Monday, August 23, 2010

What's the Difference?

Marriage was the main topic du jour recently as I sat in a small park with a friend. We had found a comfortable place to discuss an aspect that is sometimes a little uncomfortable. He described the memories he was happiest with in his marriage, as well as parts that were troubling. Most of these were needs-based. Sounds like most marriages, right? Occasionally the sweet is mixed with a little bitter? As he talked about his interests, and how he and his wife differed on several points, I recognized some familiar themes.

This conversation caused me to reflect on an old TV commercial from my childhood. A well known soft drink company advertised a simple taste test to help sell their product. The comparison of two different drinks required a taster to determine which drink was preferred based on taste alone. Though one drink may have tasted better than the other, I think the commercial was a bit biased as it highlighted the results favoring the soft drink paying for the commercial. Though expected, the bias is not very helpful if you are trying to improve a marriage. It’s really helpful to have both perspectives.

While I feel I have a great marriage, Liz and I also have some differences that are pretty common in most marital relationships. When taste testing our personal differences, I find that some of our differences taste good and some don’t. Many of our differences are so small it’s hard to tell the difference at all. We simply have the same taste, or you might say we just have a lot in common. Most of the time, this works to our advantage.

In a few cases, our personality traits are so varied that the differences are stark. If we are not careful, these differences can result in a contest to see which trait tastes better, or which one will come out as a dominant factor in making decisions for the two of us. I like to think that we take turns winning, or conceding, but you’ll have to confirm that with Liz. So I ask myself, if some differences are good and some are not, what’s the difference? I think the answer is worth digging a little deeper for. There is a difference between our differences and the way we perceive them.

As I look at my relationship with my wife, I find that our strengths are quite often weaknesses, too. In reality, they are just traits that define who we are, each one with its own set of pros and cons. For example, Liz and I are both quite methodical and organized, which makes us very compatible as we solve problems together. Yet when we look at the detail of how we approach a problem, our differences become more apparent. Liz tends to be more logical and rational. I tend to be more intuitive. I’ve noticed that these personality traits also affect how we react to circumstances when our needs aren’t met. We each get grumpy, jealous, and dissatisfied for different reasons. Quite often, Liz’s reasons are more logical and mine are more emotional. How’s that for a stereotypical gender switch? If we are not careful, it is easy to miss each other’s needs because they are different than our own.

No matter how similar we are, or how similar our needs are, we are still different people with different experiences. Our roles, activities, and choices shape who we are as well as our needs. In addition to eating and sleeping, we each have interests that fuel us and give us energy. Finding room in our lives for some of these things is in keeping with the Thirteenth Article of Faith. “If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” (The Articles of Faith 1:13) I believe there is a lot of latitude here for personal interests.

While Liz and I spend time together, more regularly in the early morning and in the evening, our focus during the daytime is often quite different. Liz has a degree in Elementary Ed and spends more time volunteering in our children’s school classes. She takes a greater role in their education and extra curricular activities than I do. My background, on the other hand, is in art and design and I spend most of my time during the day developing architectural designs for various buildings.

As might be expected, many of our personal interests are related to the things we do most during the daytime. Liz enjoys sewing and is an excellent seamstress. She also loves scrapbooking. In my spare time, I find other creative outlets such as fine art and music. I also love running. While there are similarities to our favorite pastimes, and we are both project-oriented individuals, our projects and interests are often very different. As we gain more and more experience in our interests over time, it would seem that our interests could take us further and further apart. Yikes!

These simple differences can seem much greater when a couple fails to understand each other’s needs, especially those deeper than pastimes. I recently spoke with a couple who was having some challenges in their marriage. One was looking for more of an intellectual and emotional connection. The other was craving more expression of love through touch and affection. The couple had a difficult time relating to each other and their differences were growing. Sadly, neither of the two understood the other’s needs well enough to help. They were only getting one perspective on the taste test.

I find it interesting that the adage, “opposites attract,” is often true, but not always. There are enough instances to prove otherwise. Some opposites such as gender are very attractive. We each have talents and experience that compliment each other, which in turn enriches a relationship. On the other hand, differences such as work ethic, spending habits, and favorite pastimes may detract from and even divide a relationship, especially if they are not managed.

Whether you have a fairly strong marriage or one that is feeling pretty rocky, taking a closer look at differences in marriage can make all the difference in how you perceive your relationship. Expecting a mixture of similarities and differences is not only healthy, it’s realistic. It’s important to note that some differences are attractive and some are divisive. Some are complimentary and some are competing. But it’s not the difference alone that makes the difference. There is something about similarities and differences that make them positive or negative.

Beyond similarities and differences lies a deeper issue, namely, attraction. If we are attracted to a similarity or difference, we move closer to it. As this happens we are more likely to adopt and become like the trait that attracts us. What makes some traits attractive and others not? What type of incentives does it take to make a stronger relationship? An obvious conclusion is a clear benefit.

