Good, Bad or Just Different?

When your mate's habits drive you nuts, Don't throw a fit. Reach for a compromise

Before they are married, couples often minimize their differences. The fact that he loves to hike into the wilderness to camp is intriguing. And the energy that she pours into organizing parties to celebrate the most obscure occasions is charming.

Even though the outdoorsman isn't real big on parties and the social organizer would never consider spending the night in the woods, these differences are overshadowed by the excitement of romance. Plus, how could a couple this deeply in love not find a way to overcome something as minor as a few differences?

Well, when you get married and start sharing a bed, a kitchen and a checkbook, it doesn't take long for contrasting habits and preferences to become big problems. The same differences that used to be so endearing are now downright annoying. The wife of the hermit-like outdoorsman complains: "I just can't stand it when he hikes off into the woods every time I start planning another party!"

Actually, that's a slightly exaggerated description of us as newlyweds. We entered marriage as two people with distinct, and contrasting, personalities. And eventually we hit the "stone wall of reality." This can't be avoided, since marriage is a union of two self-focused people who are called to a self-giving relationship. We each attend to our own needs, as we should. But in marriage we also are expected to attend to our spouse's needs, which often are incompatible with our own.

In the early years of our marriage, we tried most of the standard, sure-to-fail methods for resolving our differences. Jeanette would forcefully articulate her concerns and disappointments. I (Bob) would typically clam up, becoming defensive and resentful. My silence, in turn, made Jeanette more determined than ever to advocate her position. Neither approach solved the problem, but we didn't know what else to do.

We collided again and again. But before our differences caused lasting damage, we discovered a successful technique for dealing with our opposing needs. The solution is based on one fundamental principle: "we" has priority over "me." Each of us has needs that are important, but Jeanette's needs aren't most important and neither are mine. Our shared relationship takes priority.

We have promised each other before God that we will allow nothing—including our own natural desires and tendencies—to break apart our union. That means we compromise on personal preferences for the good of our relationship. Putting "we" ahead of "me" is a principle that's much easier to understand than it is to practice. So here are five guidelines to help you the next time individual differences become an emotional wedge in your marriage.

Avoid the words "good" and "bad"

When individual differences were driving us apart, it was hard not to categorize everything as "good" or "bad." But since it was clear that God didn't intend us to be clones, we started by agreeing that we have legitimate differences.

One of the most obvious is how we operate in social situations. Bob tends to be quiet and somewhat withdrawn when he is surrounded by people. But nothing energizes me (Jeanette) like being part of a large group. I quickly become fully, and often noisily, engaged with others. When Bob was quiet at parties, I viewed him as being unfriendly and rude. But it was really just his preferred mode of behavior. Once we began regarding our differing tendencies as "preferred" and "not preferred"—rather than "good" and "bad"—we made tremendous progress.

Use differences to your advantage

Once we accepted that it's OK to be different, we could begin to recognize the validity of each other's natural tendencies. Building on that understanding, we found a way to make our differences work together to enrich our marriage. A good example is the customs we developed while growing up.

A collision is inevitable, since marriage is a union of two self-focused people called to a self-giving relationship.

I (Bob) grew up in a home where dinner was eaten quickly and silently. Jeanette, however, was raised in a home where meals were times of enjoyable and lively discussions. As you might imagine, our first few dinners together as a married couple were a confrontation of differing expectations. We couldn't each have it our way, so what were we to do?

No matter how natural it feels to me to be quiet during dinner, Jeanette has insisted over the years that mealtimes are for talking. I now realize that she's right, and our intimacy has deepened because we make mealtimes a time of connecting.

Reap the benefits of compromise

For many in the Christian community, the idea of compromise smacks of moral cowardice or an unwillingness to stand up for what is right. But in marriage, compromise is healthy and necessary.

When your differences start driving you crazy, remind yourselves that God made you different on purpose. Then start seeking a compromise. The first type is familiar: you each give a little. For instance, Bob now tries harder to be talkative and outgoing at social gatherings, and I (Jeanette) no longer expect him to be the life of the party.

The second type of compromise is less appealing but maybe even more important: one of you gives in to the other. When I was working on my Ph.D. and Bob was a university professor, our crazy schedule didn't allow us to be there when our kids got home from school. I felt it imperative that one of us be around when the children came home. However, Bob felt they were old enough to be home alone and insisted that he needed to be in his office in the afternoon. Here we were, two stubborn individuals with strongly held—and opposite—positions.

We couldn't solve this one without one of us giving in, so we relied on two family rules to help us reach a compromise. The first rule is that family needs take priority over work needs. The second is that the more strongly felt need takes priority over the less strongly felt need. Because this was so important to me, Bob changed his office hours so he could be home to meet the kids.

No matter what type of compromise you reach, it's a mutual victory. Because you're triumphing over something that could be divisive, all compromises are win-win (as long as the same partner isn't always the one who gives in).

Gain a new perspective

A difficult area to budge in is money—a common irritant in marriage. I (Bob) feel a need to conserve as much money as possible for future contingencies, while Jeanette feels a need to be generous and use money in productive ways. We have frequently hit the wall over how much to spend on Christmas gifts, for instance. I have always struggled with the level of Christmas spending Jeanette prefers. So we attacked our differences by making a list of all gift recipients and setting a limit on how much we would spend on each person. Jeanette reduced her Christmas spending, though the total was still a bit higher than I would've liked. From this compromise, I learned to focus on the joy expressed by family and friends when they open their gifts instead of on the pain to my wallet.

Give each other a hand

Because two become one in marriage, everything in the relationship is in some way mutual. So when one of you agrees to make a change, both of you can take responsibility for seeing it happen. At parties, I (Jeanette) have started helping Bob become more outgoing by directing questions at him when he's quiet for an extended time. And Bob reminds me to listen more whenever he notices that I'm being too quick with a response.

We still struggle at times with issues of "me" versus "we." But thanks to God's grace, our commitment to each other and our determination to overcome anything that challenges our oneness, the struggles are not as frequent or as troublesome as they once were. And through the struggle, we have discovered a wealth of marital intimacy.

Robert H. Lauer, Ph.D., and Jeanette C. Lauer, Ph.D., lead marriage workshops and are the authors of several books, including True Intimacy and For Better and Better (both published by Dimensions for Living).

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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