Differences & drift
by Neil Josephson
Why is marriage so natural and easy one moment, and so difficult and complex another? Why do some marriages grow in love, while others grow cold and end in divorce? Differences and drift.
Dealing with differences
One of the greatest marriage myths today is the belief that conflict in our relationship is proof that we married the wrong person, or that we are a bad couple, or that we have no future together.
Let’s explode that myth right now! Research from the Gottman Institute reveals that couples who are unhappy in their marriages estimate that 69 per cent of their marital conflict is over perpetual issues – essentially, over fundamental differences such as personality, expectations, gender, family backgrounds, and spiritual gifts.
The same study asked happily married couples how much of their conflict was over perpetual issues and they replied, 69 percent! Happy couples have just as many differences as unhappy ones; they’ve merely learned how to deal with them.
At first, the differences are what attract us to the other person. We find the disparities intriguing, so we try to accommodate them. After a while, the behaviours begin to annoy us, and we set out to eliminate them. Often, we try to change our partner with criticism, shame, or withholding love.
Trying to eliminate differences is fruitless and painful. There is another way: deal with differences by learning to appreciate them.
If your partner is quieter and calmer, be grateful, they help keep you on an even keel. If your partner is louder and more emotional, be grateful, without them life could be dull. Spenders and savers can be a great team, appreciating each other’s perspective. Logical thinkers and emotional processors can be twice as smart.
The goal is to be together, not to be the same. If you are feeling the rub of differences between yourself and your spouse, you’re normal! Recognizing differences can be the road to a great marriage of mutual appreciation and enhanced strength.
Early in marriage, couples are most often surprised, confused, and then discouraged by their differences; later in marriage, the number one challenge couples contend with is navigating the drift. There is a spike in divorce rates among couples who have been married for 20 to 30 years, and it is almost always rooted in this issue.
It shows up in comments like, “We don’t love each other anymore”, “I feel like I don’t know him/her anymore”, “Nothing is terribly wrong, but it just doesn’t feel like it used to”, or “We’ve grown apart”.
Navigating drift begins with identifying the different currents in our lives that can pull us in opposite directions. Cultural currents, such as a pervasive pessimism and cynicism about marriage. External currents such as schedule, family, and friends.Internal current of our own brokenness and sinful selfishness can also cause distance.
About 20 years into my marriage to Sharol, we had drifted so far apart that we were almost completely out of touch with each other. While we were not immune to cultural pessimism about marriage nor unaffected by our own internal baggage, the biggest contribution to our drift was the external currents.
We had two careers that were going strong and demanding more and more of our time. We were volunteering in our community, as well as playing a role in a church plant that began meeting in our home. We lost touch with each other. The turning point came when we went away for a weekend to have fun and instead stared at each other, sad and distant and lost.
Here are strategies we used, and continue to use, to reverse the drift and to reconnect: Keep your eye on the destination. In that cold and distant place we found ourselves that weekend, we did know this: we wanted to grow old together with a lifetime of love and memories and an undivided family around us. We didn’t give up, we pictured a lifelong marriage and a future together with our kids and grandkids.
Schedule regular time to reconnect as a couple. It was clear to us that our schedules and work were causing us to drift, we would have to make changes. Here is a simple formula we adopted to battle drift in the midst of busyness: 10 minutes a day of couple talk (not about kids or chores and no devices).
A half day or evening a week spent together. This should be a time to do something that you both want to do, something that creates closeness, whatever that may be. If that is a traditional date night, go for it. Anything will do if it helps deal with the drift resulting from busyness.
One day every month doing something that renews your relationship. Learn something new together, hike, garden, golf, ski…what you do is unimportant as long as it is something you both find significant.
One weekend a year to renew your relationship and learn some new tools to improve your marriage. A FamilyLife Canada Weekend Getaway would be a perfect choice for this, or you can make up your own weekend.
Differences and drift. No couple is immune to these two realities, but every couple can learn to deal with the differences and navigate the drift. FamilyLife Canada would love to help.
Neil, together with his wife Sharol, lead FamilyLife Canada. Neil loves to learn, teach and write about anything related to marriage, family and Christian discipleship. Married since 1982.