I’ve had my fair share of tricky social exchanges since getting divorced last year, as everyone who’s been in this special boat does. The worst, by far, are the pitying blank stares followed by a quick subject change. But another that I’ve struggled with how to navigate is when the person, well-intentioned and genuinely surprised, says, “But you seemed so compatible!”
I’ve yet to come up a pithy, or even non-awkward, response here. Instead I usually just raise my eyebrows and shrug my shoulders, sometimes adding in a riveting, “Yeah,” to round out the conversation.
What makes this complicated is that I get it. We did seem compatible, and maybe in many ways we were. It might be easier to respond in post-divorce conversation had we never made sense as a couple. If I could make some flippant self-deprecating remark about how silly I was to think we would work out.
But it’s hard to respond for two reasons. First, because I don’t know how to remind people that they never truly know a relationship unless they are in it. And second, because we were compatible in so many ways that did matter, just not in others. And those others broke us.
Since my marriage ended, I’ve been trying to understand what it really means to commit yourself to someone whom you can’t fully know in the beginning, someone who will undoubtedly – hopefully – evolve and change into different versions of themselves, some of whom you might barely recognize.
I’ve been trying to make sense, too, of what you do with the incompatibilities, the parts that you don’t particularly like or understand. The questions feel big and messy to me, and also vital and urgent. How much difference is too much? What should you tolerate in a relationship? Does that answer change depending on how long you’ve already invested? How do we manage the gap between us, and what happens when that gap becomes a gulf?
I don’t take much of my clinical guidance from Sigmund Freud, but I think he was spot on when he talked about working with people in early love. He talked about how hard it is to do therapy with these people because the experience of falling in love is akin to being in a delusional state, out of touch with the world outside of their romance, and certainly out of touch with the reality of the person they adore.
We’ve all known people and probably ourselve been in this magical yet disorienting state. It’s can be mind-boggling to see how the friend that’s always scoffed at the idea of staying anywhere other than a posh hotel is suddenly posting photos of backpacking through dense woods with her new guy. We’ll often say that this new love interest has simply brought out a new side of us or helped us see things differently.
But we also know how the story tends to go. Within a few months or years, when the novelty has worn off and the dopamine dropped back to baseline, she’s back to her five-star resorts and incredulous at the idea of sleeping on the ground.
If they’ve managed to make it, perhaps gone the distance and even added some kids to the mix, he’s throwing his hands in the air as he tells her that she never wants to do anything fun with him anymore and he doesn’t understand why she’s so uptight, while she crosses her arms and fumes that he doesn’t even know who she is and maybe he never really did.
With innumerable studies, books, workshops, and more under their belts, Drs. John and Julie Gottman are generally considered the world’s foremost experts on marriage. They are perhaps most well-known for their incredible success in predicting divorce: by just observing three minutes of a conflict between a couple, they could accurately assess their likelihood of splitting.
The Gottman’s study these predictors and other aspects of marriage because they care deeply about helping marriages work. And they know from their research that marriages can work even between people who have lots of differences that will never – and could never – be resolved.
They found, in fact, that a whopping 69% of “problems” in a relationship are unresolvable. This means that the problems are based on unchangeable personality traits or differences in perspective or patterns of behaviors that simply aren’t going to shift. 69% means that the significant majority of conflicts in a relationship could be discussed and argued until the cows come home and will get the couple absolutely nowhere.
Some of us read that statistic and feel a sense of hopelessness. We feel demoralized by the idea that our litany of complaints may never find real resolution, at least not through a change in our partner. Others of us find knowing this helpful and hopeful because it means that our relationship isn’t broken just because we have conflicts that never seem to resolve.
The key, the Gottman’s clarify, is to recognize the difference between problems that are perpetual and will likely always exist and those that are actually causing gridlock in the relationship. Gridlocked problems are the ones that are not just unresolved, but cause great suffering to the partners both because of the difference and because the conflict around it leads to greater disconnection.
In gridlock, the differences or problems start to take on a life of their own. We see the difference not as a difference, but as a personal affront. We take our partner’s seeming refusal to change as evidence of their lack of care or value of us. We say or do things in the course of debating the issue that create hurt in the relationship, like personal attacks, stonewalling, or criticizing.
What’s interesting is that for all the Gottman’s research on predicting divorce, it’s not how many differences or unresolvable problems that proves to be the deciding factor. What predicts a marriage to fail is the way that the couple navigates those differences: what they can accept in each other and how they interact around the things that are hard to accept.
