A few months into dating, things were going swimmingly. He was thoughtful, cute, interesting, fun – just what I’d hoped. And he seemed to be crazy about me, too. We had hit our stride. It all seemed so natural.
But then, there was that one weird Friday.
I had invited Kyle to hang out with my sister, her husband, and their three little kids at my apartment. We had already been spending time with each other’s families, so there was no added pressure there. We were just going to have pizza and take the kids swimming. It was going to be adorable, actually.
But he politely declined. He said he needed to stay in and “get organized.”
Excuse me? He might as well have told me he needed to wash his hair.
I believed him because he would never lie; plus, if he were going to lie, he’d have come up with a better excuse. But I wasn’t happy. I was embarrassed at having to explain his inexcusable, incomprehensible absence to my sister and, more importantly, I had really hurt feelings. After spending the usual workweek apart, I couldn’t wait to be with him. He, apparently, felt the same way about his calendar.
Luckily, I didn’t let it shake me for too long. I chalked it up to mysterious male behavior and moved on. Now, almost three years into marriage, his behavior that night makes perfect sense to me. Why? Because I understand that he is just plain different from me.
In Marriage Rules: A Manual for the Married and the Couple Up, psychologist Harriet Lerner lists “Respect Differences!” as the first rule in the entire book. She explains, “We all view reality through different filters, depending on our class, culture, gender, birth order, genetic makeup, and unique family history. ” The same situation viewed through two people’s unique filters might actually appear quite different. Clearly this can cause some confusion in a relationship, where two different people regularly share experiences and responsibilities. Lerner advises, “Work on staying emotionally connected to a partner who thinks and feels differently than you do without needing to convince or otherwise fix her.”
Of course I didn’t get this the night Kyle chose to sit at his desk getting organized instead of swimming with me. All I knew was that I never, ever would have turned him down that way, and that left me hurt and confused. What I didn’t take into consideration, however, was that he saw the situation completely differently.
First, he’s an introvert, and knows very well when he needs time to recharge. That night, he did. Second, he takes his work very seriously, and at the time he was applying for a new job. He actually did need to use the weekend to get organized. Third, he’s a work hard then play sort of guy. He can’t really enjoy himself until he’s finished his responsibilities. I could go on, but you get the idea.
For the most part, we all suffer some fumbling and bumbling through relationships. No two people can be in sync all of the time. But when conflict pops up due to differences in personality or frame of mind, there are a few ways we can deal with it.
First, we can continue to view the situation from our own lens. We might lament our partner’s lack of reason or sensitivity, throw up our hands, and just do our own thing. Or, we might get angry and fight, arguing our point of view and trying to change our partner to be more like us. (Good luck to all of us with that.)
Alternatively, we can take a breath, step back, and try to view the situation from our partner’s lens. We can ask why he or she feels or thinks a certain way. We can say, that’s interesting, because I guess I’m just wired differently and have a whole different take on the issue. We can seek to understand and respect our partner’s differences and tackle the issue with those in mind.
What I’ve found in my marriage is that Kyle’s approach to life is actually a great complement to mine, even when it’s very different. We need someone to sit at the computer and figure out the darn budget (or research lawn care or minivan prices, etc.) – something I never, ever do. We also need someone to say, “Okay, enough business, let’s have some family time,” which is where I excel. I love that we have different taste in reading material, so our library and our conversation is varied. I love that he is a thinker and I am a feeler, and we meet in the middle while working through an issue.
Of course, while we as couples get comfortable explaining our feelings and behaviors and asking for patience, we also need to stretch ourselves to accommodate each other. Differences can’t be used as a shield. They are just what they are – differences. When we learn to understand, respect, and even appreciate each other’s differences, we can find a little more peace in our relationships. We can focus on growing in our love and life together.