Here’s an exercise for you to do with your significant other: Each of you think of an amount of money. Got it? What is it? What did your partner say? If you said $5 and he/she said $100, what do you think the $95 difference means? Maybe nothing. Maybe not.
Now, think of a unit of time. Got it? How similar or different do you think your answer is from your partner’s? How do you think your perception of time informs your interpretation of things like, “I’m almost ready,” or, “I want to visit my mom soon,” or, “We haven’t had sex in a long time”?
A large part of nurturing and strengthening a relationship is managing your differences. Here’s a fact that shouldn’t come as a surprise to you: You and your partner are very different people. Even if you grew up in the same city, went to the same schools, both love classical music and Italian wine, there still is and always will be more differences than similarities between you.
Some of those differences will manifest as problems. Some of those problems will be no big deal. They’ll be relatively benign, easy to solve, and maybe even fun to work on. Others will be more challenging. In fact, some problems could be perpetual.
One of my favorite quotes on this subject is from Dr. Dan Wile who said, “When choosing a long-term partner… you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems.” You may think you’ve found “the one,” your “soulmate,” or that you’ve married your best friend. Maybe you have. But you’ll still have problems. Once you accept that, you can turn your attention toward the next essential skill in conflict management: learning to dialogue about problems.
Dialogue is a complicated skill, primarily because our brains are more wired to decide than to discuss. Go back to your unit of money. Whatever amount you thought of, you did so for a reason. It might have been the amount in your pocket. Or the amount of your monthly mortgage payment. Or the amount you want to retire with. Just as likely, the reason you chose that amount is tucked away in your subconscious. Still, you made a decision. You did it quickly and easily. Your partner did the same. And whatever their reasons were, they were likely different from yours.
The next thing that happened was that your brains began to decide which number was better. We do it all the time. It’s how we make sense of the world. Short only exists because of tall. Right exists because of left. Black because of white. And we instinctively pick sides. We don’t even notice.
Dialogue is the work of uncovering your partner’s dream. To do this, you must replace the decisions your brain makes with questions. Being a Dream Detective means looking for clues about what’s really going on besides the obvious. Ask open-ended questions like “What does this mean for you” and “Is there a story behind your position on this issue?” Acknowledging and respecting each other’s deepest, most personal hopes and dreams is the key to enriching your partnership.
Start proactively building this skill right now. Begin getting curious about your differences. Wonder about why you chose $5 and he/she chose $100. Wonder about why he/she thinks about time in hour-long increments and your partner thinks about it in weekly increments. Y
our brain is constantly making assumptions about your relationship. Sex. Work-life balance. Her friends. His parents. Health and wellness. Whether and when to have kids. Where to put the wagon wheel coffee table. Get curious about all of it. Practice dialogue before differences become problems. You’ll be surprised by what you learn when you become insatiably curious.