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Deborah Hecker, Ph.D. Headshot

The Importance of Accepting Differences in Resolving Couples' Conflicts

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Many of us try to resolve relationship conflicts by demanding an overhaul of our partners. Why? Often, we define the problem in terms of the other person: "I have problems because of you and the way you are," we are inclined to tell them.

Many years of couples' and individual counseling have convinced me that defining partnership problems in terms of our partner's character flaws and implying that he/she is inadequate and needs help will exacerbate the conflict.

Typically, I define couples' problems in terms of the differences between them rather than the defects in either partner. A focus on defectiveness leads to blame and accusations on one hand and defensiveness on the other. Effective solutions are not likely to result.

I know that you might be thinking that there are "defects" in one or both partners at certain times. Yes, it is true; we are all products of imperfect upbringings and therefore have limitations. However, trying to resolve our conflicts by manipulating or coercing our partner to be a certain way will only lead to frustration, defensiveness and attacks on one another.

Differences: Handle with TLC

Sometimes, it seems as if our partners' differences are aimed to hurt or annoy us. Consider, for example, how the need for intimacy and the expression of closeness -- the significant building blocks of a partnership -- vary between partners and can cause tension. Incompatibilities in this area are particularly threatening because closeness is the reason most of us seek out a relationship.

Let's take a brief look at how the following pre-anniversary interaction between Ashley and Mark left them both feeling misunderstood.

Ashley: Our anniversary is only 2 days away and I am looking forward to a romantic candle lit dinner where we can reminisce about when we first met.

Mark: I thought we would go to my office party. You know how much fun my office parties are. We'll have a blast.

Ashley: Ugh, Mark, why is it that every time I want to be alone with you, somehow we end up in a group situation with your friends? Are you avoiding being alone with me?

Mark: Last night we were together at home. Ashley, I feel like you are suffocating me. I can never give you enough.

Look how quickly 2 people can feel misunderstood! If you think about it, the topic of the conversation is harmless. However, there are underlying triggers in both that cause them to attack each other, rather than resolving their differences cooperatively.

Now, imagine Ashley and Mark having a conversation in which, despite their different desires, they are concerned about the other's preference.

Ashley: Our anniversary is only 2 days away and I am looking forward to a romantic candlelit dinner where we can reminisce about when we first met. What do you think?

Mark: Actually, that's not what I had in mind. I thought we'd go to the firm's party where we always have a blast. I figured you would like that idea.

Ashley: I understand how much fun your office parties are but I really would like to be alone with you to celebrate. Is there a reason you don't want to be alone with me?

Mark: Not at all. I simply like the idea of celebrating in a group and thought you would as well since you like my colleagues. How about we stop by the party for a little while and then go to dinner, just the two of us, at the cute bistro near the apartment?

Dealing with delicate areas of conflict can be challenging under the best of circumstances. It is easy to feel burdened by the demands of handling our partners' feelings, especially if the particular incident taps into our sensitivities. It is at such times that special care should be given to our partner to soothe their vulnerabilities. Feeling cared for may allow them to be more responsive to conflict resolution and willing to reciprocate the special care.