Bridging Differences in a Relationship

Relationships are tricky. Two people from different homes, with different traditions, habits and ways of seeing the world attempt to come together and build a life together. Differences can include a person’s level of comfort with physical intimacy, religious and cultural beliefs, child rearing philosophies, past experiences, financial decisions and major life choices such as where to live. Couples need to find ways to bridge these differences in order to build and maintain a healthy relationship. These guidelines can help couples move past their differences.

Talk About Beliefs and Expectations

Even from the beginning of a relationship, individuals should be open about their beliefs and values and how they envision their future. As they do, couples can begin to see what a life together might entail.

“Ideally couples would start the conversation before they were married,” said Jeremy Yorgason, associate professor of family life and a licensed marriage and family therapist. “They would say ‘hey, let’s talk about what things would be like.’ Before you’re married, you’re kind of in a blissful state most of the time, so it’s not about having conflict about this, but rather you’re trying to just learn about each other and plan for the future. But I do think it’s an ongoing conversation. A lot of things change over time, and you may talk about a lot of things but you really don’t know about them. When they come you can really have a better talk about them. When the bills come, when the kids are born, things change a little bit.”

This openness can allow individuals to see how their expectations differ from those of their partner, and decide in advance which compromises might need to be made.

“We talked right away about what we wanted from this relationship, and what goals we had for our lives,” said Brent Armstrong, a psychology major from Idaho Falls. “It was a little awkward at first, since we were still getting to know each other and figuring out how interested we were, but it really helped our relationship in the long run. We realized we had a lot of the same goals and hopes for our futures, even if the way we had thought of getting there differed a little bit.”

As individuals seek to understand what their partner wants out of their life, whether that be for their future family, career or even a bucket list, it becomes easier to envision what a future with that person might entail, and how goals and dreams can be meshed together to form a life together. Beginning this conversation early on can help couples to recognize whether the relationship has a real future.

Recognize Differences are Normal

No two people are exactly the same, and individuals need to not only accept that they will be different from their partner but to embrace these differences.
“One major problem in relationships comes from equating similarity with compatibility,” said Yorgason. “People don’t need to be the same to be a good match, and couples often find their differences enhance their relationship as they strengthen the weaknesses of one another, and play off their strengths.”

As couples discover the differences that exist, they need to evaluate the effect that this could have on their relationship and whether it will have positive or negative effects, long-term.

“I don’t really think that differences in marriage are a problem,” said Yorgason. “I think that they can actually be a nice complement. However, differences can be challenges, and perhaps sometimes deal breakers. But at the same time, differences and unique aspects of each partner are the spice of marriage, they make it exciting when otherwise it might be boring.”

As individuals seek to appreciate the differences of their partner, they should also recognize and seek to remember the similarities that brought them together initially.

“Focus on the good things, or the reason you got into the relationship in the first place,” said Shannon Baird, a senior from Brigham City, Utah. “Going into the relationship you had foundational similarities with things like the gospel, your goals, your ambitions or your love for each other. If you focus on the things that are the same, you can weed out the things that are not the same, and remember the things that are most important in life, and love each other more.”

Be Open

Differences between couples don’t only include things the couple will face moving forward, but also things they have experienced in the past. Whether opening up about past struggles with mental illness, addiction, unusual family dynamics or health challenges, individuals can come to know their partner better and understand their point of view. This can help to not only increase stability in a relationship but also trust between partners. However, individuals can’t put too much emphasis on their partner’s past, as this can damage the relationship.

“In our culture, we probably focus a little too much on the standards of someone’s past, like your family has to be a certain way for me to be interested in you, or something like that,” said Yorgason. “While it’s a good idea to go into a marriage with your eyes open – knowing someone’s background – in reality we all have challenges in our background. Sometimes, in our culture, someone’s past and looks tend to be highly emphasized. Hopefully people get past that before they get married: they know the person, they’re friends with them, they’re best friends.”

As couples begin to deepen their relationship, they should begin both sharing their past experiences and asking their partner meaningful questions. This will help them better understand one another, and build relationships of trust.

“It’s good for couples at the right time to share sensitive information,” said Yorgason. “It’s not something you share on the first date, or even on the second date. But when a relationship looks like it may be long term, it’s a good idea to share things with your partner that you think might be challenges; sooner rather than later. This is a delicate topic because you want to share things that might be a challenge or unique about you or your family, but everyone has some challenges.”

Seek Compromise

If individuals have a different belief on an important issue than their partner, expectations should be reevaluated to see if there is a positive way to adapt these expectations to fit both belief systems. If this, too, is impossible, consider the possibility that this might be a red flag.

“When you have differences, it’s OK to say, ‘how can those differences help us to be something better than we would be if we both felt the same about this?’” said Yorgason. “The research does show for example, that religious differences can be really difficult to overcome in marriage. Sometimes there’s a compromise by one or another to be more congruent with their spouse in how they feel about religious matters, but it can be really hard, especially when they’re different religions in the relationship. These differences can be challenges and sometimes even deal breakers.”

When making compromises, couples should consider both why they are making the compromise, and why each individual has that specific habit or belief. This can help couples make more informed choices that will improve the relationship.

“We always try to make the compromise that is somehow better or will lift us,” said Baird. “For example, my husband likes to wear church clothes all day on Sundays, and I don’t. But he feels like it helps him to keep the Sabbath Day holy. I have to remember that what he’s doing isn’t a bad thing, and I want to support him, and for us to be united. So I wear my church clothes all day too because I feel like it doesn’t hurt me to move up a notch. Or if I go to the temple more often than him, it doesn’t hurt him to go more often. We try to find the higher road, so we’re moving up together and we can match each other’s good habits, instead of bringing the other person down.”

Be Respectful

There will be times in a relationship where it is impossible to reach a compromise. However, as individuals seek to appreciate the ways their partner differs from them, they might find that not all differences need to be talked about or dealt with in a relationship.

“My boyfriend and I realized fairly early on that there were some things we would never agree on, and a lot of ways we were different,” said Adele Dent, a senior from Redlands, California. “However, we also recognized that most of these things wouldn’t become problems if we didn’t let them, because they were unimportant things like how we liked our food to be cooked or our personal fashion sense. We decided right when we started dating that we wouldn’t argue about these little things, because they wouldn’t really impact our relationship in the long term anyways. We just have to understand that while we might always fundamentally disagree on that thing, we still love each other and respect one another, and that’s the most important thing.”

By keeping mutual respect as a fundamental value of their relationship, couples can improve relationship quality and satisfaction, regardless of differences.
“There’s some research on long term relationships or people that have been married many years,” said Yorgason. “Scholars did this research across different countries even, and they were trying to find what are the ingredients to a successful, long term marriage. One of those traits was mutual respect. I think there are certain elements of a relationship that help it to be lasting, that are part of the critical foundation of a relationship, and I think that mutual respect is one of those. Do couples have differences? Absolutely. Do some have more than others? Absolutely. When there are differences, to be respectful of those is really critical.”

Sometimes, not respecting a partner’s differences may be because of inexperience with those differences or not really understanding them. Individuals should seek to learn more about where their partner is coming from and not judge them based on personal experiences or biases. As both partners work together to understand and respect one another, differences can be overcome and weaknesses strengthened.

   -Shaye Mullen

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