“He’s not the same person I married.”
“We used to want the same things. Now I’m not even sure we can stay together.”
“She doesn’t understand me.”
“We just keep having the same argument over and over again.”
In my work with couples, these are the kinds of statements I hear all the time. So often when couples come to me, they are confused about why their partner has changed and what’s gone wrong in their marriage.
It can feel like a crisis.
“In the beginning,” couples tell me, “everything was so easy. We were on the same page. But over time, we started to disagree about so many things. And those disagreements always lead to arguments. How did we become so different? And what do we do with those differences?”
Maybe you and your partner see yourselves in a similar situation. If so, I actually have good news!
What you and your partner are experiencing is normal and to be expected. You see, a relationship is a living, growing, entity. In the same way that you and your partner continue to grow and change as individuals, so too does your relationship.
While initially you may have defined yourselves in relation to one another, such as your shared interests and what you both had in common, it’s important for your relationship to grow beyond this initial stage.
The next phase in a healthy relationship is something therapists refer to as “self-differentiation.” According to Couples Institute co-founder Dr. Ellyn Bader, “Self-differentiation is the capacity to go internal and notice and express one’s thoughts, feelings, wishes, and desires without blame or criticism.”
Learning how to self-differentiate can be a challenge, especially within couples who have had little experience in articulating their desires. It takes maturity to interact with a partner in this way, and it is not uncommon for couples to struggle in this regard.
It can feel threatening to hear one’s partner begin to open up about their thoughts, feelings, and desires, especially when they seem new or different from what you have come to expect. This is where it becomes crucial to develop skills that will keep your communication open.
Throughout my years of working with couples, I’ve come up with 5 essential tips that are helpful to partners in maintaining connection while working through their differences:
5 ESSENTIAL TIPS
- Identify your thoughts and feelings about one topic only.
- Express this to your partner.
- Maintain a curious mind while listening to your partner. Think of yourself like a journalist.
- Listen to your partner without trying to fix anything. Instead, listen with the intent of expressing an understanding of how and where your partner feels vulnerable.
- Continue this conversation. Do not stop until you achieve this level of understanding.
As I help couples work through this process, they begin to develop the “emotional muscle” that will help them tolerate the inevitable differences that come up in any relationship. This ability is essential to having a relationship that is honest, safe, and secure.
The goal in a healthy relationship is not to minimize differences or expect that not to have any at all. The goal is to be able to develop a different way of talking about and experiencing your differences.
To find more strategies you can use to help your relationship flourish and grow, please take look right here.
Now I’d like to hear from you – what are some of the differences you and your partner have seen in your relationship over time? Please leave a comment below.