Arguing over endless small differences

-- Question for John --

My partner and I have been married six months. The other day I said something which upset her. When I apologized she said she forgave me. But then she was mad again. In many ways, she is very different from me. Lately we’ve been arguing over what seems like endless small differences. She takes things out of proportion, is overly serious and far too emotional. I’d like her to lighten up.

Is it right for her to hold a mistake over my head for so long? Am I wrong to think we should forgive and forget? Despite our differences, we both agree that our marriage is important. What would help us overcome differences and live “happily ever after” together?

-- Answer from John --

You face a common challenge in love and relationships — learning how to constructively work with differences.

While differences may initially attract, the honeymoon eventually ends. Many couples then start reacting to or criticizing each other over differing styles. Although typical, this is destructive. We call it the “Polarity Tango.”

It takes two to tango, as they say. And so you need to look at your part of this dance. Polarizing over differences is a common and quite unconscious tendency. It builds walls that eventually block out positive love.

Start by learning to identify when you are falling into a Polarity Tango. Hint: listen for the words “right,” “wrong” or “should.” You used all three, by the way. They indicate you, yourself, are playing a role in this wicked dance.

“Who is right?” is not a good question. It leads to fights. A better question is: “Would you rather be right — or happy?”

Another sign of this dance is any sense of power struggle, or when partners try to control or change each other.

Any differences may lead to a polarity dance. One partner is an extrovert, the other an introvert. They soon stumble into disputes over proper social behavior. One partner is more emotional, the other mental — one more outspoken, the other mild-mannered. Sooner or later, they start reacting to how the other person does, or does not, express feelings.

Sadly, it is almost normal for couples to turn differences against each other. The early part of marriage — at least for a couple that will make it longterm — is about learning to recognize and stop this unconscious dance from taking over.

You need to learn to better see it. Learn to keep it from ruining your love. When you do recognize that you are polarizing, your first step is to reach out to find middle ground. This is not just about “compromise.” It is finding within yourself three major powers: acceptance, understanding and compassion.

There are many good books that can educate you about personality differences and how to bridge the gap. You can learn new strategies and constructive ways to talk about issues and difficult feelings.

The basic thing you need to do is to learn a few new skills. This requires each of you to give up the question of who is right. The better question is how you both can learn to be happier together. You can do that. If you need more than a book, enroll in a class for couples or find a counselor to help you.

You can get through this phase. Some call it resolving the power struggle. We simply say that it’s time to learn a different way to dance — one that strengthens the love and intimacy you want to share.

Forgiving and forgetting is a great idea. To authentically forgive — and have it be more than just words — you have to develop skills that move you beyond the Polarity Tango and get you working together again.