When you have a difference of opinion with someone in your life, how do you deal with it? Do you blame the other person for their narrow mindedness? Do you dismiss them as wrong? Do you tell yourself it’s not important, but build up resentment underneath?
At a recent seminar I attended on the subject of relationships, the tutor, Bob Resnick, a couples counsellor for 40 years, suggested that perhaps as few as 10% of couples are truly happy in their relationship. When you take out the number of divorces and separations, and the hoards who are living in silent misery, few relationships, he suggested, are truly satisfying for both parties. He suggested that part of the reason we have so much trouble with relationship, is that we don’t know how to deal with our differences.
Much of the conflict in relationships comes from differences, in values, in beliefs, in expectations, and in communication styles. Our assumption is often that if others are different, they must be wrong. And believing the other is wrong can ultimately lead to the relationship ending. For example, we may have an expectation that of how our partner will behave, and that will probably be based on the picture we have in our heads, usually formed in our own families as children. We may expect our partner to stay in when we want to stay in, to come out when we want to party, to be understanding when we need solace, or when we want to watch the football. Funnily enough, the differences that seemed so appealing during early courtship can become those very points that become the death knell in later years.
Resnick proposes a model for relationship that allows for all the differences that may exist between a couple, a model that allows for the impact those differences have on the people involved, and brings a focus instead on acknowledging and respecting the other for who they truly are. Sounds simple doesn’t it, though perhaps not easy.
Many people avoid conflict in order to preserve the relationship and to keep the peace, and in so doing, sacrifice some of who they are. Much of society’s focus on manners and appropriate behaviour comes from a desire to minimise conflict and preserve harmony. There are many good reasons for this. As a society we are organised, and that organisation needs some co-operation. We depend on each other. A desire to fit in goes back to our primitive selves, when the tribe needed to stick together for survival. Not fitting in, or going against the community might have resulted in exclusion from the tribe, greater hardship, struggle and perhaps death. Of course, we are no longer so dependent on the tribe, if we fall out with our plumber, we can find another, but in our primitive, reptilian brain, which influences many of our deeper feelings and thoughts, those old habits live on.
Is it possible to be who we are, and for the relationship to survive? Is it possible for us to express who we are and be met by our significant other? The risks are evident. If one person has a strong value around how birthdays are celebrated, for example, and the other doesn’t, (a small example you might think, but one which is surprisingly common) can both values be respected? Or does one have to give way to the value of the other? Resnick’s view is that neither person need change who they are, that neither needs to compromise their position, but that through expressing how it impacts them, and where it lies between them, something new is created in the relationship. Seems a bit far fetched to say that something new can emerge from talking about birthdays? Well it can happen.
Two people I know had totally opposing views on birthdays, which each tried in vain for years to ram down the other’s throat. A funny thing happened when they talked about it. For her, birthdays were one of the few occasions in her life when she had experienced the sense of being loved and wanted. As one of a large family, her worries and problems were rarely the most important, and from an early age, everything she owned had to be shared with her siblings. But on her birthday, she was made to feel as if she were the most important person in the house, with cards, presents, and cake. For him, birthdays had never been a feature in his family life, there was never the money to spend on them, and for many of his birthdays, his father’s illness and subsequent death had overshadowed any pretence of celebration. When they heard the background to the other’s values, something changed. She still likes birthdays, and he still doesn’t, but there’s a softness in their difference now, an acknowledgement of the pain behind the positions, and that makes all the difference.