The other day my patient shared with me that she and the guy she’s been dating for the past few months had finally run into their first roadblock. Given how smoothly the relationship had been going so far (and back to how strong that New Relationship Energy can be), she acknowledged feeling disoriented by the problem they were facing.
While she had known early on that her new boyfriend smoked weed, she was starting to recognize just how consistent his use was as they were spending more time together. She didn’t have any moral or health concerns, per se, but hated the smell and how unmotivated he seemed to her when getting high. She had told him that she didn’t love this habit and while he was willing to find ways to minimize the odor, he didn’t see his pattern of use as a problem for him
My patient was struggling with what to do with this. After several conversations, it didn’t look like he was going to give up weed anytime soon. She felt heard by him in their discussions, and appreciated that he made an effort to reduce the smell for her, but she was left to determine if his use was something she could live with moving forward.
I can imagine that there are many people who would hear this scenario and have a strong opinion about what she should do, and much of that would be based on our own beliefs, relationship values, and personal experiences. What I saw my own job with my patient to be is to help her understand how she’s approaching her decision, particularly in light of her own individual history and attachment patterns.
I wanted her to look not at whether smoking weed was right or wrong for her or her relationship, but rather what him doing it brings up for her. What does it represent in her mind? What’s her narrative about it, and can and should that narrative shift? What does it tell her or not tell her about how he sees time, health, the world? Are those aligned with how she does, and if not, is that a difference she can live with or even grow from? Is this an issue that will result in disconnection and resentment over time?
And perhaps most importantly, how has it felt to talk about this issue together? Has she felt seen and validated for her perspective? Can she communicate the most important parts of this for her to him? Do they have the skills to hold the tension of different opinions and needs?
Ultimately, her boyfriend would change this behavior or he wouldn’t. His behavior would never be her responsibility and his decision to adjust it would be unlikely to have much to do with her at all, honestly.
And this is exactly where differences in relationships tend to morph into the irreconcilable variety – when we personalize another’s difference or difference as a reflection of the person’s care for us or a signal of our worthiness.
If he wanted to, he would, we’re told.
You’ve probably heard it because it’s been one of the most popular social media taglines in the last couple years. It’s gripping in its simplicity and seemingly empowering stance.
It’s not wrong, exactly. But it’s not right, either.
It’s among the hundreds of other purported truisms that seems to over-simplify the complexity of real-life relationships. When we are dealing with real human people with real human dynamics, it’s never as simple as this. And if we operate this way – discarding all of our relationships when we encounter a conflict in needs and abilities – well, we’re going to be spending a lot of time alone.
But how are we supposed to approach the situations where the person we love isn’t doing what we feel we need them to do? Or we simply can’t agree on how to navigate a point of difference?
Esther Perel, in all of her infinite wisdom, has some great language for these sticky, gridlocked situations. She calls them problems not to be solved, but instead paradoxes to manage. It might sound overly basic, but approaching differences in this way can actually revolutionize the way that we feel and respond.
If I see the stalemate not as an intractable problem, but simply as a paradox that we have to – together – learn how to manage, it lets me loosen my defenses and release the part of me that needs to make this situation the way I want it to be. It lets me literally ease my tension and collaborate on how we are going to manage this paradox before us.
Then there are the paradoxes that we choose not to manage, perhaps because they are simply too misaligned with our core values or because we can’t summon the energy to manage them – at least not alone. That’s okay too. We don’t have to be heroes in our relationships. Maybe we are bordering on 95% unresolvable problems instead of 69% and the scales are just too imbalanced. Maybe the differences are creating so much harm that we can’t find our way to paradox management.
I will say this, though, as we sort through our own answers to our own questions. It’s hard to fully process the magnitude of differences when we’re in a place of hurt and disconnection. This is where working with a relationship therapist or individual therapist can help sort through the muck and tease out the paradoxes.
To be honest, there are times I wonder if the differences in my own marriage were of the irreconcilable variety. I’d go ahead and say they weren’t, in fact. There’s grief in acknowledging that, and I’m not sure if my former partner would agree or not. We were, in many ways, “compatible.”
What we lacked, though, was a framework for the differences. We let the differences in our needs and desires become the disintegration of our relationship rather than fuel for connection. The paradoxes got the best of us and our gap became a gulf.