Conflicts — 09 May 2004
The right attitude to handle “irreconcilable differences”

There are very few irreconcilable differences between partners. There are certain attitudes that lead to antagonism, alienation, and the impression that the differences are so grave that they are non-solvable. The reality is that almost all differences can be negotiated to the satisfaction of both partners.

Couples function well when their main emphasis is on their mutual needs as a couple. Individual wishes are considered within the context of what best serves the “unit”. Couples, who allow their personal choices to take priority over the partnership, are at risk of losing their union. It is like a couple sailing together as their vessel springs a leak; they are better off using cooperation to keep their boat afloat and stay alive. If they lose the focus of dual survival and each pursues individual options to try and save him/herself, they are both more likely to perish.

This is an apt metaphor for relationships. The power of two minds and the creativity of options they can generate are vastly increased when partners seek to solve their differences together. Having two approaches, beliefs, understandings, desires, interpretations, or wishes is a given. Determining that these variances are irreconcilable differences is giving up power and becoming immobilized by selfish motives.

Relationships are about giving, caring, consideration and love of another. They are not a venue of ultimate need fulfillment at all cost. Divorce is a harsh solution to differences. It is the abandonment of cooperation.

Why would people choose to break up a relationship that started with great enthusiasm, excitement, and hopes for eternal love? Probably because, in part, that ideal scenario was expected to continue effortlessly. Love conquers all- or does it? Love is actually a forever-evolving emotional condition that requires energy to stay vital and satisfying to both partners. Without attention, cooperation, empathy and consideration for each other, that love will eventually dwindle.

When either partner, or both, no longer feel appreciated, heard, considered and loved, even the smallest differences feel irreconcilable. Each partner may become more and more invested in getting his or her way and thus develops a non-collaborative attitude. Demanding to get one’s way will only polarize the mates into a standoff that feels unbridgeable.

Even successful couples have several areas of recurring disagreements. Dr. Gottman, a marriage researcher, states that 67% of all couples’ problems stay constant throughout their relationship. Successful couples, however, know how to deal with these chronic differences in a way that keeps their team together. It is not the existence of problems that severs marriages; it is the ineffectual ways of repairing them that causes marital separation and divorce.

We need to change the way we phrase our situation and reach conclusions as to the viability of the relationship:

  •  “We never see eye to eye on any issue,” should be replaced by “We have two interesting views on most issues”.
  • “We are complete opposites and therefore can not get along” needs to be changed to “Our complementary traits enrich us both”.
  • Replace “I can never understand where she is coming from” with “I need to pay greater attention in order to understand her better.”
  • “We are like oil and water” could be rephrased “We have our differences but can compromise to suit both of our needs.
  • “He will never change, he is so (selfish, stubborn, mean).” Can be thought of as “What could he be feeling and needing that he is not getting that causes him to act so (selfishly, stubbornly or mean)”?
  • “How could she be so illogical or emotional?” May be considered as “Her logic and emotions are different than mine, perhaps I can accept them even if I don’t understand their origins.”
  • “He will never change” Can be modified to, “What will motivate him to change?”
  • “I don’t like what he likes, I have different interests, I am more intellectual, I am more worldly, I am unhappy with him.” This line of thinking could be constructed differently “How could I interest him in my preferences, what will motivate him to read more, what areas of his life can I become more open to exploring?”

People’s tendency to fault the other in order to exonerate themselves, is a risk to the stability of a relationship. Making an effort to become accountable for one’s own part of the problem allows for greater cooperation from a partner as well.

Goodwill should be each person’s overriding attitude. Beginning with positive intentions towards the partner and his or her ways helps each individual enter the areas of

disagreements with the option for solutions. Without it, further distance, hurt and alienation will occur.

Maturity is a necessary state in handling relationship difficulties. What it means is that every partner should behave in a way that matches his chronological age. When we are immature we resort to childish ways of viewing the problems and are less likely to use our sensible minds for conflict resolutions. Immaturity leads to hateful fights, spiteful talk, shaming, hurtful characterization of the mate, and ultimately withdrawal from the interaction all together. “I don’t want to play with you anymore, I hate you, I don’t want to be your friend ever again,” is what five year olds tell each other. Children, however, have the sense to return the next day and play cooperatively again. Some couples do not. They call it irreconcilable differences.

May 2nd, 2004

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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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