My husband and I are absolutely on opposite poles. The kids tell us that it allows for a 360 degree view of things. We hope it was a compliment. At the start of the courtship display, we revel in the things we had in common. Oh, you love this song, me too! You love the moon, oh me too! It was the romance that spoke. And then we got married and spent a significant number of years trying to change the other to be like us. Over time, we have learned to accept that we are wired differently and to let the other be. We were happier after letting go.
But everyday life is not easy when you study in contrast. Life asks the family to make too many decisions and it doesn’t help when we both think completely differently about every problem. He wanted us to buy a house and settle down. I wanted us to simply rent and be nomadic. He liked living in the same city. I wanted the view outside the window to change every now and then. He likes the familiar. I thrive on uncertainty. Set some rules to make sure you don’t waste time and breath in forcing the other person to accept your point of view.
First, we recognized that joint decisions would not work. We just shared the decisions in the middle. One decides and the other simply follows. He has decided that his parents will live with us. I followed and remained devoted to my in-laws for all the years they lived with us. It was hard. But I could take care of my parents, visit them, spend for them, finance their needs, etc. because the husband knew that I was taking care of my in-laws. Such compromises are not spelled out but help tremendously, trust me. The rule is not to crib.
Second, recognize each other’s strength and let it play out for the benefit of the family. I manage the money, I make investment decisions and I live savings goals. He manages all relationships, negotiates our choices, puts our friends and relatives in the mood. We took time before letting go. But it does help divide the work up rather than romanticizing doing it all together. We know who is responsible and we try to respect that. At the end of the year, when I read the ROI, he joked, “Is that it? And I smoke. Who Said Couples Can Find The Magic Formula For Peace?
Third, refrain from saying those horrible words, I told you. Everyone follows a different path in life. Their attitudes are shaped by their unique experiences. One cannot, quite simply, force the other to think of something in a specific way to arrive at a decision. Some decisions work well; some turn out to be horrible. Regret is a difficult emotion to deal with. You don’t want your loved one sulking in hindsight. So let’s let the decisions be made and move on. Be warned that this is the most difficult rule to implement.
Fourth, practice discussing an issue without increasing the pressure. The credit card has been paid for the minimum due. The bank account has an inactive surplus. The fourth television set has been ordered, succumbing to a price agreement. An expensive necklace was picked up on impulse. The list of things that can explode is endless. Learn to let the other deny, hide, suffer quietly in guilt, show false bravado, justify. Watch without being involved. Then find a quieter occasion, over tea or wine, or a stroll along the beach to talk and discuss it. Listen and show empathy. Offer help. Make your point of view known. And I hope it won’t happen again.
Fifth, immediately identify a firefighting problem and take it over. You catch the other person spending too much money on credit cards; you find that invoices are never paid on time; you find an addiction that takes a dangerous turn; you notice that stock trading is slowly becoming an obsession; you find that leaving work seems to be a preferred solution to the boss’s problems; etc. You can’t rock and complain, or wring your hands in despair. You take over. You set new rules. The other has shown that they cannot decide well. In a calmer discussion, you will find the other ready to let you draw the limits of their unacceptable behavior. Do not be eager to change the other, but influence you can and you must.
Sixth, allow time to play and allow better vision. It’s a challenge for couples who refuse to give their relationships the years they need to age well and mature. One cannot judge the other on a single instance. Such generalizations are generally wrong. It is over time that you notice and understand patterns of behavior. You also determine what you want to trade for what. There is nothing like perfection. Angels and demons live together in all of our hearts and minds. As we live together, we impact, influence and shape each other in ways that we cannot control. Let things work out over time, and roles and responsibilities can be changed with experiences.
Seventh, shared values and ethics are essential to your well-being. You like the simple life and your partner is a consumer drug addict; you like an honest profession, but your partner is corrupt; you don’t like to pretend, but your partner likes to brag. So many people are trapped in these impossible situations. Some give up; some ignore and carve out their own spaces; some accept that things cannot be changed. Conflict is high when you are seriously mismatched. These high order problems are not solved by narrow rules in a fragile column.
Relationships are complex. There is no generalization about how couples will work together. Some like the division of roles; some want a transparent exchange of tasks. Some readily accept authority; some will settle for nothing less than equality. Some people like to discuss a problem to be solved; some let the unspoken lead the way. Knowing that the other is an independent thinking person with their own approach to a problem is respect that we learn to cultivate and nurture. Rest is detail.
(The author is President, Center for Investment Education and Learning)