Being the best partner — 27 November 2006
Cherish the many differences between you and your partner

Some people who seek couple therapy wonder whether they are just too different from each other to create a successful relationship. The question of whether their dissimilarity is the cause of their misery comes after many frustrating attempts to understand and remedy their dissatisfactions. For some, it is the simple, non-accusatory justification of incompatibility that may serve as a guilt free way out of a painful relationship.

This attitude is understandable when couples are at their wits end to figure out why they fail to relate well. And, the answer is not that simple.

Research about character similarities between husbands and wives among newlyweds, conducted by Dr. Watson and associates at the University of Iowa found: “A strong similarity in age, religiousness, and political orientation: moderate similarity in education and verbal intelligence; modest similarity in values; and little similarity in matrix reasoning, self-and spouse-rated personality, emotional experience and expression, and attachment.” These findings were not due to the duration of the relationship. “Marital satisfaction primarily was a function of the rater’s own traits and showed little relation to spousal similarity.”

People say that ‘opposites attract’ and research by Dr. Winch and associates supports and refines this idea. They found that people select mates who are: accessible, have similar status, values and life experience and have dissimilar personality needs. It makes sense that the needs one has may be the opposite of his/her temperament. A reserved person may have a need to associate with a more outgoing individual and a fearful person may choose a bold and brave partner. Wishing to be enhanced by the other’s strong attributes makes emotional, psychological and even evolutionary sense.

There are other theories and research evidence about a variety of couple’s trait combinations that are contributory or destructive to relationships, such as: dominance-subservience, problem solving style, motive attribution, pursuing-distancing mode, conflict avoidance, trivial bickering and more. There does not seem to be research consensus about how much or how little the pair’s characteristics actually play a role in relationship happiness.

However, Drs. Jacobson and Christensen’s research findings that a good marriage is characterized by mutual acceptance without attempts to change each other, bears truth to clinical observations.

Successful couples savor their positive regard for their partner beyond the stage of infatuation. The maintenance of clear boundaries in which each person’s being and behavior is viewed as different, not wrong, seems to be a necessary ingredient for a compatible relationship.

Happy couples also view each other’s traits, including the less desirable ones, as part of the whole endearing person, not as a separate section that can be excised. Behaviors that are associated with the frustrating traits are open for discussion, compromise and accommodating efforts by each individual. It is a topic for problem resolution, not problem initiation.

Optimistic couples, who have a kind view of each other, handle their mate’s annoying traits without anger and resentments but with caring and even respectful humor, fare better. When one views the other’s differing temperament as interesting, rather than peculiar and in need of change, greater ease is experienced by both.

• Your partner’s personality was a factor in your initial attraction to him/her. The endearing attributes are still there and can be more visible through acceptance and kindness.
• One’s temperament is usually very consistent throughout life. Thinking that your partner has changed for the worst is more likely a reflection of your interaction with each other or life trauma, not a sign of his/her personality deterioration.
• If you assign malice, ill-intent or derogatory labels to your mate, even in your mind, you preclude a happy connection.
• When you are considerate, forgiving and trusting that your partner is a good human being with positive intent, you are likely to let those traits blossom in your mate and in your relationship.
• When errors are made or unfortunate circumstances occur your focus should be on empathy and caring for your partner, not on criticizing and condemning as a punishment for your inconvenience.
• Most likely, whatever you think your mate lacks, is one of your strengths. Offer more of it with the satisfaction of your contribution to your mate and your union.
• Thinking that personality differences are sufficient cause for parting is an erroneous belief. Being coupled with someone just like you could be uninteresting.
• Relish your differences and recite in your mind how your partner’s temperament enriches your life, and vice versa.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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