THE BLOG
10/13/2014 01:40 pm ET Updated Dec 13, 2014

Vive La Difference!

Sash Alexander Photography via Getty Images

Linda: During our first few years together, Charlie and I knew what kind of a relationship we desired, but it took more than hope to bring it to fruition. Like most people, we were up against conditioned patterns and lifelong habits most of which didn't support our vision. Neutralizing them would take discipline, devotion, time and practice, lots of it.

Many factors contributed to the difficulties we experienced, particularly during the early years of our marriage. We were both only 21 when we began our relationship, and each of us was looking for someone who could provide emotional security, since neither of us had developed any real sense of wholeness within ourselves. We both had very distorted pictures of what love is and were unskilled and inexperienced when it came to healthy relationships.

Neither of us had seen examples of them in our families or been very successful in any of our previous relationships. We were both clear that we didn't want to replay what we gad seen in our families growing up, but neither of us had a clue about how to do it differently. Our first child was born 20 months after we got married when we were both full-time graduate students, saddled with debt and both out of work, with no income coming in. The stress level was pretty high.

And to make things more interesting, there were all the vast differences in our personalities. Although most couples tend to complement each other with their differences, our have always seemed inordinately extreme. In most personality traits, we represent opposite ends of the spectrum: I am detailed-oriented, Charlie is a generalist; I favor strict parenting, Charlie doesn't; I am an outgoing social person, Charlie is more of an introvert; I go to bed early, he stays up late, I like to get to the airport with hours to spare, a 15-minute wait is too much for him: I believe in planning and preparation, Charlie favors spontaneity: I seek connection when I am stressed, Charlie prefers solitude, my strength is commitment, Charlie's is letting go; when we teach, I use notes, he just wings it, I'm a talker, he's a thinker; I manage money, he spends it. And that's just the beginning. The list goes on, but you get the idea. Over the years, people have asked us countless times. "How did you guys ever get together? And how did you stay together?"

In the early years of our marriage, because neither of us knew how to deal with our differences, we spent a fair amount of time either in conflict or in avoidance of conflict. It wasn't the differences themselves that kept getting us in trouble, but our reactions to them. Like many couples, we attempted to do away with our differences by trying to change each other or ourselves. Homogenizing our personalities, and thus eliminating the sources of conflict seemed at the time to be a good idea. This strategy, we eventually discovered, doesn't work. Instead it produced further conflict, both within us and between us.

There was, of course, more to our relationship than suffering and struggle. Had there not been, we could not and would not have stayed together. From our earliest days, a deeply loving connection has sustained us through the ordeals, the power struggles, the disappointments and even the betrayals. We shared experiences as a couple and as a family that were joyous beyond measure.

Even the strongest bonds, however, are not immune to the toll that ongoing struggles can impose on a relationship. For us, the turning point came in 1987, after 15 years of marriage. Conflict and frustration had worn us down to the point where we both were seriously questioning whether it was worth it to go on together. As much as each of us wanted to preserve our marriage and our family, the strain of dealing with irreconcilable differences was getting to be too much. We had reached a point where we could see why couples who love each other choose divorce. For both of us there was sadness and relief in that recognition.

We were grief-stricken that we seemed to be about to lose our marriage but simultaneously relieved that the years of struggle might finally be coming to an end. Fortunately, facing the reality of divorce led us to realize what we stood to lose and how much we both really wanted to preserve our marriage. We knew that there had to be another way, and that helped us make the leap from tolerating our differences to appreciating them.

Attempting to dissolve our differences hadn't worked, so we began trying instead to meet them with acceptance, gratitude, and appreciation and to see if we could find the hidden gifts in them. We knew, at least intellectually, that it was these differences that had drawn us together and made us attractive to each other. At the same time, they were the primary source of what triggered our reactive patterns. We discovered that what drove us crazy about each other and what we were crazy about in each other were one and the same thing. The challenge was neither to try to change the other or to change for them, but rather to honor our own uniqueness while strengthening the bonds of respect and appreciation between us. Learning to see our differences as tools for becoming more loving and fulfilled rather than as obstacles to be overcome, denied, or eliminated, has profoundly altered how we relate to each other and everyone else in our lives. In our work with couples, we have found that while it does require effort and intention to adopt this orientation, it need not take as long as it took us to do so.

The experiences that brought us to our knees made us who we are today, and the learning and healing that occurred within that process served to shape our relationship into the treasure it is now. Coming as close as we did to losing our marriage, we learned to truly care for and appreciate each other to a degree that we may not have experienced otherwise.

We have learned to love with an enormous sense of gratitude and rarely, even briefly, take our relationship for granted. Although the lessons we have learned in the process have not come easily, the rewards of our efforts are sweet: an abundance of harmony, ease and joy. We are two ordinary people who, through a combination of good luck, good help, hard work, commitment, and a steadfast faith in a shared vision, made it through the ordeals of marriage and learned from our experiences. Our experience has given us confidence and trust in the power of intention and in the human capacity to heal from a wounded past to ultimately become even stronger. As we have both discovered that it is the wounds themselves that enable us to develop the qualities that bring joy and love more fully into our lives.

From our experience, the deepest satisfaction that life has to offer comes from our most intimate relationships. By taking on the challenges of a committed partnership we are prompted to realize the fullness of our being. More than any other relationship, marriage has the potential to awaken our deepest longings and needs, as well as our deepest pains and fears. In learning to meet all of these powerful forces with an open heart, and with authenticity, we can grow ourselves into wholeness, maturity, and compassion.

In one of his workshops, Stephen Levine, the author of Embracing The Beloved, referred to marriage as "the ultimate danger sport." "People can," he said, learn more about themselves in a week in a relationship than by sitting in meditation in a cave for a year. Having tried both marriage and meditation, we'd have to agree. The development of self-awareness and self-knowledge is both the means to and the end of marriage. The process is simple but not easy. From where we stand, the rewards of doing he work far outweigh the effort that it takes to do it. And it's never to late to start.