t work with your spouse either. That doesn’t mean that you have to be the same.
You can have very significant differences from your spouse, friend, or family member, as long as you are validating and working to build areas of similarity.
Example of a reconcilable “irreconcilable” difference
Imagine you are Christian and your spouse is an atheist. Although Christians are not to marry atheists, sometimes people become Christian after they are already married and it creates this situation. It is not necessary to divorce or to give up Christianity in order to keep your marriage good.
What would be required is that you go to church on your own, pray on your own, read the Bible on your own. These are not things you share with your spouse. You also help your spouse to feel validated, attractive, and to enjoy the relationship with you. You make no demands that your spouse do Christian activities.
As a Christian, it is not your job to make sure your spouse becomes Christian. It is your job to love your spouse and to be a good example. Keeping your relationship with your spouse good is the single most influential thing you can do if you want your spouse to become Christian.
What would be an example boundary for this difference? Perhaps you are Baptist and do not drink alcohol, but your spouse is atheist and drinks. You do not give any indication of disapproval to your spouse for this, but simply help your spouse to enjoy time with you without your drinking alcohol.
If your spouse drinks and treats you badly, then you would have boundaries for the bad treatment. That would be no different than if you were not Christian. It would improve your relationship without accentuating differences.
You may not become as close as a couple who are both Christian, but you will become closer than many couples who share the same beliefs yet treat each other poorly.
Remember that marriage is a job, just like parenting
Being married is a job I love. It doesn’t mean that I like everything about being married. I need to do many things when I feel tired. I need to keep up with the maintenance behaviors of daily time together, validating, dating, as well as being an attractive partner and being sexually generous.
You will not get the rewards of marriage, or any relationship, if you don’t do the work required to maintain that relationship.
Doing the work will create a good relationship and will make you and your spouse become more and more similar over the years. You will get to the point where you can’t imagine you could ever find someone more similar to you than your spouse. Don’t do the work though, and you will become more distant and different.
Showing interest in what your spouse does is not the same as being similar to your spouse
Just as with parenting, if you want to stay connected to your spouse, you are going to have to participate as much as possible in some of the same kinds of activities that your spouse does–whether you want to or not. It is part of the work of having a good relationship.
Here are some examples:
- Your spouse likes to fish so you learn to fish and to enjoy it (or at least seem like you do)
- Your spouse likes to dance so you learn to dance and initiate going places to dance (and have fun or at least seem like you do)
- Your spouse gardens and so you start your own garden and keep it up (with a good attitude)
Simply showing interest in your spouse without desiring any personal involvement with such an activity does not create connection. If you were single and the person you were attracted to was into a particular sport or music, then you would also get into that sport or music so that you could connect with that person. That is how it is done and it does not change just because you are married.
By caring for your marriage, just as you would for children, you can grow a close and rewarding relationship despite your differences. It will not require surrendering your values, but it will require doing some things with a good attitude–even if you don’t feel like it. I think you will find that the work is rewarding and that despite your differences, you are not so different after all.