The Dance of Diversity in Relationship
Diversity is a normal part of life and ought to be celebrated. Not just in nature, culture, and the world, but inside ourselves and in our relationships.
There are countless ways in which diversity lives in our relationships: skin color, ethnic heritage, religious beliefs, cultural norms, and customs; socio-economic backgrounds, physical abilities, health issues, and immune systems. It can manifest as one partner being an extrovert and one being an introvert, or one partner being a morning person while the other is a night owl. You might notice it when one partner is more of a visionary and the other is more detail-oriented; one is louder, the other is quieter; one is neater, the other is messier; one is bold, the other is shy; one is more emotional, the other is more intellectual; one goes fast, the other goes slow; one likes to plan out their day, the other prefers no plans at all; one is a dreamer, the other is practical (Gottman et al., 2018).
If we constantly fight diversity rather than celebrate it, we will lose. Even if you choose a partner who is just like you in so many impactful ways—they have the same interests as you, they come from the same background, they like the same food, vacations, and activities, you share the same political and religious beliefs, and so forth—there will always be points of diversity in your relationship, and conflict is inevitable. Yet because couples are rarely equipped with the proper attitudes and skills to manage conflict, its presence tends to diminish closeness.
Diversity in relationships only creates conflict and this widens the gap of emotional intimacy.
The majority (69%) of marital conflicts are what relationship expert Dr. John Gottman calls “perpetual problems” (Gottman & Silver, 2015). These are conflicts created by differences between partners that last for many years and potentially continue throughout the life of the relationship. However unbudgeable perpetual problems are in relationships, the good news is that many couples are able to remain happy and emotional intimate together despite them because they’ve learned how to dance with the differences between them. They’ve learned how to deal with these problems in a way that does not make them overwhelming and are able to care for them in an atmosphere of some detachment and even humor (Gottman & Silver, 2015).
Your relationship’s perpetual problems do not doom you to conflict, pain, and distance. The true art and challenge of relationship is finding ways to dance with your differences so neither of you feels judged or shamed for who you are. When we can learn to value differences in our partner and ourselves, we can play with them in a way that brings us closer together, not further apart.
HONORING YOUR DIFFERENCES
Years ago, I remember how our quirky Swiss couple’s therapist noticed our different energetic natures. “So, David, you are more like a choo-choo train and Lisa, you are more like a willow tree. How are we going to dance together, friends?” At that time, David more often embodied a kind of passionate full-steam-ahead energy that had a lot of vitality to it. He tended to be faster than me in certain ways, more outgoing, and at times more challenging or direct. At that time, I was indeed more like a willow tree, dreamy and slower than him, quieter and more reflective. This difference between us was causing us some pain and conflict.
Diversity in relationships can be celebrated and honored and can therefore increase the feelings of emotional intimacy.
Considering these differences, we explored the question, “How are we going to dance together?” There is no magic, one-size-fits-all answer to this question. If there were, couples wouldn’t have such debilitating and painful struggles between them when differences arise.
However, there is an attitude and approach you can take that tends to work quite effectively if you remain open-minded and compassionate. Rather than looking at your relationship as broken and needing to be fixed or looking at yourself or your partner as faulty and wrong, notice the particular difference between you and honor it.
One way to do this is by first recognizing and talking together in a non-judgmental, non-shaming way about your differences. David is a choo-choo train, which is like this, and I am a willow tree, which is like that. Neither of us is doing anything wrong, and neither is superior to the other. We are simply different.
Next, honor the difference with appreciation. You can do this by considering how your partner’s way of being is at times a good teacher for you or benefits you in some way. For example, I considered how David has often been a leader in our relationship, nudging me and himself to push beyond our comfort zones and grow more and faster than I likely would have done if it were only up to me. While I have kicked and screamed plenty over the years, I also am incredibly grateful for how this way of being has served as a catalyst in my own personal growth and in our relationship. Because of his choo-choo train style, we have grown at an extraordinarily fast rate and consequently have grown so much closer. As to my willow tree ways, he came to deeply appreciate and value its reminders to slow down and be more present with each other, and feel utterly grateful for having this time together, knowing it will not last forever. My way of being has softened him significantly over time, bringing him closer to his sensitive, feeling nature, his own slow, willow tree ways. Perhaps we fell in love with each other because each of us recognized those opportunities for growth that would be activated by the other’s nature.
Honoring also means noticing when your roles switch. This means that sometimes you are more like your partner and they are more like you (Dworkin, 2019). At this point in my life, while I still have a strong willow tree part of me that is quiet, slow, and internal, I am much more like a choo-choo train than ever, going full steam ahead. I know that I can go at speeds that are quite fast both relationally and in life in general.
On the positive side, I tend to proceed swiftly and stridently around certain tasks and decisions, particularly financial ones. I am able to get a whole lot done in a short amount of time. I aim for goals and am able to discipline myself and reach them. I can also sometimes neglect my sensitive nature, or I may make a decision more quickly than David is comfortable with. At these times, while David appreciates my speed, freedom, and fluidity, he can find himself more like the willow tree, unable to proceed so quickly, needing more time to consider and process the decision. In these moments, it is he who is, in effect, telling me that he can’t keep up or can’t do more. Neither of us is wrong, neither way is superior. We’re simply different.
Honoring diversity means respecting that even if your partner’s way of being differs and/or conflicts with your way of being, you still will ultimately support their self-expression so that they may lead a whole life aligned with their unique calling, a life of purpose and meaning. The point is not to keep your mouth shut and just accept the differences between you and your partner without discussion or complaint. The point is to be open about your differences together, to acknowledge them, discuss them, complain about them, but ultimately value them, see how they switch back and forth, and hopefully, find a way to hold them with humor and playfulness. Saying “There I go again, full steam ahead!” and “I’m just a slow poke, I’m going to go back in my cave and dream for a hundred years” can suck the tension right out of an encounter. Dancing with differences often means using silliness and play to acknowledge characteristics with love and appreciation.
WHY THIS LEADS TO EMOTIONAL INTIMACY
Dancing with diversity is about respecting the nature of your partner, getting to know them as they truly are during that season of life, with an attitude of respect, appreciation, and admiration for how they are different from you. It is not about concluding that one way of being is superior to another, only different. Dancing with diversity is a practice of embracing an attitude of acceptance and appreciation for how your partner experiences life, what they believe, or how they express themselves.
You may not have a quirky Swiss couples’ therapist, but that doesn’t mean you can’t identify your styles in fun ways. Maybe you’re a cricket and your partner’s a crocus. Or maybe they’re a satellite and you’re a rocket.
Celebrating the differences between the two of you, appreciating how your partner’s way of being benefits you, and seeing how you are also sometimes like your partner and how they are sometimes like you are all ways to dance together through your diversity and thus feel closer.
Dworkin, J. (2019). Make love better: How to own your story, connect with your partner, and deepen your relationship practice. Belly Song Press.
Gottman, J. M., Gottman, J. S., Abrams, D., & Abrams, R. C. (2018). Eight dates: Essential conversations for a lifetime of love. Workman Publishing Co.
Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work: A practical guide from the country’s foremost relationship expert. Harmony Books.