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Differences, incompatibilities and marriage success


True or false? Partners with fewer areas of difference and incompatibility have more successful relationships. Most people would answer true, but this is at least a partial misconception. All couples have areas of difference and incompatibility, to greater and lesser degrees. It's been said that when couples with "irreconcilable differences" part ways, they are just trading in one set of five to seven differences for a different set of similar magnitude with their next partner.


Everyone knows that opposites attract. Differences can be very interesting and stimulating in your partner. We often seek partners who can complement our style with some of their strengths. The socially active partner brings something valuable to a relationship with the partner whose interests are more domestic, and vice versa. The bluegrass music fan who hooks up with the opera buff is headed for some disagreements over listening selections, but both may be stimulated by the opportunity to expand their music appreciation.


Differences aren't so conflictual in the early stages of relationships, so couples don't pay that much attention to them. Couples focus on similarities, as they are absorbed in getting to know each other. They may be very excited and enthralled by some of their differences, as well as their commonalities. As relationships progress, similarities become more familiar and less novel. When the couple moves into practical relationship tasks like advancing their careers, starting and raising a family, and managing finances, differences become more apparent and prominent. Sex, finances, and chores are the most common focal areas of conflict, although more important differences often lie elsewhere.


Couples with more differences have different styles of marriage than couples that are more similar in outlook. But they can be just as happy or even happier. Couples who have a successful 'volatile' relationship style can tolerate more areas of difference. Their conflicts just seem to offer more opportunity to kiss and make up. At the other end of the spectrum are successful 'avoidant' couples. (It's not as bad as it sounds.) They know what areas of steer clear of with their partner and accept this arrangement. But avoidance only works well when differences aren't too critical and there are large areas of common ground.


What's important is not so much the degree or type of difference. It's how couples manage their areas of difference and incompatibility, and whether their relationship style is appropriate for the degree and type of differences and similarities that they have. It's especially important that they take advantage of their areas of similarity to maintain a positive emotional tone. Couples must avoid becoming stuck in trying to convert their partner to adopt their viewpoint.


If couples allow differences to disrupt the sense of mutuality in a relationship or lead to disinvestments or lives that are too separate, that's big trouble. When couples split up, they often attribute it to overwhelming incompatibility. But they become overwhelmed by their differences, not just because they have them, but because they never learned to manage them constructively.


Many couples are blindsided by their differences as their relationship advances beyond the more exclusively romantic early stages, because they never systematically explored their expectations and differences and adopted strategies to accommodate them. Couples who understand, prepare and plan for their areas of incompatibility are less disconcerted and generally fare better. They have more realistic expectations and know what they are signing on for.


In the long run, the challenge of difference will be an impetus to growth in both partners. Learning to support and validate yourself independently will help you to manage more successfully to your relationship's areas of difference and incompatibility, especially when these lead to conflict. Of course, we all rely on our partner for emotional support. It's one of the best things about being in a relationship. But one of the times when we need support the most is when we are in conflict with our partner. And that's just when you can't get support from them.


This can magnify the distress: Not only are you in a stressful conflict, but you are also deprived of one of your principal sources of support. No wonder you can feel so disappointed and angry when these conflicts arise. This deprivation is typically more acute for men, since they often rely more exclusively on their partner for their emotional support system. Women's support systems tend to be more diverse. If couples know about this dynamic and expect it, they will be better equipped to turn it into an opportunity for growth.


Partners who are less well prepared to support themselves may turn the conflict into a fight or may give in to avoid one. It's very important to the success of a marriage relationship that partners learn to adequately support and validate themselves, so they can deal productively with conflict with their partner without putting aside their own vital needs and interests. We all need a sense of security and a mature perspective to understand ourselves well enough to know when to compromise with our partner and when we have to stand our ground. Personal strength and a strong, non-defensive sense of identity help us tolerate our anxiety while our partner goes through this same process.


The demands of a long-term, committed marriage relationship guide us toward developing these qualities. Few people bring this personal strength to their new marriage fully formed, and it doesn't happen overnight. This is one of the reasons why many marriages go through a rough patch early on while the partners are growing and developing their self-support and self-validation.


Marriage Success Training helps couples to understand their areas of similarity and difference, which are to be expected in every relationship. More important MST teaches strategy and skill options for managing these in accord with different relationship styles and helps couples to protect the mutuality and positive emotional tone of their relationship. MST guides couples in building a marriage that supports and thrives on their individual strengths and identities.



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Copyright 2003, Patricia S. & Gregory A. Kuhlman. You may copy this article for non-commercial use provided that no changes are made and this copyright notice, author credit and source citation are included.







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