The tension around this year’s election seems higher than ever. Feelings are running high as people advocate for their candidates and their point of view. Families and couples are not immune to the stress this brings. Facebook wars have been breaking out all over as people share their opinions. Internet memes, the modern equivalent to the bumper sticker quip with levels of negativity and sarcasm that are almost unbelievable. It’s hard to get away from all this. (As a native Chicagoan, at least I have the world series to distract me. GO CUBS!)
Couples don’t always agree about things, and politics is no exception. Many of us have heard the very public disagreements between Mary Matalin (republican strategist) and James Carville (democratic commentator). At times I’ve wondered about how they can possibly get along in private when the disagree so strongly in public.
Relationship science offers interesting insights for couples who find themselves struggling with major differences of opinion. Common wisdom tells us that couples who agree on things, who are compatible are most likely to be happy in the long run but that’s not necessarily the whole story.
Every Couple has Differences…
and most of them are not solvable! John Gottman’s research into couples discovered a secret that is both disturbing and liberating at the same time. 69% of the things couples disagree about never have a final solution. These differences are rooted in deep beliefs, needs or dreams, often with roots that go all the way back to childhood.
James grew up in an industrial city in the northern United States. He was raised by his grandparents in a working-class neighborhood. Everyone he knew was a member of a union and worked in manufacturing. He remembers loud conversations about “management.” His grandfather, a child of the depression idolized FDR and gave him credit for saving the country with the social programs of the New Deal. Even though he was college educated and working in a white-collar job, he still identified strongly with the beliefs and values of his roots and was an outspoken democrat.
As life would have it, James met the love of his life while in college. Sarah was beautiful, southern, religious and the daughter of the town doctor. Her parents’ prized possession was a photo of the two of them shaking hands with Ronald Regan. Her dad loved to tease her mom by pointing out the “tear in her eye” as the photo was taken. James was head over heels in love with Sarah and she felt the same. They knew they were different, but they just knew their love would make it work. It did for a few years, but gradually things changed.
They attended a large evangelical church together. James didn’t really care about it, but went with Sarah regularly. As election year approached politics became the theme of most every conversation with their families and friends. One Sunday James refused to go to church and Sarah wanted to know why. He was angry because he felt that the minister “crossed the line.” He wouldn’t talk about it further and Sarah began to feel alienated. Will this end in a divorce? Maybe. Is divorce inevitable? Absolutely not!
Modern relationship science actually offers a path to success for couples like James and Sarah. We know that all couples have perpetual differences. Sometimes these are extreme and feel like deal breakers, but it’s usually not the differences themselves that breaks the deal, but the way couples handle them.
Gottman’s research into couples uncovered some interesting differences in the way the “Masters” of relationship dealt with conflict verses the way the “disasters” did.
- Masters brought up differences in a gentle way. They found ways bring up a problem without putting the partner on the defensive.
- Masters accepted influence from one another. Even when they disagreed they could let their partner know that they were listening and respecting the other’s point of view.
- Masters dialogued about the differences. They talked about what they felt and believed rather than shutting down.
- Masters found ways to stay calm. They took time outs to calm down when conversations became too heated.
- Masters made compromises. They found middle ground that they could both agree to.
James and Sarah were able to reconnect. At an Art and Science of Love© workshop they discovered new ways to deal with their differences. They stopped trying to persuade the other to change and started listening to the underlying reasons for each of their beliefs. They found a new church they could both accept. They found a community organization they could get behind and worked together to raise money to support their programs. They were even able to joke about “cancelling each other out” on election day. Most of all they found the path to respecting their differences and listening to each other again and it made all the difference.