We have gotten conflicting relationship advice. On the one hand, many of us have been told that we shouldn’t try to change our partners. And on the other hand, we are often encouraged to support our partners in becoming the best version of themselves they can be. But what if your definition of the “best” is different from theirs? How can you learn to accept the differences in your relationship while still supporting a partner’s growth?
As a modern love therapist and support circle facilitator, I often witness people in romantic relationships who believe that their partner thinks like they do and should therefore act like they do, too. For instance, you might think that your stressed-out partner should try to spend less time working because when you reduce your work hours, you feel more at ease. However, your partner may look at their life and see the solution for stress very differently. By a similar token, if you get quiet when you feel sad, you might assume that whenever your partner is quiet, they’re also sad—when in reality, they might just be feeling relaxed. These examples illustrate the ways in which we tend to overlay our experiences onto others in an attempt to understand the world around us.
It’s only natural for the brain to assume that our reality is the objective reality, after all. Given that its job is to predict outcomes in order to help keep us safe, the brain craves a sense of certainty; such objectivity gives us the comfortable illusion that we are fully in control of our relationships and our circumstances.
But the truth is that, as writer Anais Nin wrote, “We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are.” Indeed, research shows that the way we view the world depends on our own identities, emotions, lived experiences, and desires. And those are unlikely to match up perfectly with those of a partner.
While pushing back against differences in a relationship can create conflict and distance, learning how to accept them can add more richness and wisdom to your partnership.
While pushing back against those differences can create conflict and distance in a relationship, learning how to accept them can do just the opposite, adding more richness and wisdom to your partnership. Indeed, you don’t have to change your own perspective or push your partner to change theirs, and sameness doesn’t equal relational compatibility; embracing some differences in your relationship can help rather than hurt your connection.
The only caveat is if the differences at stake involve your core values. For example, you value transparency, and your partner values privacy, or you value collectivism, and they value individualism. Noticing these differences may prompt you to try to get your partner to join you in your value system, rather than having to feel the feelings associated with misalignment—which is actually the information you need to get clear about if this relationship is right for you.
Take some time to consider their core values in juxtaposition with yours, and assess whether you’re living in alignment by being with your partner. Notice your similarities and differences, and discuss how you feel about the differences. Do these feel like differences you can live with? If the answer is “no,” it’s time to consider what’s preventing you from letting this person go. But if it’s “yes,” learning to integrate your way of seeing the world with your partner’s—rather than attempting to fit theirs into yours—can actually enhance your partnership.
How to accept certain differences in your relationship
Lean into differentiation
Scientifically, differentiation is the process that our cells undergo as they evolve, helping them become distinct and specialized. As individuals, we undergo a similar process as we grow up. For example, as many of us move from childhood into adolescence, we begin to question our caregivers’ beliefs and form our own. In our adult relationships, we are constantly juggling our need for togetherness with our need for separateness.
Healthy differentiation is the ability to be in constant contact with your personal thoughts, values, and feelings, while also being close to the thoughts, values, and feelings of another. Consider the image of a rooted oak tree with flexible branches that sway in the wind: We want to be able to reach toward our partners, but from a place of feeling grounded in ourselves.
If you’re noticing a desire to be the same or experience constant togetherness with your partner, it might be helpful to consider: What is it about our differences that scares me? Instead of focusing on these differences as flaws within my partner, how can I focus on the parts of me that I want to enhance or embrace?
Learn to be comfortable with disliking aspects of your partner
Choosing to be with someone doesn’t mean liking everything about them. Learning how to accept the differences in a relationship can mean simply embracing the way someone is by being with them, and then noticing your own reactions, emotions, and impulses without acting on them immediately. It means paying more attention to how we are in the presence of things we don’t like, rather than trying to fix the behavior of another.
For example, you may not like that your partner is quiet in groups. Instead of focusing on their silence, notice what comes up for you in these instances. Are you afraid your partner’s silence is something that reflects negatively on you? Does quietness trigger a negative memory or association for you? This internal investigation will allow you to determine if the thing you dislike is about them, or if it’s really about you.
Seek to understand before being understood
In order to accept something, we first have to have some understanding of it. Many times when we dislike something, our inclination is to reject it. If you don’t like that your partner smokes cigarettes, for example, you might distance yourself from the behavior rather than try to get to know what might underlie it.
Therapist and artist Benjamin Seaman defines judgment as, “our minds attempting to put something we find threatening into a box we can easily recognize, so we can avoid it.” Instead of avoiding the thing you don’t like, consider doing the opposite by getting curious about it and moving closer. Ask your partner what they like about smoking. How does it help them? What does it feel like before they have a cigarette? How does it feel after?
If we operate under the assumption that certain behaviors may have harmful effects but good intentions, those behaviors tend to soften, allowing us to get closer to them. Once your partner feels like you are approaching them with curiosity, rather than judgment, they are more likely to let you in. Ironically, it’s often acceptance of the way things are that can ultimately open up the possibility for change.
Decide if being right is more important to you than being together
There are times when we want our partners to validate that the way we see things is right. We want them to recollect experiences in the same way as we do. Some of us want to be “right” because this has been a strategy to help us avoid disappointment. Others want to be “right” because it helped us solidify our position in a social hierarchy and got us respect.
Yet, what I have found as a modern love therapist is that the more we can lean into the reality that there are multiple ways of seeing things and approach differences with respect and curiosity, the more likely we are to come to consensus or feel more ease about having diverse truths.
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- Leong, Yuan Chang et al. “Neurocomputational mechanisms underlying motivated seeing.” Nature human behaviour vol. 3,9 (2019): 962-973. doi:10.1038/s41562-019-0637-z