Most of the research on relationship success tells us that compatibility between partners is essential. Living a long and happy life with a partner usually depends on the similarities partners share. If two people have the same definition of "clean," the same definition of "on time," and the same definition of "expensive," they are less likely to experience conflict and therefore more likely to live comfortably together. They will experience compatibility.
But what about "hard wired" differences like those that come with being male or female? Or, the "hard wired" differences that come with temperament and personality? What about the apparently natural inclination for opposites to attract? What about the desire to encounter something new and interesting--something different--that adds life and spark to the inevitable boredom that threatens to overtake long term relationships? It seems no matter how much we seek compatibility, we will inevitably find pockets of incompatibility as the relationship develops. Sometimes those pockets of incompatibility generate a gnawing disappointment. But, they can also create interest and curiosity. If allowed, points of incompatibility can be the source of substantial personal and relational growth. It's a cliche, of course, but pain and gain are, indeed, tied to each other.
Because people don't ordinarily see a therapist when they are in the throes of major compatibility, the couples I see come with a pointed and painful experience of incompatibility. Listening to people describe their discomfort with differences, it quickly becomes obvious that at an earlier point in their relationship the differences were not experienced as painful. Rather, they were often a source of interest and growth. So, what makes a thing that generated interest turn into a thing that only produces annoyance and frustration?
Three things contribute to the movement from interest to annoyance. First, there is an inevitable loss of imagination and curiosity that comes with a long term relationship. Second, the diminished space that comes with accumulated responsibilities like children and mortgages leaves less and less room for differences. And third, there seems to be a natural erosion of respect that accompanies relating over a long period of time. Disappointments and misunderstandings acquire a weight over time that makes carrying them comfortably very difficult. It's hard to maintain respect for someone you begin to see as making your life harder than it needs to be.
So, what's the best response to incompatibility? Assuming the incompatibility doesn't create a dangerous situation, the answer seems fairly straightforward. Begin by cultivating imagination and curiosity. Ask yourself, "What makes him do that?" or "How does doing what he does work for him?" or "How does my response to her make her more or less likely to continue doing the thing I find annoying?" Second, look for ways to create constructive emotional space--create room for differences. One way this can be done is to remind yourself that he/she is not doing something to you. For example, my partner's cleaning something after I've already cleaned it is not something she is doing to me. Rather, it's something she's doing for herself. Finally, act in ways that deserves respect and notice the ways your partner deserves respect.
Of course, all of this is easier said than done. Most of us get to a place where all we want is someone more like us than not. However, remembering that growth only comes with risk and difficulty can shed a kinder light on incompatibility.
I was recently interviewed by a reporter from my local newspaper. He was working on an article about what couples need to address before getting married. Understandably, he wanted short answers to what feel like very complicated questions. I did my best to avoid offering short answers but doubt the article will reflect that effort. The whole thing reminded me how strongly we want quick and relatively painless routes to our desired goals.
Giving that interview rekindled a line of thought I've struggled with for the past number of months. That line of thought has to do with my own desire to find a quick and relatively painless route to the goals I've set for myself. The truth is that in order to successfully embark on the desired path, I first have to come to terms with myself. Coming to terms with myself demands the ability to thoroughly and compassionately take a "moral inventory" (to borrow a term from 12-step language) of my own life in all its dimensions. When taking this inventory, I've noticed the temptation to think that it's most important to catalog shortcomings, failures and flaws. Though noting those is essential, it is likely more important to note the places where I can exercise the courage to change...to live out the good things I want as opposed to bemoaning the flaws that block forward movement.
I suppose there's a fine distinction to be drawn between noting fear and noting occasions where I'm called to exercise courage. For me, there's an ease that comes with noting fear. I can rest in the truth and humility that comes with acknowledging fear. Noting an occasion that calls for courage, on the other hand, demands some sort of action. It calls for living something out...putting some "skin in the game." It's no more or less true than noting fear but it does seem more demanding.
So, what I'd say to couples going into a committed relationship and what I find myself saying to myself is, "Pay attention to who you are and do what you need to do to come to terms with that. It's a prerequisite to a successful relationship journey."
Thanks to the likes of Dr. Phil and shows such as In Treatment, we live in a "therapy wise" culture. Any stigma associated with seeing a therapist is long gone and the language of therapy has become common place. Most don't blink an eye at the thought of an active unconscious. And, although many are uncomfortable with the power of emotions, most recognize their importance--particularly in relationships.
Our culture has done an excellent job of teaching the value of psychological insight and behavior change and many have taken the lessons seriously. As a result, therapy frequently moves rapidly. We sift through the past, notice failed efforts to change in the present and identify potential improvement in the future with notable competence. Despite all the progress in awareness, I frequently scratch my head wondering why the anticipated life improvements so infrequently show up. Clients know what they need to do and why. They have insight. With others and often, even with a difficult partner, they can cite times when they've addressed problems quite skillfully. Yet, there they are, in my office, stuck in a persistently painful spot. It's often obvious that the problem does not lie in a lack of insight or skill.
Lately, my response to this set of circumstances is to ask, "How is this thing you're dealing with not a spiritual problem?" When I ask that question, I'm not wondering about their relationship with God or some other version of a higher power. What I am wondering about is their relationship with the larger, less tangible aspects of being in the world. I am wondering about fear and courage, pride and humility, greed and generosity...that sort of thing. For example, I can know exactly what to say, when to say it and why saying it is necessary. But, if I don't have the courage to say it, all my insight and skill is useless. I can know the "how," "when" and "why" of forgiving someone but if I don't have the humility necessary for authenticity, all the rest is just so much empty effort.
It seems pretty clear to me that no amount of insight, skill or, for that matter, medication will get us to our destination unless all of that is accompanied by a spirit of something larger--bigger than ourselves--something like courage, humility, generosity, patience, love, hope or any of the other virtues.
Jake Thiessen, PhD
I've been working with couples for a very long time. And, I love it! This blog is my attempt to communicate some of the things I've learned over the past 40 years.