“Are we just too different?” This is a question many couples ask themselves as the initial high of romantic love wanes. Take Dorothy and Leah (fictional composites of couples I’ve seen in my private practice). They’ve been together for a year, living together for two months. Recently, Dorothy has started thinking she’s made a big mistake. Although she’s never felt more “at home” with someone, she and Leah are very different.
Dorothy enjoys outdoor sports like kayaking and biking whereas Leah likes indoor sports like cheering her favorite teams on a flat screen TV. Dorothy looks forward to gourmet meals whereas Leah prefers food that materializes from a box, bag or can. Dorothy gets excited by art museums and exotic travel whereas Leah swoons over YouTube videos and exotic travel down the imported food aisle of the local grocery store. In addition to these overt differences, these two women have widely diverging — even opposing — needs for touch, closeness, and emotional expression.
Wondering if differences are too divergent can eat away at a couple’s faith in their connection, stalling their ability to make a decision about whether to move forward or call it quits. As a couple steps out of their comfort zone into greater interdependence and commitment, fears of enmeshment or abandonment arise. The uncertainty and vulnerability that accompanies taking the next step in a relationship, such as moving in, getting engaged, getting married, or researching baby names — not necessarily in that order –can cause couples to seek answers, guarantees, clues to the future, and proof that their relationship either will — or won’t — work.
There’s no hard and fast way to assess whether differences are too different or workable. What matters more than actual differences is a couple’s capacity to honor one another as they are while being open to each other’s influence. Often, this balance between acceptance and a willingness to change takes time to achieve, but even a willingness to learn to honor each other’s differences can help a relationship grow resilient and flexible. A more predictive question than “Are we just too different?” might be “Can we tolerate each other’s differences while remaining curious about them?”
Over time, true, deep curiosity allows partners to learn more, understand more, and organically shift their perspectives. In a balanced relationship where power is shared and respect is mutual, heartfelt curiosity can help both members of a couple grow up into being more inclusive in their views, attitudes and behaviors. The Dorothys of the world learn to honor couch sitting and dinners from boxes and the Leahs of the world learn to appreciate gourmet food and art. More importantly, the Dorothys and Leahs of the world learn to stretch their comfort zones to understand, value and wholeheartedly attempt to meet their partners emotional needs.
Often, it’s the lack of true connection with a partner that can make differences between you and her (or him) feel like “deal breakers”. One way to build a stronger foundation is by learning to communicate with your partner in a way that allows both of you to express yourself without feeling judged. This can lead both of you to change and adapt your attitudes, relational approaches and behaviors willingly rather than out of a sense of obligation.
There are many books on simple communication strategies for couples and even just one of two sessions with a coach or therapist who specializes in effective communication can help you learn some basic (though not necessarily easy) practices such as reflective listening, using vulnerable vs. defensive language, and containment. Setting a timer, designating who is going to listen and who is going to talk for a few minutes, then switching roles, can help both partners express concerns less defensively. Try to just listen when you’re the listener so your partner feels safe speaking. Say “thank you for sharing” after your partner has finished. Share what touched you about what they revealed to reinforce the message that you care. Small adjustments to the way you speak, listen and respond can set the stage for deeper sharing and more honesty.
You’re bound to feel “too different” at some point in your relationship. It takes patience, curiosity and open communication to assess whether your differences are too different — or just right.