I wrote last week about how I learned to love and forgive a family member that was completely different than me. Here’s that blog if you’d like to read it. From that blog, a question was posed to me. I’d like to take this blog to answer it.
Question: How do you navigate a relationship with someone who is so vastly different in every single belief, behavior, action etc?
I think the answer lies in degrees. Different relationships will require different navigation. I don’t have experience in all these situation, but for the ones I do, I’ll try to give some examples.
When I first moved to Vegas, I needed to find a hairdresser. I read reviews online for a great place and called and made my appointment. When I got to the salon, I saw my hairdresser for the first time and, inside, I was like, “Hmmmm…this could be interesting.” She’s very Vegas and I’m very….uh…Kansas and we’ll just leave it at that. I quickly discovered, though, that she’s awesome. I love chatting with her. Unless she’s blow drying my hair, we laugh and talk like good buddies. I know from small remarks she’s made that our belief sets are completely different. I think she understands this, too, and so we never venture into religion, politics, or anything controversial. I’m so glad that she’s my hairdresser and I always look forward to seeing her. Our relationship is very limited, given the nature of it, and that makes it easy to just skim over the more hot-button topics. So often in life, we get so caught up in “our side” that we miss just the human experience of getting to know people that have different stories, different up-bringings, and different thoughts. With co-workers, acquaintances, and friends that aren’t extremely close, navigating those relationships isn’t or shouldn’t be too hard. Just enjoy the person. Learn to listen without having a debate about everything and get to know them.
When you are trying to navigate the area of friendship, things get a little more complicated. If you ever want to truly be close with someone you are going to have to go a little deeper than coffee break room chit-chat. The best thing to remember about friends is that you want to surround yourself with people of virtue and those that truly want to help you grow into a great person. Friends that encourage you to do things that aren’t becoming of you or that try to steer you down paths that you know are against your core beliefs are ones to walk away from. Our friends influence our thoughts and behaviors quite a bit, so if they stand for things we know are seriously wrong, stepping away from them is usually best.
I had a friend in college that engaged in some very questionable behavior. She was a blast to be around and she was always the life of the party, but I completely disagreed with certain things that she thought were okay. After awhile, she started encouraging me to engage in her same lifestyle choices and, sadly, I had to walk away. I still missed her for the good things about her, but her negative influence was weighing on me.
Parents and other family members
I can’t say it any better than this. Rocker Andrew W. K. gives some great advice that works for anyone.
When I was a senior in high school, I fell for one of the school bad boys. Deep down he wasn’t really a bad person, but he played the part very well: He smoked, drank, had tattoos, dropped out of school, and lived for working on cars, fishing, and hanging with his buddies. I was drawn in by his looks and his looks held me for awhile. Slowly, though, our differences began to seep out, but I ignored them because 1. I thought I could change him and 2. I was young.
We got engaged, but I never felt gleeful about it. In fact, it sort of weighed on my heart like a heavy brick. I knew I wasn’t supposed to feel this way about being engaged and, if I did, that was a bad sign. I pressed on, though, determined to see us through. What bothered me most was that we were just so different on all fronts. Our beliefs were opposites, our lifestyles were opposites, and there was so little that we saw eye-to-eye on. We fought a lot and I was super frustrated with him most of the time. It came to a point where my initial attraction to his looks could not prop up our relationship anymore.
One time, after we’d had a dramatic temporary break-up, I was sitting on my parent’s front porch crying. My dad came up and asked me what was going on and I told him. He said, “Amy, if this is who you want to be with, I respect that, but what does he offer to your life? Why do you enjoy being with him?”
“I love him,” was my answer.
To which my dad said, “Okay, but think about being married to him. You are two very different people. What does he offer to you that makes you stay?”
“Well, we teach each other things.”
“Uh huh, like what? What does he teach you?”
“Well, he teaches me about deer and hunting and stuff.” Even as I type this now, I can’t believe I ever uttered that. Deer and stuff? Deer and stuff was supposed to sustain a marriage? My dad didn’t even really say anything because I think he knew he didn’t need to–my answer was embarassingly weak. It wasn’t long after that, that I realized that it was time to walk away from that relationship. He wasn’t a bad person, we just were unequally yoked in nearly every department. I felt so obligated to stay with him because we’d been together for a long time and we were engaged, but our marriage would have been a disaster. When dating someone, if you find that they are diametrically opposed to everything you believe in and stand for, walk away. In fact, it’s better to walk away. Never treat a dating relationship as if you are married. Even if you “feel” married or obligated to them as if you were married, you are, in fact, not married. Complicating a dating relationship in such a way only adds unnecessary problems.
Here lies the hardest relationship to navigate if you and your spouse are on opposites sides of the maps. Some people do marry people that are the complete opposite of themselves in every way. Sometimes they married too young or too quickly. Sometimes they ignored red flags. Sometimes they thought that they could change the other and get them to understand. Sometimes, people marry thinking that marriage is like a Cinderella fairy tale and that they’ll instantly have stardust that protects and saves their marriage. But, after the stardust settles, people usually wake up to the fact that they married someone who is their polar opposite. How do you deal with this?
First, I want to stress that if the marriage is abusive, then for the health of you and your children, it would be best to leave. If there is dangerous substance abuse, it would be best to leave. No one needs to stick it out in a relationship that is harmful.
If the case is that the two of you aren’t on board about anything, what does one do?
- Find time to talk about those things that are safe; those topics that don’t cause friction or issues. You need to open the lines of communication by talking about the small things, so that you can move into talking about the bigger things.
- Try not to nag. I know the temptation is there, but people tend to dig their heels in when they are being constantly nagged. Look for ways, even small ways, that you can compliment them or show them that you appreciate them. They will, in turn, like that positive attention and seek to receive more. It will take time, though.
- If they believe something differently than you, ask why they believe that way and then just listen. Don’t seek to interject or make a statement. Learn how they came about their belief set. If you really love someone, you need to understand where they are coming from.
- Be an example. If your spouse doesn’t believe in God, for example, make sure that you are living an active spiritual life by going to church, praying, and reading the Bible. Don’t throw it in their face, just be a living example. Live with joy and, eventually, they will recognize it.
- Seek to build positive memories together. So often when spouses are incompatible, they completely stop doing anything fun together. Everything just becomes about the gigantic differences between them. Commit to date day once a month. If you are going to stay married, you cannot live off of misery. You need to find joy together by laughing and “playing” together. If they are unwilling to organize something, make a list of a couple of things and then have them pick. On that day, just be with them in the moment and love them.
- When you are struggling with them, offer up that struggle to God and say, “God, I am really struggling right now with my spouse. They are so different than me. We aren’t on the same page at all and I really do not enjoy being around them. I offer up this suffering for ______________(insert some intention that is meaningful to you). Suffering can be redemptive and it doesn’t just have to be something we trudge through. If we unite our suffering to Christ’s suffering on the Cross, it gives it a purpose.
- You may need a counselor. The biggest advice I can give here is that marriage counseling should be about repairing the marriage, not fixing the other person. Be open and willing to hear the things you need to work on yourself. No relationship is a one-way street.
- Pray for your spouse. Pray for the strength to love them for who they are and to treat them with dignity. It may take years to see any results, but never give up.
Above all, no matter the relationship we are in, it is so very important that we treat all people with love and respect. This will look different depending on how close and important the relationship is in your life. If there is someone who is extremely difficult, pray that you may be merciful, forgiving, charitable, kind, and patient. If you truly want to be these things, God will give you the actual graces that you need.