A friend sent me a link to an interesting article by Tara Parker-Pope in the New York Times in response to my previous relationship post, “Is This the Right Person for Me?”. It discusses the premise that couples who have exposed each other to new experiences, thereby growing in ways that they would not have on their own, feel greater happiness and satisfaction in the relationship.
This makes sense to me, but only up to a point: If you haven’t worked on yourself, you may not be open to the new experiences your partner offers because you may not appreciate your partner’s differences as making positive contributions to your life.
How do you see differences?
There’s a whole range of responses you may feel toward your partner’s differences. There’s a lack of acceptance (“Can’t you change this?”). This carries a subtext of belief that the partner would be a better person if s/he were more like you. The ideal partner would be….a clone! There’s a grudging tolerance of difference (“I’ll deal with this, but I don’t like it.”). See the preceding subtext. There’s an acceptance of differences. And then there’s what the article discusses, which is embracing the differences as broadening your outlook and changing you in positive ways.
Relationship therapy explores differences
The lack of acceptance and appreciation of differences may bring you and your partner into relationship treatment, as it does for so many couples I treat. Perhaps you’d like me to change your partner, rather than work on yourself and warm up to your partner. You may complain about each other and be unwilling to try each others favorite things, whether movie genres, ethnic foods, types of vacations and particular destinations, kinds of music, etc. Your unflaggingly hip partner disparages your wardrobe; you pride yourself on your intellectual pursuits and look down on your partner for enjoying “lowbrow” reading material.
But if you work hard in treatment with a good therapist, you can learn where you got the idea that your preferences are superior to your partner’s, and understand how much your close-mindedness limits your range of experiences and satisfaction. So, while I agree with the article’s premise, it is with the caveat that you have worked on yourself enough to recognize and appreciate your partner’s differences as enriching contributions to your outlook and personality—and to the relationship.