Differences Don’t Mean You’re Doomed!
As a San Diego therapist, I often get excited when seemingly dreaded statements come from my clients who are in new relationships. The honeymoon period while dating is exhilarating, fun, and necessary, but doesn’t capture the reality of relationship. Real issues surface as differences emerge and this is often expressed as irritations or annoyances by the one who is bothered. While clients often see this shift as a danger sign, I view it as unavoidable opportunity to grow together.
Differences can bring up either red flags or signs of relief depending upon how the struggle is expressed. It is a landscape where “negotiables and non-negotiables” are unearthed. Non-negotiables are incompatibilities that are usually fixed and unchangeable. They often stem from major lifestyle differences or philosophical or value based differences. For example, if one person views living rurally as ideal and the other wants a penthouse in Manhattan, this is likely to be a non-negotiable based on lifestyle choice and probably isn’t very pliable. One person may be very particular about having a clean home and staying organized, but if their partner is a procrastinator and doesn’t keep a tidy home, this may be too much for the other person to cope with.
Another non-negotiable example stems from philosophical or value differences. The differences themselves aren’t’ insurmountable, but the tolerance for difference. If someone is a recovered alcoholic, they may only be comfortable dating someone who does not drink (a non-negotiable difference), while another person in recovery feels fine about dating someone who drinks responsibly (a negotiable difference with the condition of responsible drinking). One Christian may not be comfortable dating a non-Christian (a non-negotiable difference), while other Christians are perfectly okay with dating someone regardless of a person’s spirituality if basic values are compatible. So, when differences begin to emerge, instead of trying to change the person you’re dating or getting angry with them, consider exploring your differences through this lens to see if your incompatibilities can be integrated into the relationship. Better to have differences explored early on and learn what each can and cannot put up with instead of trying to change one another setting the stage for frustration.
Red flags indicating that differences aren’t being approached in a constructive manner are many and include the following: Blaming, criticism about a behavior, attempts to use guilt as a means to change the other, anger, shutting down and refusing to talk about a difference and passive-aggressive behavior. Although we all resort to less than perfect behavior on occasion, if the above behaviors are displayed on a regular basis, this is a red flag and continuing the pattern will not improve the relationship or resolve the differences.
When You Notice the Differences, Respectful and Direct Behavior is the Best Approach
If you see differences emerging that concern you, healthy communication is your best bet to either resolve them or respectfully learn you cannot live with the differences at hand. Productive communication starts by exposing and exploring the differences that are worrying or bothersome to you, and discussing how the differences effect you. Try and talk about yourself and not about what is “wrong” with the other person. Following that, ask for what you would like from them and what the change would look like from your point of view. If you try this over time and behaviors don’t change, the decision is most likely in your hands at that point and requires you to decide whether you can cope with the person as they are. Yes, someone may eventually change down the line, but if they haven’t after numerous assertive and respectful requests, it’s not something to count on. It’s probably up to you to decide whether you can negotiate the difference (and not become resentful for it down the road), or whether the difference is non-negotiable meaning you and the person you’re dating are not compatible for a long term relationship.
Either way, the annoyances that emerge in a relatively new relationship aren’t a sign that things are wrong! It’s a normal pattern of progression that can either help you grow, communicate and understand one another better or it will alert you to some incompatible differences sooner rather than later, saving you some time, frustration and probable heartache. Couples counseling is one viable option to address these issues and is not just reserved for those having deeper or longstanding problems. If you are seeing red flags or problems emerge in your relationship, seeking therapy in San Diego may be a good avenue and I encourage you to seek out a therapist who feels like a good fit for you.