Whenever it comes time for me to write a blog, I think back over the trends I’ve been seeing in my clients. Recently, I’ve had several couples with similar conflict-resolution problems. The old myth that two people come together to make one just isn’t true. Two very different people come together and do their best to create a life where they can live side-by-side, managing whatever life throws at them—not an easy task.
When couples engage a counselor or coach, it’s usually because they are experiencing conflict of some kind. They may agree there is a problem in the relationship, but they don’t always agree on the origin or the solution. I have created the five-step Couple’s Diversity Staircase to help couples climb from conflict to appreciation—and the climb requires effort.
Step 1: Conflict
When two people are in conflict, they typically point their fingers at each other in blame and criticism rather than face the actual problem. Each person believes they are either not doing anything wrong or, if they are, it’s only because their partner drove them to it. Not only does this conflict step never feel good but it is also counter-productive for creating happy, healthy relationships. While on this first step of the staircase, couples need to identify and agree on what the problem is in general terms. It could be communication, trust, finances, children, sex or any other topic they are struggling with. I ask them to stop looking at their partner as the cause of the problem and instead look at the actual problem and how they, themselves, may be contributing to it.
Step 2: Toleration
When ready, I ask them to take the next step to toleration. Toleration is never the step I want them to end with; it is simply a step on the way to the next one. It’s possible to jump right over tolerating, but more often than not, it’s a necessary developmental step for the couple to make. It’s where each person embraces the idea that, no matter how hard they try, they cannot control the behavior of the other person. Everyone knows this is true, but people still put a lot of energy and effort into trying to make others change. Beyond accepting that they can’t change the other person, each person should work to shift their focus onto what they like about the other person to avoid dwelling on the thing they are tolerating.
While on this step, there is still frustration and dissatisfaction, but couples have agreed to put down the swords and are no longer in conflict—a baby step in the right direction.
Step 3: Understanding
In understanding, each person works to move beyond the stories they have been telling themselves about why their partner is the way they are. Some common differences that require understanding involve the introversion/extroversion spectrum, basic need strength profiles, sexual appetite, parenting practices, finances or communication styles.
It can be difficult to reach understanding while allowing negative thoughts to run in the background. These thoughts may be the reason couples see their partner how they perceive without hearing the actual reasoning their partner offers. Our brains are hardwired for negativity, so we tend to imagine the worst. Differences are sometimes so large that reaching understanding can be a stretch, but with good communication, a willingness to quiet the internal negative chatter and a strong desire to understand each other, couples can get there.
Step 4: Acceptance
Upon reaching understanding, couples can progress to acceptance. Acceptance feels different than toleration because reaching acceptance means releasing all emotions of frustration, anger and sadness. Each person accepts their partner for who they are with zero desire to change them.
Acceptance occurs when couples see the person they’ve chosen to love as they are, not as they want them to be—not dwelling on their flaws and leaning into their strengths. Because of the human hardwiring for negativity, it’s natural for people to focus on what drives them crazy, but that doesn’t help relationships.
If couples can see all the wonderful things their partner does and the beautiful traits they possess, they can accept the thing that was originally causing conflict. This is a great place to be, but for the overachievers reading this article, there is one more step.
Step 5: Appreciation
This is where the internal work is done, where each person can examine the behavior or trait that was originally causing conflict and analyze how that particular thing can be beneficial. Often, it can help in other areas outside of the relationship.
Let’s use money as an example. There is a spender and the other is a saver, and the saver tends to get frustrated at the irresponsibility and frivolity of the spender, while the spender tends to be frustrated by the lack of spontaneity and the scarcity mentality of the saver. When you finally reach appreciation, the saver recognizes that the spender can teach them how to loosen up and enjoy life more, and the saver can help the spender plan for the future better.
If you’re struggling to climb these steps, just know that there is always something to learn from your partner—the person you chose as your biggest teacher—but it takes climbing from conflict up the stairs to appreciation to find the lesson. Stop blaming your partner and look inward to lead you to understand what you need to learn from them.
This is the ultimate journey in being a couple. You have stopped fighting, communicated and found understanding, accepted each other for exactly who you are and recognize the benefit of having your partner be exactly as they are. You realize how you are better for it.
As an aside, this process is not meant to be used in situations where a person’s non-negotiables are being violated. You must decide what the deal breakers are for you, and if they have been compromised, you will want to consider dissolving the relationship.
I believe there are many couples who can do this work on their own. However, if you get stuck and need some professional help to climb these stairs, I’d love to help.