How to benefit from your differences
By: Jessica Plancich, MFT

Most of us (masochists aside) want more pleasure and less pain in our lives. However, hardship tends to motivate much more than the possibility of joy. An excellent example of this is the fact that people come to therapy, not when things are grand, but rather when things are on the brink of collapse. Tattered, torn and hanging on by a string, couples stagger into my office to give their marriages “one last chance”. Inevitably, they recount the long months and sometimes years of arguments and difficulties they’ve experienced. One of my first tasks is to help them see what there is to gain from the pain.

A Perspective Shift is in Order
When couples argue, there is hope. When there are no more arguments, no more sex and no more tears, then there’s something to worry about. Anger is not the opposite of care. Apathy is. You see, when partners care enough to still engage with the other person about their challenges, there is something to work with. This passion (though in the form of heightened tension and volume) can be redirected and used in a constructive manner. With proper communication skills, willingness for each to take responsibility for their own issues and some patience, these disagreements can be used to progress individually and hence the relationship. When I hear crickets in the room with no engagement is when the couple’s time together may indeed be complete.

Another way to see this is that we pick up partners (in the form of friends, lovers) who reflect aspects of who we are, how we think and how we live at the time when we meet them. Like attracts like. On a very deep and subconscious level, however, your mission on this planet is to grow and evolve as a person. This is accomplished through trying, testing and challenging who you are in order to continuously press forward. Avoidance of pain, hardship and discomfort create apathy, indifference and stagnation. Therefore, you’ll always attract people who will highlight your weakness and reflect your faults to give you the opportunity to see them and progress. In partnerships, the differences that you have that can be the very lessons you are meant to teach one another. So you go along, having a mixed bag of experiences (usually good ones when you’re sharing those similarities, and tough ones when you’re slugging through differences) until the time together is complete. Sometimes that’s an entire lifetime. I can say that despite 41 years of marriage, my own parents still have a great deal to learn from one another as evidenced by how they still irritate and agitate each other. My dad is in my mom’s life to teach her compassion. My mom is in my dad’s life to teach him patience. They’re still working on these lessons daily (though when my mom is 55 minutes late for something, I hardly think my dad is “embracing” the opportunity to develop patience).

There are other times when our relationships are much shorter in lifespan and if we are deliberate and aware of what we have to gain from the differences, we can get what we’re here to gain and move on. Many couples are reluctant to face the conclusion of their union or face the fact that they are no longer growing, evolving and gaining from the relationship and instead, it’s become stagnant and stale. Holding onto something that’s concluded is a sure fire way to become despondent and lose respect for yourself for not having the chutzpah to keep moving forward in your own path.

This shift in perspective is crucial, for most of us associate arguments with incompatibility and choose to see this as an indicator that you may no longer be suited for one another. We see differences as threatening. In the beginning, relationships often flourish during the “Honeymoon Phase” when we erroneously perceive that the other person has “completed us”. The notions of romance that we are fed in the form of love songs and romance novels where we walk around incomplete until “The One” arrives, subscribes to the notion that you as an individual are lacking. It is built upon this idea that you’re walking around as some kind of half-person, who cannot possibly experience joy until you can meet and keep a partner.

Women are often more verbal and up front about this neediness and desperation, but men experience it as well, though it’s more along the lines of sowing seeds and being “a man”. The agony that we experience when we perceive ourselves as only partial and thereby damaged is traumatizing. Most relationships are born out of this sense of lack that we seek our partners (or our jobs, cars, kids or houses) to fulfill for us. As long as all of those notions are magically balanced and in place (which only usually occurs for a nano-second), we are content. The minute this homeostasis is out of whack, we feel unsteady, anxious and out of control.

Out of control you indeed are as long as you perceive that any entity outside of yourself can possibly complete you. Many of the things that you may be looking to fulfill you can and will change. The stylin’ car can get wrecked, you can argue with your partner, your kids can act out and your house can burn down. You cannot control these things. However, you do have a say as to how you perceive and respond to them. We set ourselves up for horrible suffering when we believe that we can only be happy when all of those bases are covered and the scales perfectly balanced. These expectations lead to the majority of our humanly discontent.

As long as you have holes in your heart that you don’t repair (in the form of low self-worth, judgment, loathing, criticism and past hurts) no external thing is going to fill those holes permanently. It’s like having an emotionally empty stomach…you can eat a meal and be temporarily satiated, only to digest it down and want more. You will continue to require more and more to feel full, but it only lasts a short while (think of the “keeping up with the Joneses”). The antidote to this is seeing your relationships in an entirely different way. Choose to see yourself and your wife as whole and complete. Choose to see your lives together as an opportunity to share yourself with her and she with you, to bring a full spectrum of experiences to each other’s lives.

