Accepting Differences

A happy couple on the beach. Accepting Differences. Psychology Fanatic article header image.
Accepting Differences (Adobe Stock Images).

We don’t all respond the same—I may be attracted while you are repelled. Accepting and allowing differences improves relationships—and politics. Differences expose insecurities, threatening stability. Naturally, when two people agree on everything, there is little conflict. However, exact matches are a fantasy. If that is what you seek, you don’t want a relationship. Successful relationships skillfully work through differences, appreciating the awe of difference.

​The fear that differences lead to rejection is unrealistic. Strong relationships are not couples that have no differences but couples that have learned to compromise and live with differences. Certainly, we need a fair amount of shared beliefs and goals. If their is no common ground, then the relationship is doomed. Why are you together anyways?

The illusion that your partner shares all of your goals and likes suggests that someone is being dishonest.

Unhealthy Approaches to Differences

Two unhealthy approaches commonly used to deal with partner differences:

  • to abandon individuality through always sacrificing personal aspirations and needs
  • or attacking any opposing difference in opinion, action, or desire

“Exact matches are a fantasy. Successful relationships must skillfully work through differences.” 

~T. Franklin Murphy

Abandoning autonomy to appease a narcissistic partner is not a good idea. We never find true intimacy and security here. Nor is manipulative control a way to security. Basically, we can only find true love through a level of acceptance. If you can’t live with differences, relationships will always disturb. Happy relationships do not exist with zero defects mentalities.

John M. Gottman PhD. states that “69% of the time, a couple’s conflict was shown to be about perpetual issues in the relationship that never got resolved. These lasting issues were due to lasting personality differences between partners.” The secret to success is not resolving these differences. Conversely, we don’t find the secret to a good marriage (or any relationship) in resolving of these perpetual conflicts. Gottman explains, “we found that what mattered most was not resolution of these perpetual problems but the affect that occurred around discussion of them” (2011).

Gottman expands on this, writing “the goal of happily married couples seemed to be establish a ‘dialogue’ around the perpetual problem—one that included shared humor and affection and communicated acceptance of the partner and even amusement.” How a couple discusses differences and the meaning they give to differences makes all the differences. If we partner differences don’t signal a fatal flaw to the relationship, we can better process the differences during necessary discussions. In healthy relationships, disagreements don’t provoke intimacy destroying emotions.

​Compassionate Understanding

Compassionate understanding is a better way. Compassionately allowing differences reduces the threat. When an intimate partner reacts differently, we can curiously remain open exploring the differences, creating deeper understanding, not only of our partner but of humanity. Unrealistic expectations of sameness destroys the trust and security of the partnership. Partners that can’t accept differences constantly live with the constant fear that a partner will reject their individual expressions of self.

This is the same process we use in mindfulness to integrate our emotional experiences. By accepting differences, working them into as individual parts of a healthy relationships, we can deal with the differences without overwhelming distress. People are naturally different in many ways. Healthy bonding doesn’t happen through elimination of differences but from integrating the differences into a healthy companionship. Oddly, contrasting to old ways of thinking, relationships thrive with acceptance rather than expectations of change. We accept differences and challenge our creativity to mesh those differences with our own oddities, creating a beautiful tapestry of two different but accepting people.

Books For Flourishing Relationships

Relationships thrive with security. Security is the foundation of attachment theories. Security doesn’t come from avoidance of conflict and smoothness of emotion but from skilled resolutions. When confronted with differences, we are gifted a golden opportunity to create security, showing a partner the acceptance, we have in their individuality, creating an atmosphere for growth of confidence. A couple that discusses differences and finds workable solutions that navigate through sensitivities create strong bonds. The convey a constant message of acceptance that builds trust. The question evolves from, “why in the world did you do that?” to something more accepting, “you feel differently than I do, how can I better understand what you are feeling?”

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Gottman, John M. (2011). The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples. ‎W. W. Norton & Company; Illustrated edition

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