Robin Gutman, LMHC

I think that what I do is ‘normal’.

You think that what you do is ‘normal’.

The thing is that we live our lives differently. We probably don’t cook using the same recipes, set our tables the same way, or eat the same meals. We connect with people differently, make different choices surrounding vacation preferences, and have varied spending habits.

So which one of us does it the ‘normal’ way?

Married couples come up against this issue fairly often, with a greater impact than differences have in other kinds of relationships. For example, in friendships, we may notice differences that come up in the minutiae of everyday life. However, since healthy friendships are more often focused on the bigger picture of equality, such as being emotionally supportive and present, the day-to-day details don’t necessarily make an impact or even factor into the friendship.

Marriage is a unique relationship for many reasons. Focusing on the basic concept of two people being raised in different homes suddenly living together under one roof brings up multitudes of questions, not all of them easily navigated. Something as simple as brand preferences can bring tension into the relationship. Communication styles and social attitudes and behaviors certainly have a deep impact too!

David was annoyed that Chaya kept purchasing Tide pods to use when doing the laundry. He would rather buy store brand detergent, and preferably in powder or liquid form, to save money. Chaya was frustrated with David. “Why does it bother him so much? This is the brand I’ve always used. It’s a little bit more expensive but it’s smarter to buy the better and easier product.”

Maybe Chaya has a good point, and maybe David has a good point, too. With automatic assumptions and expectations, and the lack of conveying these, even seemingly small differences can build up stressors that hinder an otherwise good relationship.

Without interest, curiosity, and clear communication, potentially insignificant differences can escalate into tension or more heightened arguments.

Tova woke up on the morning of her birthday eagerly anticipating what Isaac had planned. Isaac wished Tova a ‘happy birthday’ and left for work. Tova looked around her apartment; nothing looked different. There was no decor, no special surprise on the table or in the fridge. Tova waited all day to no avail. When she tearfully confronted Isaac that night, Isaac was taken aback. In Isaac’s family, birthdays were not celebrated in any way, other than a token birthday wish. In Tova’s family, decorations, gifts, and surprises were the norm.

Couples may assume that they mark occasions in the same way, when in fact celebrations can be so varied. Doing things differently does not mean one person is right and one person is wrong. It simply means there are differences that need to be navigated.

People do not show up perfectly in relationships. One of the most important things to remember is that your spouse will likely be doing everything differently than you. His or her family will do things that may seem like a drastic contrast to yours, and it is very possible that you automatically assume that the way you and your family do things is the right way.

To manage expectations and learn to navigate differences, it is helpful to remember that:

  1. There is no one right way to do things.
  2. Communicate your norms, do not assume your partner approaches anything the way you do.
  3. Understand the underlying thought/emotion: why is it important to you to do this in a specific way? How does it make you feel?

While this may sound especially applicable to newlyweds, as couples go through different stages in life this is an issue that can arise time and time again.

In a recent poll I did on my Instagram page @robingutman_lpc (clarifying that this was for informal research), I asked people to share some of the differences they experience in their marriages. The responses included spending free time differently, different sleep schedules, and parenting. In a friendship, these issues would not necessarily make much of a difference, if any, but in a marriage people often assume they must have the same approach.

Parenting in particular is a challenge that often comes up in several different stages of one’s marriage. From early on, when their child is a newborn, through the teen years and beyond, a couple may have different ideas about the ideal way to parent. It is okay for parents to have different parenting styles, and trying to change the other person’s point of view is not always the best investment of one’s energy. It can be a lot more beneficial to accept that your partner parents differently, and focus on your own consistency. Understanding why certain expectations and consequences are important to you can be helpful when communicating, so that there is clarity and a united front for the child(ren). That way even if the interactions and conversations, and the overall dynamics of the relationships are different, there is a solid foundation when parents are working towards the same goal.

Sometimes in a relationship it may seem as though your partner is just not willing to listen, or maybe it bothers you when your partner brings things up. It is important to recognize where these reactions stem from, as part of our communication style stems from things that we have experienced. These reactions may stem from places that are hard to recognize, such as attachment issues, or trauma response, where the nervous system reacts automatically based on one’s past experiences. Even if not based in trauma, individual life experiences and norms will contribute to reactions and acceptance of differences. Also, independent of attachment or trauma, a basic check of the other person’s mood will make an impact on how the discussion ends.

Steven wanted to buy a gift for Susie, and offered to her to go pick something out for herself. Susie, however, struggled with picking out a gift for herself. Part of the pleasure she would experience from receiving something from Steven would be the care and thought that he put into it. Steven asked Susie kindly, “Have you picked anything out for yourself?” He did not understand that Susie felt pressured and consequently, disinterested, as the gift itself held less allure than receiving it as a token of love.

The ability to recognize where reactions stem from when addressing differences is important. It allows each person in the relationship to navigate the conversation from a place of clarity, compassion, and understanding. Exploring common conflicts and the typical reactions to conflict will actually illuminate our own needs as well as the needs of our partner. So often, people have a deep need to be heard and understood, and this need gets covered up by disagreements over who is right, or which way is the ‘right’ way to do things.

To be able to hear each other out, it is necessary to approach conversations at a time when each partner is in a comfortable headspace and stable mood. Timing does play a role. Inviting your partner to have a conversation to explore differences at a time when he/she is willing to be physically and emotionally present and invested in the conversation, is a game changer. It allows for the space to listen and be heard, which helps create emotional safety.

To help create emotional safety, please keep in mind the helpful communication skills of timing, tone, and terminating.

Timing involves assessing your own and your partner’s emotional equilibrium, and having the conversations revolving around differences at a set time that works for both of you.

Tone is the way the issue is addressed, including tone of voice and tone of the conversation, without judgement, blame, or shame.

Terminating means there is no interruption. When one person is speaking they can share their thoughts and feelings without the other person terminating them mid way, jumping in to defend or correct in any way.

Creating emotional safety allows for the safe space to communicate differences, establish boundaries, and navigate differences in a way that is truly beneficial.