In “Sameness or difference: do you still love me when we don’t agree?”, you will discover the importance of apparently contradictory things: consensus, mirroring, individuation and difference. One of the benefits of a committed long-term relationship is that you have another point of view available to you at all times. Whether you like it or not! Especially over time, your partner is likely to have an opinion on everything, and want to express it. That’s the ideal. That’s what you hope for – someone who will tell you the truth at all times. But how do you feel when your partner is expressing this contrary opinion? Does it hurt? Do you, therefore, value sameness rather than difference?
Just to be clear, I’m presuming that you and your partner are expressing an opinion, and not indulging in free-for-all criticism, contempt and denigration. That is abuse. That is domestic violence – read “Domestic Violence is not only physical.”
Back to this opinion that feels too different. This brings up another important question; how do you grow? Do you grow more from being agreed with all the time? Or from being challenged? You can be challenged by differences in behaviour, music, food, philosophy, religion, opinions – any number of things. Is being introduced to an entirely different perspective threatening for you? Do you have difficulty holding your own opinion, as well as that of your partner, simultaneously? Is there room for both, or does it seem like an either/or? You’ll find more on valuing different perspective in “Different perspectives: what does my partner think?
Behind this is the fear that love is conditional. And that one of the conditions of love is consensus. And therefore that only sameness is allowed. In other words, the person you love believes that you love them only if you agree with them on everything. If you had a narcissistic parent, then you remember being punished or rejected if you didn’t prop up their view of the world. If your partner is narcissistic you have this experience too.
But in order to grow as individuals and as a couple you need an environment of respect, where conflicts, disagreements and dissent are managed constructively and not defensively. So dissent and affirmation, sameness and difference, agreement and consensus are two sides of growth. It is not either/or but both.
Let’s add some more subtle understanding here. The basis of this discussion is the notion of differentiation, rather than symbiosis, being the foundation of a growthful relationship. Here is a podcast with the founders of the Couples Institute, Drs Peter Pearson and Ellyn Bader speaking about differentiation. You have encountered that in the Insight, “Allow yourself and your partner to be fluid, not fixed”. Another Insight which expands on differentiation is “Managing Conflict with your Partner?. And also, “Increase your window of tolerance.”
“The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.” Friedrich Nietzsche
When you consider consensus to be more important than growth, both partners become focussed on agreement rather than bouncing off each other’s differences. When you regard dissent as dangerous and destabilizing, you limit your capacity to solve problems creatively. The result is a kind of “groupthink” or “couple think”.
The danger here is that if one partner dares to dissent, or present a contrary opinion, the other says, or certainly thinks, that “you don’t have our marriage as your priority”, or “you are only thinking of yourself, not of us” or something to that effect. In this scenario, you are fearful when your partner does not agree with you. You are thinking in terms of a symbiotic “we” rather that of two individuals, “you and I”.
What is the basis for this focus on sameness or agreement? Our attachment style provides a basis for how much agreement we require to feel safe. As well as how sensitive we are to implied or actual criticism. The more secure our attachment style, the less agreement we need to feel safe. Individuation then proceeds more easily. Conversely, the further our individuation proceeds, the more secure our attachment style becomes.
You can think through the sameness/difference dichotomy by asking yourself the following questions:
Now that you’ve done a bit of soul-searching, we can move to the need we all have for mirroring.
An important part of relationship communication is to reflect back to your partner that you understand them. Being understood is very reassuring. Mirroring is something we need throughout our lives. Mirroring is a crucial process in infancy, when the mother copies the movements and voice of her baby. And the baby imitates and mirrors the mother likewise. In infancy you feel your existence entirely through mirroring. Then gradually you experience the world directly, without your mother’s presence. As you grow, your need for mirroring diminishes but nevertheless continues.
If you are a speaker at a conference, you appreciate intelligent questions because this indicates you have been seen and heard. You experience validation as part of a team, also. For example when you play a successful game of football, or pull off an event.
You probably feel reassured when you and your partner think alike or do the same things, at least some of the time. This is a form of mirroring. Similarly, you might feel threatened and insecure when you see how different you and your partner really are.
Ubuntu is a concept from South Africa meaning “I am because you are.” It embraces the idea that humans cannot exist in isolation. We depend on connection, community, and caring — simply, we cannot be without each other. Mirroring is part of this and applies particularly as a couple. But part of what connects you is your difference and what you contribute because of your individuality.
Many of these relationships Insights talk to the subject of differentiation. It is in the background all the time. C.G.Jung’s idea of individuation is that we each have a responsibility to think things through for ourselves, and understand our impact on others. This means we don’t just tag along with other’s ideas and opinions, including our partner. Here is an in-depth article I wrote on Individuation.
The important point is that compatibility has NOTHING to do with how similar you are. Compatibility is much more about how you communicate, and particularly about how you manage conflict. You discover more about that in How to Choose a compatible partner.
In Nature, we know that diversity is a strength, creating a stable environment. On the other hand, a monoculture, where only one crop is grown, is vulnerable to pests and climate variables because the needs of all plants in the crop are exactly the same. Sameness makes us vulnerable in relationships, too. Think about how that might be true!
I appreciate your comments and suggestions. Please let me know which sections of this Insight have hit the mark for you.
Copyright 2019 Kaye Gersch