Don’ts and Do’s for Communicating About Differences in Your Relationship

“Would you rather be right or happy?”

These is a useful question for anyone who struggles with relationship differences…which would include anyone in a love relationship, marriage or relationship of any kind.

We each have a unique perspective of the world in which we live. We see things a certain way and we have our own preferences– likes and dislikes. We keenly know what makes sense from our point of view and what doesn’t.

This is all wonderful…except when we’re in a close relationship with someone whose preferences and views are significantly different from our own. It is then that the tension and conflict begin to build.

No matter how open and non-judgmental you believe you are, it’s likely that you and your partner have butted heads at one point or another because of your differences. Maybe, to avoid future heartbreak, you’ve even stopped dating someone you really liked because of your differences and your expectations that your differences will mean future trouble.

You and your partner might have drastically different religious or political views. Perhaps you two are from vastly different backgrounds in terms of socioeconomic class, culture, ethnicity, race or age (generation). Opinions on topics like: parenting, money management, sex, ethics, values or how best to drive a car can put a chilly distance between you and your partner.

If the differences between you and your partner are obvious and see huge, take heart in knowing that you’re not alone. What’s actually true is that each and every one of us IS different– it might not be readily apparent, but even for couples who seem very much the same, this is the case.

Sometimes, communication about differences deteriorates and becomes…

  •  divisive
  •  generalizing
  • condemning
  • fear-mongering
  • even name-calling

When you really look at it, what’s clear is that it’s not so much the differences that harm and even destroy a relationship, it’s how we think and communicate about them!

What makes differences so difficult?

The challenge with differences is two-fold: 1) Mind chatter— It’s easy to get caught up in what you believe the differences between you and your partner mean. If you think it’s unavoidable that you two will clash over your differences, you probably will (a lot). 2) Communication— The words you choose and the way you speak them can make the differences between you and your partner easy or nearly impossible to live and love with.

Before you embark on a conversation with your partner about something you have different views on, pay close attention to your mind chatter. What are your dominant thoughts and expectations about the talk you’re about to have?

If you’re “sure” that this will end in a fight or one of you will have to “give in” in order to keep the peace, stop and remind yourself that you can’t know what will happen. Honor your fears about the differences AND create space for the possibility that you and your partner will be able to keep your connection and love while really hearing one another.

As you begin talking, make an agreement– with yourself and with your partner– to be respectful, to stay open and to really listen. If you start to get angry or notice yourself tensing and getting judgmental, be willing to take a short break. Be sure to set up a time when you two will talk again about this.

Here are 5 Don’ts and Do’s for communicating about differences… 

#1: DON’T make your partner wrong. 

Approach this conversation with the quote from above in mind: “Would you rather be right or happy?” This doesn’t mean that you have to pretend that you agree when you don’t and it doesn’t mean you should deny that you have an opinion.  It DOES mean that you value your relationship connection and happiness and you weigh how important it truly is to make your partner’s different view “wrong.”

#2: DON’T try to change your partner’s mind.

Manipulation is only going to push your partner away from you and might even make your partner feel more stubborn and rigid about his or her opinion. Don’t try to be sneaky, lay down a guilt trip or make threats as an attempt to change your partner’s mind.

It doesn’t work and isn’t helpful for your relationship either.

If a joint decision has to be made and you want to speak about the merits of your position or preference, make sure you both have a chance to talk and really listen to one another. Let the desire to find the best solution instead of “winning” the argument be your ultimate goal.

#3: DO share to share.

There’s nothing wrong with letting your partner know about a thought or piece of information that you find interesting, amusing or exciting. In fact, when there are differences between two people in a relationship, sometimes they will intentionally not talk about that topic because they don’t want to offend or set one another off. This creates distance.

Set aside your expectations about how you think your partner will react if you bring up a certain subject and, instead, share with the intention of sharing– not as a way to pressure or persuade. You can even say, “I know you have a different view on this and please know I’m not trying to change your mind. I just want to share with you about something that I read today that was really interesting to me.”

Your interest and excitement can be the connector for you and your partner– even if he or she doesn’t agree with you.

#4: DO be clear about your non-negotiables. 

Be honest with yourself if there are subjects that you feel so strongly about, you won’t be in a relationship with someone who disagrees.

Whether it’s religious beliefs, certain parenting styles, pornography or anything else, admit it if this issue is a non-negotiable for you. Ask yourself if you can respectfully be in (or stay in) a relationship if your partner doesn’t agree with you.

#5: DO listen to understand.

When your partner talks about a thought, experience or piece of information that peaked his or her interest and that you two disagree about, be sure to listen. Again, watch your mind chatter and stop any assumptions you have that your partner is trying to change your mind.

Remember, your partner isn’t necessarily trying to negate your opinion or manipulate you. Invite yourself to just listen. Don’t interrupt or rip into what he or she is saying– even in your mind.

Listen with the intention of understanding and ask questions in a non-interrogating way if you need help understanding.

The great thing about differences is that they can foster expansion and growth. When you and your partner talk in a respectful way about your differences, trust is also nurtured. You can come away from each conversation far richer and closer together than you were before.

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