Couples often focus on similarities, but marriages can hit serious snags when differences go unacknowledged. "Sometimes what goes unacknowledged for a while is where we are really different," Mountain View psychologist Brian Winkler said.
That's when the real work begins, finding ways to respect those differences and work with them.
In a culture that stresses marital bliss as the ideal, owning up to differences can be difficult for some couples. And silence can cause big damage down the road. "When I work with couples before marriage, I ask how they deal with conflict. If they say they have none, that's a red flag," Winkler said. "There's nothing like conflict to bring out the true colors, true stability of the relationship."
GETTING HELP EARLY
Couples may avoid talking about potential conflict because of fears of abandonment, Winkler added, but that "can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. ... If you can address a problem early, there won't be additional problems later on. Pull the weeds out, they won't become giant."
Every couple runs into roadblocks, impasses or dead ends, according to David Mineau, a Menlo Park licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT). "I don't think people should be surprised or even worried that that happens. That's just part of the honeymoon phase wearing off," he said. "Some people can work through those with their native skills, others need a good book, advice from Aunt Mary, or come to a counselor."
Los Altos psychologist Bonnie Bernell points to research that found "if a woman finds a lump, she gets help within two weeks. Most couples wait six years. By then, there's been a lot of secondary damage."
Money, sex and time are usually at the top of the list: "Most couples don't talk about one of them. Everybody's got to figure out what are their expectations about those," Bernell said.
Couples sometimes avoid talking about things like basic values, according to Mineau. "That could be anything from what is our attitude toward the rest of the world --- are we going to save money and buy a big house, be the biggest and best, or be a couple who gives back to the world and finds a way to serve the community and teaches our children to share?," he said.
Mineau often gives couples a page of different values (family, generosity, keeping in shape, religion, having a big bank account, developing relationships with neighbors, for example) and has each choose the top five. He then checks to see how the lists complement or represent areas of disagreement.
Wendy Harrison, a Menlo Park marriage and family therapist who is affiliated with The Couples Institute, finds couples often don't address cross-cultural aspects of their relationship. "I see an amazing number of people who don't talk about all the unwritten rules (they) grew up with," she said. For example: How important is it to eat meals together? How should holidays be celebrated? Whether it's ok for the in-laws to stay --- and for how long.
"There's no set template. I can't assume my partner's going to want this," she said.
Ultimately, there are issues that could spell the end of the relationship.
"If someone is unkind, insensitive or selfish, that should be a deal breaker. So's paranoid jealousy, but that often doesn't come out until afterward," Mineau said. "If your boyfriend is insanely jealous that can be intoxicating, but that's a tough one."
Being honest about wanting or not wanting children can be a red flag. "People say things in the throes of love and don't know what it means to say it," Mineau said.
Before couples are married, differences --- cultural, religious, growing up in different families --- are not as amplified until children come into the picture, Winkler added. "That brings up a whole different set of issues about expectations about family life."
Another big one, according to Bernell, is people marry because the other person has the potential to be what they want that person to be; they're hoping that potential will be fulfilled. "Potential is not a good way to choose a partner," she added.
Marriage and family therapist Anne Rawley Saldich, who practices in Palo Alto, became a therapist because of the "very poor counseling" she received at the time of her 1975 divorce. Thirty years ago, at the peak of the humanist movement, the emphasis was on what was wrong with the marriage, and with the husband and wife, she said. Saldich prefers to "look for what is right in a relationship --- with the family system, with each individual --- that might produce a productive outcome."
Saldich has never encountered a couple and wondered what these people are doing together. "Love is a mysterious force. There's no one way to have a marriage," she said. Some have no sex, or many partners, or argue every day, but they love each other and are good parents, she added.
Some couples are reluctant to seek counseling for a foundering marriage, but she views it as a practical matter. "You tune up the computer, the car, whatever you use. It makes a lot of sense to go and see somebody, a neutral person and tune up your marriage," she said, adding that it doesn't matter if that neutral person is a minister, priest, rabbi, or your favorite teacher from second grade.
Mineau views marriage as a benevolent meat grinder. "When we go in we're tough, because we think we know who we are and who our partner is. Marriage by nature softens us up," he said.
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