Our wonderful friend and mentor Stephen Covey was fond of saying, particularly with reference to marriage, "Unexpressed feelings never die; they just get buried and come forth later in uglier forms."
So what is a couple to do if they love each other but are very different from each other and frequently find that they are bothered by things the other person does?
Maybe one spouse is a detail person and wants everything just right and the other just glosses things over. Or one is neat, fastidious and orderly and the other is a little sloppy and doesn't mind a certain degree of chaos. Or maybe it's as simple as one thinking the other talks too much, or exaggerates, or is too shy or doesn't have strong enough opinions. The list of "things that bother" can be endless!
But they want unity in their marriage, they want oneness, they want complete compatibility and they don't want to bury things and have them fester. So what do they do?
Do they fight it out every time? Do they just agree to disagree every time a conflict comes up? Do they make a list of things that bother each of them and try to resolve what's on the list once a week? Do they try to understand that doing things differently could be a strength if they can learn to just accept and appreciate each other more? Do they seek a counselor to try to help them be more alike or at least to get on the same page?
Do they ignore the Covey advice and just follow an opposite cliché, "Some things are better left unsaid"?
Well, we just happen to be a couple who has had a fair amount of experience with these questions, these dilemmas, these conundrums; and for what it's worth, here are some conclusions, or at least some directions, that we feel have been helpful:
First, we like Covey's advice. We believe it. We think that marriage — particularly one we want to last forever — can't be about burying things and allowing feelings to go unexpressed and unshared. We think equality is a worthy goal, and unity is an even better goal, and oneness is the best goal of all.
But, second, we don't believe oneness means sameness. We feel the strongest unions are not created by two people who are totally alike or who could be clones of each other. And we have discovered there are productive ways to agree to disagree — not on important values or principles — but on certain viewpoints or issues or ways of doing things. It's diversity and different perspectives and complementing abilities that create the true synergy of a great marriage.
So, third, the challenge is to try to blend differences, not to try to make them disappear. Of course, we need to be together as far as possible on the big important things like our goals and our core beliefs, but when it comes to our style, to our interests, our methods and our ways of going about things — and to our talents and gifts and natural abilities — there is a lot of room for difference and uniqueness, and we need to overcome the natural tendency to want our spouse to "be more like me."
We heard the story of a couple who decided to each make a list of "the things I would like to change about you." Predictably, the feelings and the outcome of this list-making were not good.
I (Richard) came to a realization a few years ago — or maybe I should say I came to a decision — that "I would not change a single thing about Linda." This did not mean I thought Linda was perfect in every way. For example, I do wish she could send shorter texts and that she would answer her phone when I call her. But it meant I had realized Linda is a complex and internally connected individual and that if one little thing I didn't particularly like was changed, it might create a little chain reaction that would also change something I dearly love about her.
Linda, to be honest, has not quite come to this same conclusion about me —because I have a lot more rough edges than she does — but we are both getting closer to being able to not only accept our differences but relish them and realize that they constitute much of what we love about each other.
So here is the challenge: Learn to differentiate between the things that are "just who your spouse is" — things that are "just Linda being Linda" or "Rick being Rick" — and the things that really do bother you. We find that, usually, as people think about that differentiation, they are able to move more and more things from the second category to the first one.
We all need to learn to not only accept but to love the things that are just "her being her" or "him being him."
And once you have separated out the other things — the ones that really do bother you — set a time and a place (we like Sundays) to bring them up and talk them out so they never get buried, and so you feel completely open with each other and completely "in the process" of building a synergistic "oneness" marriage.