Updated: Aug 28
Hall of Famers At Bat John Gottman’s research tells us that 67%* of the differences between partners are unresolvable and THIS is the good news. Recently I was talking shop with my brother, whose field of work is vastly different than my own. I mentioned this fact to him and his immediate, and absolutely fabulous response was, “if I were a baseball player, I would be batting 330 and in the Baseball Hall of Fame!” He then added, “if I were a racehorse I would be among the best if I was in the winner’s circle 25% of the time!” And when I shared this with my mother, her response was “if I got a 20% return on my investments, I would be thrilled.” And yet, when I say this to couples, they are dismayed and horrified that the 67% number is so daunting. In my view, they are missing the trees for the forest.
Seeing the Trees As I write this, I am sitting in the heart of winter paradise where each tree is a spectacular sculpture in tone and relief. Cool shades of greys blended with warm browns and then iced with powdery snowy ranging from buttery whites to the palest blues, deep indigoes, and shades of green ranging from a bright lemony hue to the darkest evergreen. The palette of tones and colors is ever-shifting depending on how the light hits and where the sun casts shadows. And there we have it, things in the shadow versus things in the light.
In the Shadows and in the Light Our natural bias looks for the danger lurking in the shadows. Meanwhile, we often overlook the things twinkling in the light. We tend to minimize the 33% of ways that we seamlessly align, harmonize, or shine together. The 67% feels daunting and inescapable. The story we tell ourselves is that if we cannot overcome our differences we can not survive together. But this is a story fueled by our fear, anxiety, or depression. There is another story that sees all that is good about us and that is amazing. When we can see the beauty of both the shadow and the light we can begin to embrace all of ourselves and our partner.
Personality or Lifestyle? According to Dr. Gottman, our unresolvable differences are generally based on personality or lifestyle. This comes as no surprise for Imago therapists. Personality and lifestyle are learned early in our family of origin. We, therapists, see clients attracted to partners who carry parts we have lost, denied, or disowned. In childhood, we are socialized to lose parts of ourselves that are different than what our family “says” are “not the way we do it.” We deny the parts of ourselves that we come to see as bad, often projecting them onto others as we mature. We disown parts of ourselves that we can not accept as being special or positive, either as an act of humility or a deep sense of self-doubt. The unconsciously longing to be wholly integrated with all of our parts intact. This longing points us towards partners who carry these very parts. This means our partner will be fundamentally different than us, while simultaneously feeling deeply familiar. That unconscious familiarity is appealing until it gets too close to home.
Healing and Growth When we met we unconsciously recognized and cherished our partner’s appreciation of music. Perhaps we were charmed by it while feeling woefully clueless about musical genres ourselves. In time, his appreciation for music became a pastime that took him away from us. He wanted to play in a band, spend time with other musicians, or listen to music when his partner longed to have conversations. Or perhaps she was raised with a strong work ethic and prided herself on being available to her bosses at all hours. When they first met, this was an admirable trait. But in time her partner felt abandoned or deprioritized when work always came first. These differences are opportunities to grow and heal childhood wounds. They are simultaneously another chance at being disappointed.
Curiosity is the key to Connection Whether it is a personality difference or a lifestyle difference, as the glow of infatuation begins to wane, the differences become a point of irritation or conflict. We focus on these differences and our need for the other person to change. Without a way to discuss the underlying feelings and pain, we disengage or we get locked in a power struggle. Without a path to understand each other, we become frustrated and focused on the 67% that feels like a threat. Curiosity is the key to connection. When I am curious about why you are who you are, I do not experience our differences as a threat. With curiosity, I can admire and value you exactly as you are. When you do not have to defend yourself to me, you can relax and enjoy being yourself.
Delight in our Differences The inclination to focus on the differences makes sense. We, humans, are wired to look for potential dangers or problems. We are scanning the horizon and detecting cues that we then consign to the safe bucket or the danger buckets. This autonomic response to the environment is our earliest evolutionary wiring. In this way, we survive! Shifting attention away from the perceived danger requires intention and consistent practice. Looking for what is right about us instead of what is wrong about us gives us a chance to build on the things we have in common. We see the ways we fit together nicely, the delight we take in loving the same show, sharing favorite restaurants, and spending time doing things we both enjoy. This is that 33% that makes us an AMAZING pair.
Be a Hall of Famer Setting an intention to nurture the 33%, to celebrate the ways we are good together, and to champion our differences as a gift that helps us to be more tolerant, more accepting, and more welcoming of that which feels both unlike us and fundamentally the soul of who we are, these are the most basic ways that we can be the best sense of our best self. And when we both expansively accept each other as we are with all of our differences and alignments, then we are heading to the Relationship Hall of Fame.
*the research reports 69.7% with a 3% standard deviation. Learn more about how you can reintegrate your lost, denied, and disowned parts in a Getting the Love You Want Workshop.