One of the greatest challenges in a marriage is what happens when a couple has different needs or different values, the latter being more problematic. Often when a couple has dated for a reasonable amount of time and they seem to have come to know one another and love what they know, marriage becomes a consideration. Our marital ceremonies suggest that virtues like loyalty, tolerance, love and patience are all that a couple needs to bring depth, meaning and longevity to their relationship. These virtues without some fundamental skills will be inadequate for navigating the turbulent waters of having different needs and values. Hence, couples face breakdown after breakdown when they have different priorities. Exhausted due to fighting, ignoring one another, repelling attempts at being influenced, blaming and ridiculing, with separation and/or divorce becoming more and more attractive. Let’s look at what it means to make it easier to handle having different needs.
Facilitating Different Needs
In order for a couple to effectively manage having different needs, they likely will need to interrupt the belief that it cannot be done. This is especially true if their prior married life as well as their childhoods attest to the view that diverse needs only yield mayhem and dissatisfaction. Once they are willing to entertain the possibility of bringing ease to a discussion involving different needs, the following steps can begin to be normalized in the marriage:
1) Get effective at identifying and interrupting conversations driven by win-lose or right-wrong. Offering reasons why my needs are somehow more legitimate or that yours are unsound, suggests that I’m either attempting to win or be right. If I’m trying to win then, I’m okay with you losing; and if I’m trying to be right, then I’m okay with you being wrong.
2) Get honest about how it feels to deal with different needs. The most common feeling is fear that I won’t get what I need.
3) Each person defines his or her need concretely, which means in behavioral terms. For example, needing more affection must be translated into actions such as: holding hands, snuggling, gentle touch, kissing, hugs, holding, etc.
4) Each person listens non-evaluatively to the other person’s need and asks for more concreteness when needed. Non-evaluatively means offering no assessments of your partner’s needs. If someone were asking for kindness then concreteness would by expressed by listing actions defined as kind.
5) Each person commits to do whatever is possible to support one’s own need and the need of the partner.
6) When ways to get both needs met are not obvious, move into brainstorming. List on a piece of paper as many creative options as possible not limiting the list to what seems practical or rational. Let your imagination influence what goes down on the paper. Then prioritize the top three and choose one.
7) Be willing to learn to get your needs met alone and/or with a friend. Demanding that your partner always accompany you in order to get your needs met will not help to maximize the likelihood of getting your needs met.
8) Evaluate how it went after both needs were allegedly met. Identify any ways you might strengthen the process in the future. Continue doing whatever it takes to support both people getting their needs met. Notice how hopelessness tends to sneak into the conversation and get back to following these 8 steps. Undoing attachments to being right and winning live at our core, calling for practice, practice and more practice.
Working With Different Values
Values are the beliefs that make our lives worth living and sometimes worth dying for. Hence, it can be a big deal in a marriage when a difference of values arises. Differing values often surface around topics such as: religion, money, health, politics and parenting. Let’s look at approaching managing diverse values more creatively and lovingly.
1) Deepen an understanding of your own values, the attitudes behind them and the self-righteousness attributed to them. This calls for some honesty about where our values come from and acknowledging that they work for us and not necessarily for everyone.
2) Become a source of support for your partner’s values. This means being willing to remain curious and listening to how our partners’ values bring meaning and fulfillment to their lives. It calls for interrupting our attempts at verbally influencing them to take on our values.
3) Becoming more accepting. Becoming more accepting calls for more internal spaciousness, allowing us to hold what we cherish as well as what is important to our partners. We have more psychic room to hold differences. We don’t need our partners’ agreement to feel comfortable with our beliefs. There is also a diminished tendency to be dogmatic about our own values.
4) Learning from our partners. When we are willing to learn something from one another’s values, a bridge can be built between different worlds. An example might be a spouse who has laissez-faire parental values might learn more about the values of good boundaries from a parent who is considerably more authoritarian. The authoritarian parent may possibly learn more about the power of offering children on going encouragement.
5) Modeling. Rather than make a verbal case for why our values deserve consideration, it is more helpful to simply model their importance. Our partners may notice the benefit of some aspect of our values and consider integrating that into their own lives.
It is natural for a relationship to begin with ongoing celebration of what two people have in common. There can be great joy in being joined with similar needs and preferences. However, eventually the revelry of commonality will be replaced by more uniqueness being expressed by each person. “It is what opposes that helps and from different tones comes the fairest tone.” (Heraclitus) Learning how to support “different tones” in a marriage certainly calls for the virtues of tolerance, acceptance, clarity and compassion. However, without basic relationship skills, it becomes an overwhelming task to hold back the raging waters of attachments to winning and being right.
It is often asked if there can be too much diversity of values in a marriage. I reluctantly respond in the affirmative. If your partner’s values are a significant impediment to living what you cherish, then separation may be inevitable. However, do not jump ship too quickly, before learning how to manage diverse needs and values. Remain mindful of the seduction that there is a meaningful relationship where you will not have to face the challenge of “different tones.”
(Originally published on August 22, 2016 on The Huffington Post.)