You and your spouse, if you are like most couples, are similar in some ways but very different in other ways. You see eye to eye on certain things and have very different opinions on others. Key to a connected marriage is not to try to change each other's views so that you agree on everything, but rather to be aware of the impact your differences may have on the way you view each other.
Research shows that most couples get together because they share similar beliefs and values about life and love. Yet, as marriage researcher John Gottman discovered, 69% of what couples argue about are differences that will always be differences because they are around lifestyle preferences. And even though a balance of similarities and differences makes for a good marriage, the meaning put on differences can have a surprisingly big impact on a couple's relationship.
Your personality type, culture and family-of-origin experiences shape you and your spouse's lifestyle rhythms and preference regarding how things should be done. You and your spouse both have memories of how your mother, father or grandparents did some things in a particular fashion. These ways became familiar to you and somehow feel like the "right" way of doing something.
I am sure you've heard yourself say, "But that is how we did it in my family growing up." Such as the ritual of afternoon tea, the smell of pot roast Sunday lunch, when to open Christmas presents, and what to cook for the 4th of July.
Differences can also be around how something is not done, such as packing a dishwasher or basting a turkey. Or it can be around relationship rules such as raised voices during an argument showing passion, or conversely avoiding conflict at all costs.
There are two feelings that are typically triggered around differences: You are wrong for doing it this way and/or you don't care about me if you do it that way.
In the first instance, what gets triggered is the rightness or wrongness regarding a difference. This is when you feel your spouse is 'wrong' for doing something a particular way. It is an attitude that puts you in a one-up position and fosters a powerful inner belief that something is actually wrong with your spouse for being different than you.
For example, the way a bed is made, or a dishwasher is packed, how early to arrive at the airport or how long to stay at a dinner party. You make a character judgment, 'Something is wrong because you don't do it the way I think it should be done!' You imply that your spouse has a character flaw because he or she does something a different way or has a different view. You communicate to your spouse, "you are lazy, stupid, ignorant, crazy or wrong for doing things differently."
In the second instance, your spouse's love and care for you comes into question when your spouse does something differently. The meaning put on the event becomes, "You don't care about me, that's why you do it differently." Or, "You do it that way just to hurt me."
So when your spouse, a fun-loving, easily distractible person runs late, the meaning you ascribe to the tardiness is 'You don't care about how I feel because what is important to me is obviously not important to you.' Or, if your spouse is cautious and warns against driving into town for date night during rush hour, you conclude, 'You are never spontaneous and up for an adventure.' Or if you need everything in order but your spouse can tolerate a mess and leaves the mail on the counter, you conclude, 'You know this bothers me, so you must not care about me if you keep doing it.'
Oh, the painful meanings and negative conclusions we attach to our differences! It causes too many of us to spend far too much energy and time unnecessarily protecting our hearts.
Being aware of the meaning you and your spouse place on your differences is the beginning of fostering understanding for each other. Your spouse loves you dearly and works hard to have a happy life with you. But it probably doesn't always feel that way if your differences have taken on negative meanings and you have begun to doubt your spouse's care for you. Without repair, you and your spouse will be left hurt, disconnected and despaired.
Perhaps it is time to begin a clarifying conversation. Write out the top 10 key differences you and your spouse argue about. For each difference, determine if you view your spouse as being wrong, and you right? Then, in the next column, write the meaning you attach to each difference. It might do your marriage wonders to start a different conversation with your spouse and begin to heal the hurts that have accumulated around your differences.