by Julie Gottman, PhD
The other day my husband John and I spoke with a young woman who was clearly a novice at relationships.
She asked, “What do you do when you have totally different aesthetics? One of you loves all things natural; the other, chrome, sharp corners, and late factory sterile?
We explained, “Everyone has differences like these, and they tend to create perpetual problems – that is, problems that never go away, like that bad cabbage smell in the kitchen.”
In fact, our research with over 3,000 couples found that 69 percent of all problems between couples are perpetual ones. They never get resolved, because they are based on fundamental personality and lifestyle differences.
We had a problem with aesthetics just like this one. In my early years, I bought a painting, but my first husband got it post-divorce. Five years after marrying John, I told him how much I loved it and wanted to buy it back from Hubby #1.
Like a good husband, he said, “Fine.” I did. He couldn’t wait to praise the beauty of this masterpiece. It depicted three flowering almond trees, with a small figure beside a donkey at their base. After it arrived, I unsheathed it like an immortal prize, then asked John what he thought. He said, “Hmmmm. A fine portrait of three chickens. Looks like they’re about to trounce on that little guy.”
“Three chickens! Those are almond trees!”
There followed a lot of hot wind. Turns out he couldn’t stand the painting. For the last word in what it portrayed, he asked his mother over to see it. (We both thought she was so smart she could have ruled a small country). She looked at it and said, “Gorgeous, the most beautiful picture of chickens I’ve ever seen.”
What????? Like mother, like son. It must have been their DNA.
Now if John and I had just left it there, the picture would have been sadly re-packed and stored away along with the closeness between us. Instead, we talked. A lot. We took turns being a speaker or listener. As a listener, we postponed broadcasting our own point of view and instead just asked questions, like, “What does this picture mean to you,” “What would be your ideal dream here regarding this picture,” Does your love (or dislike) of it reflect your own history in some way?”
So rather than tossing back and forth the hot potato, we just listened when it was our turn to be the listener, and when the speaker, we only described our point of view in non-critical, non-blaming ways. In other words, we didn’t describe our partner; we described ourselves.
Twenty years later, the picture proudly hangs on the wall, although downstairs and out of John’s way. But more importantly, our marriage has stayed intact and loving, all these years later. The secret? Understanding that each of us has a valid point of view, and working hard to understand what that perspective is, how it formed, and why it’s so important to our partner.
With a little more understanding, the hard edges can soften, whether in the room or relationship, and both can remain intact and thriving.