My husband and I have been married for 7 years now, and I’ve come to really appreciate a lot of our differences. We hadn’t been married laong at though, when I made the startling discovery of just how very different we are. What was that…? Most couples are, you say? Well, I knew that too, in my head. But we had put forth a yeoman’s effort to try to really understand each other before getting married: we read books and spent countless hours talking about every conceivable area of potential conflict we could think of, and so I was startled to begin discovering the ton of differences that we individually possess, and as a couple would share, after the wedding.
For example, we were married in June, so it was less than six months when one such discovery was made. It revolved around our ‘family of origin’ traditions during the holidays. Family of Origin beliefs are the ones that we came to as a result of being raised in the family unit or environment we were raised in, and often are so tightly held, or deeply ingrained in us, that we’re not even conscious of them or their impact on our thoughts and behavior. And since we are often not conscious of them, they are also prone to crop up at very unexpected times and to generate a lot of potential conflict for us, within our relationships.
What happened was, not long before Thanksgiving, that first year we were married, I happened to overhear part of a co-worker’s phone conversation, where he was describing what his family planned to serve for their upcoming holiday feast. My co-worker (I’ll call him Lloyd), was in a good mood, and just chatting away about it all, and what I heard was, “… of course we will not have ham…no one has ham on Thanksgiving!” His reasoning (which ensued), was basically a declaration that the Pilgrims hadn’t eaten ham during the first Thanksgiving feast, and so, in the spirit of solidarity with their forefathers, his family would not be eating it either. The conversation concluded with him saying, “…we will have turkey with all the fixings, on Thanksgiving, and a Christmas Ham on Christmas…where it belongs.”
Really Lloyd? Really?! You would actually have a Thanksgiving meal without ham? It was such a silly idea to me really, that I shared the conversation with my husband, later on that evening, thinking we’d both share a good laugh. The laugh was on me though, because, come to find out, my husband’s Thanksgiving family traditions were pretty similar to Lloyd’s! They had turkey only for Thanksgiving, and ham only at Christmas. Worse yet, I found out he doesn’t even care for candied yams, and in his family, they served green bean casserole only during the holidays, never it any other times.
I’ll tell you right now, that was one weird conversation…
Right about now though, you may be recalling some similar scenarios that have cropped up in your own relationships. After all, we all have differences (which is part of what makes us all interesting individuals), but in a relationship, and especially a marriage, those differences can also lead to strained or even broken relationships, when they’re not resolved or dealt with in healthy ways.
As a couple, the differences between us can be fascinating, or frustrating – and most of that depends on how we choose to respond. Rather than letting our differences become barriers that separate or cause divisions between us, there is another way.
A lot of getting to that other way, involves just identifying where the conflict is coming from; understanding that its root is simply that we can and do often have different preferences and opinions. If that sounds elementary, it is, but I mention it because often, in the heat of the moment, our differences will catch us off guard, and we will just react without having really thought things through. Like Lloyd, I might one day say (or hear my mate say), “Of course we will not have ham at Christmas” It’s called a ‘Christmas Ham’ for a reason…, and before you know what’s happened, it has all become a very cut and dried issue, that things must go my way (or his), because, after all, that’s the RIGHT way.
Most of the time, it really isn’t a case of my way (or his) being the right way; it’s just the way that feels right to me. And generally speaking, that’s okay; we certainly all do have opinions and preferences, but when we’re in a relationship, it’s important to recognize that each of us will, at times, have equally strong thoughts or preferences, and they aren’t the same. So just getting to the place where we accept that we each can (and do) have our very own strongly held thoughts and preferences can carry us miles down the road towards moving forward again together.
At those intersections of conflict, when you’re ready to move forward together to a solution you both can embrace, brainstorming can be a great tool for generating possible solutions. Every idea generated this way won’t be a keeper, but that’s okay since the real goal of such an exercise is simply to inspire creative problem solving. For that reason, during brainstorming time, there really is no such thing as a bad suggestion. Instead, there are just ideas that you’re trying on for a possible fit.
Through such a process, you’ll likely generate a number of ideas, any of which could turn into a real solution, or, at a minimum, could at least provide you with a starting place for a potential solution. Choose the best one (or at least the one you both hate the least), and start there. Give the idea a trail run. Set a date, like a week or month in the future, to revisit the topic and discuss how well it worked. If, when you review it together you determine it wasn’t a great solution, no problem. You just keep working together this way, like a team, making tweaks here and there, as needed, until you find what works best for you. And don’t worry that you’ll never find a workable solution, because you will. It may take some time to get there, but since a marriage is supposed to be a life time commitment, generally speaking, you’ve got the time…
Great couples aren’t always the ones you might expect to be great. Primarily, the key to their success, is that they use a system that works: they choose to value building their relationship over getting their own way or winning an argument, and that is a formula that works. Beyond that, I can tell you from personal experience, during the years that my husband and I have been married, it has also been the determining factor in how effectively we’ve managed the conflicts that have arisen in our marriage. For that reason, I urge you, when conflicts in your relationships come up, take a step back, and consider what your priorities really are. If building the relationship is, or can once again become, your main priority, then you can not only get through it, whatever ‘it’ is, but you can actually grow stronger as a couple, for having shared such an experience.