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Recognizing and accepting our differences

June 6, 2018

One of the most common issues people struggle with is conflict in their intimate relationships. This can be a spouse, a boyfriend or girlfriend, a family member, or a friend, among the many kinds of close long-term relationships that exist. Some conflict isn’t necessarily such a bad thing, but there are times when frustration and disappointment can significantly damage the foundations of even the closest relationship.

Individuals often blame these conflicts on either themselves or the other. The vast majority of the time, these conflicts are recurring, often for very similar reasons.Peoples frustration exponentially increases when they realize that they continue to clash with their friend or lover or family member for the same reasons, time and time again.

Everyone is at a loss. Both parties explain that they’ve done everything they can to resolve the conflict, explaining to the other person calmly and rationally, their perspective of things, and time and time again the other person just doesn’t seem to accept or understand it.

Why does this happen?

The short answer is that people are different. Yes, that seems very obvious. We are all different. Yet in our closest relationships, we often expect the other person to see things and understand them in very much the same way we do.

In sessions, I often find myself in the very curious role of trying to explain what my client’s partner or friend might be thinking and feeling. Obviously, I don’t know the other person. I’ve never met them. All I know about them is what the person in the room, my client, tells me. So how is it, that I am able to explain to someone, very personal things about their partners inner self that they have seemed to overlook?

The short answer is, I have a perspective that they are unable to see because they are in the thick of it. It’s often quite obvious from my perspective, that they are projecting their own assumptions about life onto someone who sees things very differently than they do.

A lot of the work goes into explaining the differences between them and the person they are involved with, and what these differences mean in the relationship dynamic. Some of these same differences are really quite complimentary and a huge advantage in the relationship.

So how do we negotiate these differences?

By the time conflicts occurs it’s often too late. Things can get very ugly very fast. People feel misunderstood, they get angry, they often do or say things they regret. It can even result in a relationship ending.

This is why a very important aspect of avoiding conflict is anticipating when it might occur. No, you don’t need a crystal ball. What do you do need is the ability to recognize the triggers, and when you might be approaching a situation in which a conflict might arise. Of course, life can be unpredictable, and there will always be situations that you won’t be prepared for, but there are plenty you can prepare for. Most of the time conflicts arise in similar situations, and this knowledge can help us avoid them.

For example, knowing your partner is prone to insecurity, which might be triggered when you are apart, might mean taking extra care to help prepare them for your absence.

While you might be someone who likes keeping your feelings to yourself, your partner might be someone who values sharing feelings. Although you might not see the need for it, sharing your personal challenges with them might actually help them understand that you value them.

The opposite might be true as well. You might have a need to share all your thoughts and feelings, but your friend might be someone who’d rather not have this kind of exchange everyday. Respecting these differences is a way of showing you respect them. Understanding that they don’t have the same need to express their thoughts and feelings that you have will go a long way in preserving the relationship.

Obviously, understanding must work both ways, but it’s not always going to be perfectly balanced, because people are not mathematical equations. You might be better equipped to organize things and your sibling might be better at managing different personalities. This is why we naturally gravitate into different roles in our various relationships.

Moral of the story is, understanding that the various people in our lives are very different from us, and from each other, will help you avoid conflicts and disappointments. Don’t impose your own expectations and values on others. Don’t do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Once you understand the differences, you won’t be so flustered when they don’t respond the way you would, and you will understand this is not an indicator that they care about you any less.

Written By: Jonathan Schnapp, LCSW

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