Young unhappy couple ignoring each other while sitting on the street

Are You Struggling in Your Relationship Over Differences

As a couple’s counselor, I have noticed some patterns with my clients that can lead to challenges and they center around misunderstood differences. When two people fall in love, commit to each other and try to build a life together, there are many issues that can arise, especially when they each have differences they don’t understand. But they don’t have to be deal breakers once you understand how to deal with them.

Introverts versus Extroverts: Introverts and extroverts exist along a continuum; they aren’t simply polar opposites. One of the best ways to know which one you lean toward is to determine what helps you when you are depleted of energy. Extroverts tend to recharge from interactions with others, while introverts require alone time to recharge.

The problem: One person tends to seek out social interactions and their partner wants to be alone. I was recently working with a couple who has this dynamic and the introvert found himself exhausted and in need of some space while his partner wanted more time together. When her husband was depleted of energy, he became irritable and she incorrectly assumed he was mad at her and no longer committed to their relationship.

The solution: Once couples understand this basic difference, they can work to negotiate the differences. In the case of the couple above, the wife was better able to notice when her husband needed space than he was. She decided to take a couple of days away to give him the space he needed. Once it was time for her to return, he had completely recharged and was more than ready for some connection time.

Freedom versus Connection: Sometimes couples get together and one has a high need for Freedom and the other has a strong need for Connection. The one with the higher Freedom need often finds themselves desiring to be away from their partner doing independent activities or things with other people. The person with the high Connection need is looking for quality time together.

The problem: Just like with the first couple, the Freedom partner can find their partner to be needy and suffocating, while the Connection partner finds themselves to be neglected and may feel unloved.

The solution: In negotiating differences for this couple, it’s important for each person to recognize the need in the other and do their best to accommodate them. This requires weekly or monthly discussions about what is important to them. They can plan their calendars to include solo activities for the Freedom person while the Connection person explores other ways to meet that need through family, friends or even pets. They will also determine the important times for the Connection person to have their partner present and plan for that, as well.

Significance versus Safety & Security: Recently, I worked with a couple where the wife had a high need for Significance and the husband had a high need for Safety & Security. This created a problem in their relationship because she wanted to start her own business so she can do the work she was passionate about, while he preferred she stay with her steady job where she earned a generous salary and benefits.

The problem: To him, it felt like his wife was being selfish and not considering what was best for the family, including their children. She felt unsupported by her husband, thinking he didn’t care that she was quite miserable in her current job.

The solution: In this case, the solution was to reframe family success from finances to the health and happiness of Mom. The solution could look like Mom staying at her job while also doing some passion work on the side until she could grow it into a business to provide for the family.

High Safety & Security versus low Safety & Security: Sometimes relationships struggle because one person is high in Safety & Security while the other person is low in that same need. This can create a huge strain on the relationship.

The problem: The person high in Safety & Security is thrifty—wanting to save and plan for the future. The person low in Safety & Security is more of a spender who enjoys living in the here and now. While the former is a great planner, the latter enjoys spontaneity. One is a risk-taker while the other is a worrier.

The solution: It helps in situations such as these to have separate bank accounts. There are couple expenses—mortgages, utilities, grocery bills, etc. An account is created to handle these expenses and each partner contributes equally or by a percentage of their income to this account so the household/family expenses are covered. The remainder of each partner’s income is theirs to do with as they please. The high Safety & Security person will save it, while the low Safety & Security person will spend it.

Differences in What Sparks Joy: It is important for couples to have at least one to three things they enjoy together that bring them both Joy. There are four subsets of Joy: 1) play, 2) relaxation, 3) a sense of humor and 4) discovery learning. If two people are committed to each other and there is nothing they enjoy doing together, it does not bode well for the relationship.                                             

The problem: I once worked with a couple who worked hard all week to play on the weekends. He had a boat and often wanted to go fishing. She enjoyed staying home and reading. Individually, this was great, but they began to feel the strain on their relationship because they had little quality time together.

The solution: When they talked about it, they realized he did not like to read and she did not enjoy fishing. But when they placed what was best for their relationship at the center of their conversation, they realized they could both enjoy their favorite activity while doing it together. The husband got to fish every week and she went with him. She enjoyed being in his boat, reading her books. Occasionally, they shared conversation, but mostly they enjoyed being together doing the things they individually liked to do.

The point of couple’s therapy is not to focus on the differences; it is to find agreement in the differences and build on those similarities. Differences are something to appreciate, while similarities are to celebrate and build upon.

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