Facing Enduring Differences and Getting to 'We'

by Stanley J. Gross, Ed.D.
Been there, done that, but keep doing it: These are the hallmarks of an argument involving an "enduring difference" between you and your spouse. Mary and Bill are typical; an "enduring difference" has, for some time, occupied a large space in their marriage of seven years:

Mary and Bill are both in their late 20s and have two children. They argue about doing household chores, managing her anger, his watching TV "all the time," and his weekly going out drinking with "the boys."

Before their first child was born, their life together was filled with work, family, friends, and a lot of partying. Mary has adapted to the changes children bring and resents the fact that Bill has not. They both have demanding jobs they must maintain to support their lifestyle. They limit shared family tasks to transporting children to daycare and school. Otherwise, Bill does "fix up" around the house, mows the lawn, and tinkers with the car. He is indifferent to household chores and childcare, not considering them as part of his role. He says he needs the TV and his "one night out a week" to relax.

Though stressed, Mary feels guilty about working and saddles herself with the major responsibility for the children, the housekeeping, and their relationship. Mary gets angry when she sees Bill watching TV when she is washing the dinner dishes or putting the children to bed. She resents his weekly Thursday night "appointment" with his childhood buddies, but limits her own outside contacts to phoning her friends.

She argues that he does not take responsibility for pulling his own weight with family and household matters so she, in effect, has a third child to care for. He views his work and career as his contribution to the family, while Mary's work is played down as merely an interim measure to support their current lifestyle.

Mary resents Bill's attitude so much that she can barely contain her anger in front of the children. Bill is angered by what he sees as her attempts to "control" him.

Enduring differences develop out of expectations learned from one's family-of-origin (for example, gender roles) and longstanding character traits (for example, submissiveness). These differences may surface as seemingly harmless disputes about sleeping arrangements (who takes which side of the bed) or who does the shopping to more important disagreements regarding the control of finances or the disciplining of children. Denial of differences, codependency, and degree of openness in communication style often emerge as factors in enduring differences. Partners may also differ greatly in their comfort with confrontation, willingness to discuss relationship issues, and how decisions are made on family matters.

What Is to Be Done?

The complexity of enduring differences and the emotions they generate limit the usefulness of negotiation principles; differences should, nevertheless, first be subjected to a process of negotiation to test the degree to which they are entrenched.

Immediate differences are concrete, situation-specific, and do not persist as frustrating arguments. Immediate difference negotiation is idea-centered. Even as negotiation relies on effective listening, it centers on brainstorming techniques (rather than vulnerability) and carries with it the expectation that the difference is resolvable.

For entrenched differences, Samuel Shem and Janet Surrey have introduced an alternative approach they call "Getting to We."

"We" includes activities enjoyed together; mutual interests; shared passions; the resolution of differences; common experiences; relying on or helping one another; and knowledge of each other's needs, strengths, and resources.

The way to get to "we" utilizes an empathy technique that allows each partner to develop an understanding of how the other partner is approaching the enduring conflict. Neither partner makes any effort to change the other. Acceptance is the key to "getting to we." With each partner able to make sense out of what is going on between them, they have the resources for finding a mutual resolution to their difference. The sign of a mutual resolution is that they are both able to "live with" the difference.

Getting to "We"

Identify one unending argument about one enduring difference: After trying negotiation without success, mutually agree on one recurring issue and stick with it. The idea here is to find a way to learn to resolve or to live with your differences, rather than to "get satisfaction" or "be right."

Mary and Bill agreed to focus on their anger toward each other.

Follow the rules of engagement: Be methodical about following the "Rules of Engagement," otherwise your emotional reactions will divert you into repeating your usual argument.

Each partner expresses a concern related to the enduring difference: The first partner states an honest concern with an "I" statement. This statement avoids blaming and judging the second partner. ("You" statements put the second partner on the defensive, limiting that person's ability to listen.) The more vulnerable the first partner can be in making this statement, the more likely the second partner will pick up on what the first partner really wants. The second partner listens to the concern to see the situation from the first partner's point of view. The second partner summarizes the essence of the first partner's concern. When the first partner is satisfied that the second partner understands, the process is reversed and the second partner states a concern.

Mary states: "I feel angry and abandoned by your denial of responsibility for our family and the energy you instead put into your friends and your work." Bill states: "I've been feeling bored at home since our first child was born. Actually, I feel angry that 'all' your energy goes into the children and I feel that you don't have anything left for me."

Together, detect each person's dream/yearning that underlies the concern: Each partner makes a statement that expresses the dream or yearning that underlies the other partner's concern. There is no attempt at this point to join these dreams in any way. Each partner gives feedback to the other regarding the accuracy of the other partner's dream statement.

Mary heard that Bill’s dream involved a renewal of their former closeness. Bill heard that Mary’s dream involved a bond that included their children.

Soothe and affirm each other: Since this activity is an expression of vulnerability toward one another, each partner will feel some degree of apprehension. This can be an opportunity to support one another. Celebrate the sharing that just took place and what that means about the relationship. Verbal and physical demonstrations of caring and affection soothe and affirm.

Mary and Bill were energized by the hope they saw for their relationship.

Talk for 15 to 20 minutes about your dreams: Each partner should take time to reflect on the meanings of the dream statements. Each partner may then consider both dream statements and report what can and cannot be compromised. Each partner defines areas of flexibility and indicates the bottom line on what he/she is unable to yield on at this time. The test of the appropriate limits of what is acceptable is if either partner would resent "giving in" on a particular point.

Both Mary and Bill recognized that they were scared of repeating the dynamics they each had observed between their own parents – a bitterly angry wife married to a "workaholic" and passive husband.

As they continued to talk, Mary became aware of the fact that she felt angry about setting aside her dream, much as her mother felt angry about doing the same thing. Bill became aware that, like his father, he was disappointed that he no longer was "Number One" in his wife’s affection, so he put energy into his life outside the family. Unlike his father, Bill was angry about having to do that.

Devise a compromise that honors both dreams: Now that both partners have similar information about their enduring difference, they are in a position to come up with a solution that allows them to resolve the difference or permits each to "live with" the difference in comfort.

Mary recognized that she needed to give up being responsible for everything, to be more inventive about including Bill in the life of the family, and to make time for her relationship with Bill. Bill realized that he did not have to be "Number One" to be loved, but that he would have to join his family to achieve the happiness he was seeking.

Share your learning with one other: Participating in this process with your partner can tell you a lot about your relationship and how to enrich it. Talking about what you have each learned helps to prepare the two of you for the next time an enduring difference emerges.

Both Bill and Mary grew up in households where their mothers stayed home and "took care" of the family, so their expectations about appropriate marital roles do not square with the reality of their present circumstances. Change requires that they keep talking with one another, directly, honestly, and with affection.


Gottman, J.M., & Silver, N. (2000). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Shem, S., & Surrey, J.L. (1999). We have to talk: Healing dialogues between women and men. New York: Basic Books. Date published: 11/9/00

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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