Quite often we see differences as good when there is a potential for some gain or opportunity. I can’t say I know anyone who develops a friendship so they can experience loss, or gets married so they can be miserable. Most relationships are based on some mutual benefit. In a marriage I believe the benefit needs to go both ways. The benefit may not need to be the same, but it should be mutual and proportionate.

Similarities are attractive for obvious reasons. Finding someone who thinks like you, acts like you, and feels like you is very validating. It feels good to know that someone else can relate. I don’t feel lonely or isolated when someone else thinks like I do. It adds strength to my resolve and passion to my interests. In this case, the greater the similarities, the greater the attraction.

Differences can be attractive for similar reasons. Finding someone who thinks like you, but knows more than you, can be uplifting and encouraging. Sharing with someone who thinks like you, but has found a different way to express it, can be inspiring. I am grateful for friends who can do more than I can when they are willing to teach me a new skill. I am enthused by others who can do something I can’t when I can also see the opportunity for personal growth.

When I am fearful of differences, it is usually for selfish reasons, or because I am feeling a need to be protective. Finding someone who thinks like I do, and who has the potential to take something I have worked hard for, can be terrifying. Sharing my opportunities with someone who may use them against me is threatening. I am leery of differences that could result in undesirable change or loss.

I also believe there are times we should be fearful of differences in marriage. These instances have everything to do with the heart and intent. Differences of themselves are nothing. It is only what we make of the differences or what we do with them that makes them good or bad. If a difference in interest, opinion, or want gains enough importance that my marriage relationship begins to decrease in priority then I am on dangerous ground. Such differences create unnecessary distance between a married couple. As that distance increases it becomes harder and harder to repair; thus the council from the Lord to love and cleave unto your spouse and none else. (Doctrine & Covenants 42:22)

The safest way I have determined to evaluate differences in marriage is to ask a few simple questions. Will this difference make me a better person? Am I being selfish, or is this something that will help me to accomplish more good? Will this difference strengthen my marriage or weaken it? Does my spouse agree with me?

Earlier I suggested that there is a difference between our differences and the way we perceive them. Understanding this can help us to manage all of our differences in marriage. As I have looked closer, here is what I have found:

  • We each decide whether differences will be attractive or divisive. It is a personal choice. No one decides that for us.
  • Differences can be managed with mutual understanding and cooperation. Both spouses can shape whether or not their differences will be divisive by having a common focus. Making sure that each other remains the primary focus in the relationship, and not their differences, will help increase their unity.
  • Taste is a personal preference, and our taste can change. Some differences can be an acquired taste. Trying to understand our spouse’s perspective gives us a taste of who they really are. We don’t have to swallow everything, but a taste of something else that is good might open our hearts as well as our minds, especially when it comes to understanding each other’s needs.
  • Differences are less dangerous when we are less selfish. The more I can move the focus from me to we, and still have my basic needs met, the more I become like the Savior.
  • Overcoming our differences can be different than overcoming weaknesses. We may not need to get rid of our differences to overcome them. When we struggle to work through our differences, and we feel that we are making no progress, Father in Heaven is always willing to help if we turn to Him in prayer. This works best when we first turn our hearts.

There is one crowning principle pertaining to differences that will help us become more like the Savior. We are all members in the body of Christ. We have differences that make us stronger. The key is to make sure that our covenant relationships stay intact and preeminent.

The apostle Paul taught, “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. … For the body is not one member, but many. … And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? … But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body. … God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honour to that part which lacked: That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it. Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.” (1 Corinthians 12:12-27) Paul then talks about gifts of the spirit, and of charity.

The Lord also revealed, concerning His gifts, "that ye may not be deceived seek ye earnestly the best gifts, always remembering for what they are given; For verily I say unto you, they are given for the benefit of those who love me and keep all my commandments, and him that seeketh so to do; that all may be benefited that seek or that ask of me, that ask and not for a sign that they may consume it upon their lusts. And again, verily I say unto you, I would that ye should always remember, and always retain in your minds what those gifts are, that are given unto the church. For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God. To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby. ... He that asketh in the Spirit asketh according to the will of God; wherefore it is done even as he asketh. And again, I say unto you, all things must be done in the name of Christ, whatsoever you do in the Spirit; And ye must give thanks unto God in the Spirit for whatsoever blessing ye are blessed with." (Doctrine & Covenants 46:8-12, 30-32)

Jesus is our head. As we take direction from Him, He will lead us back to the Father. If we are honest in our efforts to do so, the Holy Ghost will teach us how. The Holy Ghost will also sanctify our hearts and remove the impurities that make us selfish if we will yield to His enticings. As we choose to honor our covenants, and honor our spouses whom we have made those covenants with, then we will learn how to make our differences become attractive. We will find that we have more in common then than we did before.

Understanding these principles is a lot different than understanding our differences in marriage. For those seeking a celestial marriage, we should expect to be tested in all things, even in matters of taste. There is a difference between being one and being the same. I’m much happier when I understand the difference.

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