But She/ He’s Not the Person I Met…

We oftentimes want to blame the other person for changing; that she is no longer presenting herself as the woman you married or that he is unfairly changing what he wants from you or the marriage. We blame each other for failing to meet the other’s needs. I have a news flash for you: Your husband is not here to meet your needs. Yep, I said it. Just like he’s you’re not here to meet his. You are each on this earth as your own separate beings, who’ve decided to share a portion of your life’s experience together; to learn from one another, to contribute to the other and to grow as individuals who’ve chosen a long term relationship as a vehicle for that growth. He did not enter this lifetime with the sole purpose to meet your needs, sexually, emotionally, intellectually or physically. Though he may do this during your time together, he cannot possibly meet all of these needs of yours now and forevermore. To expect any one person to fulfill this is to set yourself up for tremendous disappointment and pain. He is not here to be of servitude to you or to be a carbon copy of you (as you are not here to be a reflection of her). Try as you may to get him to comply and agree with your notions, desires, ideas and needs, he is his own person and those differences can enrich your life.

Believe me, I know this is a radical concept and one that most people have never considered. Most people don’t want to entertain this notion because it bursts the bubble of fantasy love that is crammed down our throats at every turn. The irony is that we needlessly suffer when we don’t have or sustain this ideal. The attachment to the fantasy now becomes a living hell. I’m here to offer an entirely different way of doing things that could very well save your marriage. When you can wrap your head around this idea and begin to view your relationship in a different way, it alleviates the pain we experience when differences arise.

I can hear the voices in your head asking, that’s all well and good, but how the hell do we manage our everyday disagreements? How do we settle the daily discrepancies that cause us to argue?

• Be Willing to Let Go of Being Right
Really, there’s no such thing as ultimate “right”. Rightness is a function of your conditioning, morals, values and beliefs and it is ok to have that perspective. It’s when you think that this is the only viable perspective is when you get in a bind. You walk away from an argument with your version and she with hers. Who’s the holder of the truth? You both are. You each have your unique experiences of the situation. Insisting that your right is the only right is simply arrogant and short sided. Be willing to validate one another’s perspective. This isn’t to be confused with agreeing. Validation means that you hear what she/he has to say and though you don’t see it in the same way; that the other view is perfectly ok. By the way, we women tend to repeat ourselves because we don’t think that our man is seeking to understand our perspective, but rather wants to be “right”. Translation: if you don’t want to hear us say it again, validate, validate and validate some more.

• Be Willing to Let Go of Being in Control of Every Situation
This may be a frightening concept to many of you (I know it still is to me at
times). This means that you may not get your “way” some of the time, but
try to see the value in doing something differently. There may be an idea,
concept or solution that you may not even be considering at the moment.
However, if you step away from your kung fu grip on having to have it be
your way, you may find something even better

• Be Willing to See Change as Good
Again, we are conditioned to perceive change as very, very bad (and super scary). Though we know cognitively that really nothing stays the same, we still try to limit the number of changes in our lives, thinking that if things stay the same, we’ll be better off. Men get off on newness. Novelty is like crack cocaine. There is a biological reason for this: men’s brains generate powerful dopamine (a chemical that makes you feel alive and vital) when you have new things in your life. Knowing this, men can use differences and changes as the very thing that will keep their brains awake and life exciting. Sameness is comfortable and familiar, but do we really want the very same experience every time? Predictability causes the brain to shrink and your libido to shrivel. Women are typically much more comfortable with change (our emotions are proof positive of this) and our adaptation comes in the form of becoming less attached to the ideas we’ve had about how life was “supposed” to be and look like. With time and a perspective shift, women can come to see the gifts involved in getting something different.

I know I threw a lot at you and trust me, I have tremendous appreciation for those of you who have opted to walk this path. I applaud you for even considering some of these concepts, for most people don’t want to face these ideas and I’m convinced that it’s a large reason why most people suffer so much in relationships.

Author's Bio: 

Jessica Plancich, MA, MFT is a licensed marriage family therapist with a background in clinical, spiritual and somatic psychology, reiki, yoga and massage therapy. She uses an integrative approach to healing and fuses Eastern and Western wisdom. Additionally, her company, Innerfinity specializes in assisting people to live from the heart and make choices in wellness, relationships and service that are motivated from the sage within. Through her own practices and insights, she hopes to inspire others to activate their intrinsic gifts and highest potential.