Apples and Oranges: How to Appreciate and Manage Differences in Your Marriage
By seeking understanding, trying new things together, and learning to recognize solvable issues, you can appreciate the differences you and your spouse have without becoming paralyzed by them.
by Isabella Markert
When I got the invitation to my recent high school reunion, I hesitated. I texted one of my best friends from high school to ask if she was going.
“Hahahahahahahahaha no,” she responded immediately.
Okay, so she was out.
I could have just gone with my husband, but that had two problems: (1) I knew that as an introvert, he wouldn’t enjoy himself. and (2) I didn’t want to go without a guarantee that I would have someone to support me if things got awkward. My husband, though perfectly capable of speaking with strangers, doesn’t have any problem with awkward silences and stilted conversations.
I do have a problem with those things.
My little dilemma wasn’t a big deal, but sometimes married couples have differences that significantly affect the quality of their marriage, and it can be hard to know what to do with these differences. By seeking understanding, trying new things together, and learning to recognize solvable issues, you can appreciate the differences you and your spouse have without becoming paralyzed by them.
When something really bothers you, seek for understanding
Let’s say your partner cares a lot more about neatness than you do. If he or she gets upset with you about your socks on the floor, it can be tempting to fire back and criticize him or her for being uptight. But this isn’t a productive focus.
“Criticize a specific behavior or situation, not your partner’s personality. When I’m working with a couple, this is one of the first ground rules I ask them to set up,” says F. Diane Barth, LCSW. “Complaints about personality are extremely unproductive, in part because the other person’s automatic response is to defend himself or herself, and in part because such complaints undermine the feelings of being valued and loved that are key to any relationship’s well-being.”
Instead of saying, “Stop being so uptight!” try, “I know I’m messy, but I feel hurt when you call me a slob.”
“When possible, a genuine offer to help with a difficult situation can ease conflict,” says Barth. In our socks-on-the-floor scenario, you might try saying, “I know it bothers you when I leave my socks on the floor. I’ll take them to the hamper and pick up the living room before we leave tonight.” Offering help gives you an opportunity to understand your partner better in the long run and helps settle an immediate conflict.
Criticize a specific behavior or situation, not your partner’s personality. When I’m working with a couple, this is one of the first ground rules I ask them to set up.
When your interests conflict, try new things together
Having individual interests is healthy, but (spoiler alert) couples need to spend time together to see their relationships thrive. And if it’s your phone keeping you from interacting with each other, watch out.
In a 2014 survey of women in committed relationships, 75 percent reported that cell phones had “a significant negative impact on their ability to connect with their partner. Those women also reported that they found themselves getting into increasingly more fights with their partner, leaving them not only feeling badly about the relationship but less satisfied or depressed about their lives overall.”
Whether your phones or other interests are keeping you apart, you can change that by intentionally making time to be together. Step one: put the phones down. Step two: try something that’s new for both of you. This is a great way to connect and bring back the excitement of your courtship.
Learn the difference between solvable and perpetual issues
Research at the Gottman Institute has found that 69 percent of relationship problems are not solvable. Sounds depressing, but let’s talk about what that actually means.
Solvable problems are situational. “Solvable problems for one couple can be about the exact same topics that could be perpetual problems for a different couple,” says Michal Fulwiler, writer for the Gottman Institute. “The conflict is simply about that topic, and there may not be a deeper meaning.”
Perpetual issues, on the other hand, “are the ones that are connected to your core values and essential personality traits,” says Zach Brittle, author of The Relationship Alphabet. “You’re an introvert and your partner is an extrovert; you’re a neat freak, your partner is messy; you love a God your partner doesn’t believe in.”
“These issues can seemingly be about the exact same topics as what for another couple might be solvable,” Fulwiler says. “However, unlike a solvable problem, these are the problems that a couple will return to over and over and over again.”
What can be done about these problems? Solvable problems can be addressed with systems and rules. If you and your spouse have been fighting over who has to wake up to be with the kids on the weekend, come up with a system like you get up on Saturdays, and your spouse gets up on Sundays.
But what about perpetual issues?
“These require more dialogue, more grace, more compromise,” says Brittle. “Resolving them isn’t possible. Repairing them is. You need to prioritize dialogue. Not simply conversation, but an actual effort to understand your partner’s point of view and seek compromise. . . . Difference doesn’t have to be painful. It can simply be present.”
I ended up not going to my high school reunion because it didn’t look like any of my old friends were going to be there anyway. But if we had gone, we would have been fine. As we’ve worked through this perpetual problem, I’ve learned my husband truly doesn’t enjoy crowds of people, but he’s happy to support me in social situations as long as we have an exit strategy.
With big or small differences, seeking understanding, trying new things together, and learning to recognize solvable issues can help you and your spouse grow closer together and love each other for your differences. Don’t let an unwashed dish, a forgotten date, or even an awkward high school reunion get in the way.
Isabella Markert is a freelance writer, editor, and language educator. When she’s not writing or editing, Isabella likes to play games with her husband and family, follow watercolor tutorials from Pinterest, and eat the snobbiest chocolate she can find.