By BARBARA MARTIN, LPC, LMFT
Are my spouse and I too different?
Question: My spouse and I are so different. Whether it is our view of finances, in-laws, parenting, or how often we visit with friends, we seem to differ. Is this normal?
Every marriage is a union of two people bringing their own personalities, values and opinions into a new family unit. This, of course, is going to create many marital issues, even in a happy marriage. My husband and I are a perfect example of this, and we have been happily married for over 45 years.
Here are a few examples of our differences. While you might laugh at some of these, they have been a source of irritation during our years of marriage.
I am what many would call “tight” with money. My spouse has a bit of a different, though not drastic, view. One thing is, before he even begins to brush his teeth, he turns on the water, gets his toothbrush, puts the toothpaste on the toothbrush, and then begins to brush his teeth. He will finish brushing his teeth, leave the water on while putting his toothbrush away, and finally turn off the water. This doesn’t seem so bad, right? Well, growing up in my family, you didn’t turn on the water to brush your teeth until the toothpaste was on the toothbrush — then you wet the brush, turned off the water, finished brushing, turned on the water to rinse your mouth, rinsed your toothbrush, and turned the water off before putting your toothbrush away. Small matter, it would seem, but notice the differences.
Another example: At times, I will get clothes out of the dryer, and there might be a few items that are still a bit damp. I will lay these around the room, letting them air dry instead of putting these few items back in the dryer. My spouse, on the other hand, would like all to be dried and put away.
Neither of us, in these issues, is altogether wrong or right, but we are different. John Gottman says that 69 percent of marriage problems fall into this category of perpetual problems. These two issues have been perpetual problems in our marriage.
Those of you reading this could probably find things in your marriage that have been perpetual too. The interesting thing is that couples who remain happy have been able to find ways to deal with ongoing problems so they’re not overwhelming, to keep these problems in their place and laugh about them most of the time.
A key component to dealing with differences like the ones I mentioned above is avoiding a judgmental attitude toward your spouse. Happily married couples may differ on what each of them deems valuable or what their priorities are, but they seek not to assume that only their values or priorities are legitimate, and their spouses’ wrong. Instead, they give their spouse the benefit of the doubt, seeking to understand why their spouse might do things in a certain way.
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1-5)
Let’s go back to the issue above about brushing our teeth: I can either get pretty critical about the way my husband does this, and then feed this criticism in my mind with other things he does that I think are not altogether right, which then might feed anger, or I can give him the benefit of the doubt and remind myself of the many things he does that I enjoy, and move from judgment to understanding.
John Gottman says that for every negative statement, you need to balance it out with five positive ones. I not only need to do this in what I say, but also in what I think.
Barbara Martin, LPC, LMFT, is an adjunct professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson and the emotional care consultant for Mission to North America, a branch of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). She has a private practice in Ridgeland, has been married to Hal for 45 years, and has three sons and five grandchildren.