For many couples, differences can be both the source of conflict and the reason for going their separate ways. However, according to James L. Creighton, the author of Loving Through Your Differences: Building Strong Relationships From Separate Realities, it doesn’t have to be this way.
He writes, “One of the most important things I’ve learned is that each of us has an emotional reality of our own. No one else experiences events in the same way that you do.”
In Loving Through Your Differences, Creighton offers more than a practical guide to negotiating differences. He offers couples an opportunity for growth where there might otherwise be conflict and pain.
It is impossible to avoid the collision of separate realities. People come with their own perceptions, assumptions, interpretations, judgments and biases.
Creighton writes, “There comes a time, even in the most harmonious relationships, when we discover that hidden beneath those qualities that initially attracted us to the other person, there are differences that set us apart.”
It is not just the events themselves that create our realities, but the meaning we give to them. Further, as we come to understand events more fully, and in the context of the community in which we were raised, we ascribe greater meaning to them.
Because the process happens so instantaneously, we often don’t notice it, although we act upon our feelings and create self-fulfilling prophecies.
Creighton writes, “Because we expect something to happen, we act in ways that bring about what we expect, and that outcome in turn seems to prove that our expectation was correct.”
In what is known as the Pygmalion effect, our expectations act upon others in ways that fulfill them. The example Creighton gives is a wife expecting her husband to be distant, and the moment he walks in the door, she feels rejected and begins poking at him with caustic digs. He feels attacked, shuts down and fulfills her expectation.
Each of us creates our own reality, and because we do, it is not objective. Creighton writes, “Recent research supports the view that we generate our own reality rather than simply react to external events.”
However, we can agree that each person has a right to their way of seeing and experiencing things, and at the same time, affirm our own.
We can also choose to practice empathy. “It doesn’t mean that you take the other person’s position; you are simply allowing yourself to experience what it would be like to do so,” writes Creighton.
Another step is to use a problem-solving process that says, “We have a problem,” not “You are the problem.” As Creighton notes, “The chances of finding a mutually acceptable solution will be very limited if each sees the other as an opponent.”
Most decisions are also not choices between good and bad, but rather two competing things, and we can choose to look for the positive good in what our partner supports. An important thing to remember is that while our partner may give a different value to certain choices, they are not necessarily opposing us, but rather, valuing things differently.
Similarly, we can find alternative explanations for our partner’s position, and in doing so, reframe it. Creighton suggests brainstorming at least three possible reasons a situation could have arisen in addition to the explanation we have already created, to reframe a problem as an opportunity, to reframe a weakness as a strength, to reframe an impossibility as a distant possibility, to define the situation as neutral, to ask how someone we revere would solve the problem, and to change the context of the problem.
Our life stories are often reinforced by family myths which provide the necessary fiction for self-fulfilling prophecies to thrive. We can, however, choose to focus on life experiences that create the story we want.
Creighton writes, “When you tell your life story, you make choices about what events and incidents are included. These choices create the frame through which you view your life.”
We all have a story we tell ourselves about our lives, a self-talk we engage in. However, these things do not have to be negative. We can choose to create an alternative story that is less restrictive and allows us to explore new possibilities, new ways of understanding, responding, and experiencing. And we can also choose self-talk that does not diminish us, but supports, encourages and reminds us that change is possible.
Loving Through Your Differences is a thoughtful guide for not just handling our differences gracefully, but using them to propel growth, understanding and mutual respect.
Loving Through Your Differences: Building Strong Relationships From Separate Realities
New World Library, February 2019
Paperback, 200 pages