Forget Mars and Venus: Understanding the Power of Differences for Relationships and Parenting
By Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC
I attended a Bat Mitzvah recently where the Cantor spoke about peace.
“Peace,” he proclaimed, “is desired by all people, in all nations. Problems arise not because we don’t want peace, but because we each define it according to personal, cultural, religious, or other differences.” Same word. Contrasting meanings.
Instead of subjective notions of peace, Cantor Maseng offered a universal concept: “True peace,” he said, “is about wholeness, and wholeness is only possible when we bring all our diversity, all our differences together.”
In other words, it’s easy to be at peace with those who agree with us; true peace is about connecting with those who don’t.
What does world peace have to do with our relationships and co-parenting? When I work with couples, I always mention the importance of mutual understanding up front:
Mutual understanding is a major ingredient in relationship satisfaction and successful co-parenting. Understanding isn’t the same as agreeing; instead, it’s about getting curious about our differences, accepting them and working with, not against, them.
In other words, relationship happiness depends on world peace at a micro-level. Understanding others’ differences can be difficult. Many, if not most, of us grew up in a family, community, country and/or world where differences are grounds for intolerance and conflict, not compassion and cooperation.
Meaning, while we might say we want relationship peace, we often define it as sameness. Then, we waste precious time failing to get others to be like us.
Despite the now-commonplace acceptance of the gender differences* claimed by John Gray almost 20 years ago—you know, Men are from Mars and women are from Venus—most lesbians and gay men either don’t buy into (or fall into) those assumptions. Truth is, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, we’re all from different planets.
Understanding our partners is, then, less about embracing gender differences and more about getting curious about their unique differences from us. Doing so truly allows us to “keep the peace” in our relationships, and honor the sense of wholeness noted earlier:
Our relationships can be truly whole—i.e., peaceful, fulfilling and satisfying—not because we’re the same as our spouses, or always agree, but because, together, we embrace, respect, and work productively with and through our differences.
There’s no simple way to understand our spouses, but there are steps we can take to begin to do so. Marita Fridjhon and Faith Fuller, founders of the Center for Right Relationship, have developed a great technique to increase mutual understanding, which is called: Lands Work.
Lands Work starts from the assumption that every individual is like a nation unto him or herself, with its own cultural practices, cuisine, communication style, justice system, import and export policies, etc. While Lands Work doesn’t translate well to the written page, the starting point for the exercise does:
Imagine you’re an ideal tourist, guided by curiosity, openness, exploration and a suspension of judgment. Now, imagine you’re visiting your spouse’s land as this ideal tourist, eager to learn more about their reality, their priorities, and what’s important to them about what they believe, how they act, parent, etc.
If we can truly stay curious with and about our spouses, if we can suspend judgment, we can also ramp up our understanding and compassion for them. In turn, we can work with our differences, even if we don’t agree with those differences. Genuine and sustainable compromises emerge out of mutual understanding, not agreement.
One of relationship expert Harville Hendrix’s tools for increasing mutual understanding is what he calls “The Imago Dialogue”, which includes 3 steps:
(1) Mirroring: When you have something important to say to your spouse always use “I” to express it. Then, ask your spouse to paraphrase what you’ve said and then ask you: “Did I get that right?” Repeat these steps until s/he does get it right. To ground this, Hendrix suggests adding: Is there more? Or: Tell me more. I’d include: Tell me what’s important to you about this?
(2) Validation: Once you’ve got mirroring down, add comments that indicate that what your spouse has expressed makes sense to you, given their logic or priorities or concerns. As Hendrix notes, the idea is to “affirm the internal logic of each other’s remarks.” Here, it’s important to distinguish agreeing from understanding someone else’s logic; you can understand without agreeing.
(3) Empathy: Hendrix’s final step involves acknowledging the feelings we know, or imagine, are behind our spouses’ remarks. This goes something like: “Given that you think I’ve done such-and-such (or that such-and-such has happened), I’d imagine you’re feeling x,y,z. Is that true?” If you’re wrong, ask: “Then what are you feeling?” And offer empathy for those feelings.
It isn’t easy to retrain ourselves to dialogue in the way Hendrix suggests and, in truth, even if we can learn to master the first step, Mirroring, we’ll be ahead of the curve in our communication tools and our ability to begin to understand our differences.
If we feel committed to our relationships and to co-parenting effectively, we’d benefit from grabbing our passports (or mirrors) and traveling into our spouses’ experiences. Doing so doesn’t guarantee we’ll always end up feeling peaceful or with 50-50 compromises, but it does mean that whatever decisions or actions we make together include both our experiences and respect our differences.
* If you’re interested in how gender myths impact our relationships and families, read Same Difference, which teases apart research on which these myths are based.