Can you discuss big differences in your relationship?
Have you ever been in a relationship where you’ve had big differences that have been hard to deal with?
It’s an interesting dilemma where for some couples it means they can discuss and debate their differences. For other couples it can be a dealbreaker that means the relationship will end.
I recently spoke to Sarah McVeigh in the ABC triple j studios about what to do if you have big differences in your relationship and whether you can overcome them.
You can listen to the audio below or read the transcript.
Listen to my interview on this topic on ABC triple j radio
Transcript of interview:
Sarah McVeigh: You’re on The Hookup on Triple J. I’m Sarah McVeigh, filling in for Hannah Riley for the next couple of weeks, and I’m keen to know if you’re in a relationship with someone who you disagree with on something big. Well, with us in the studio is Clinton Power, he’s a relationships counsellor. Thanks for being here, Clinton.
Clinton Power: Thanks, Sarah. Great to be here.
Sarah McVeigh: You heard Katherine and Brandon talking about their ideological differences. How far does the saying “opposites attract” go?
Clinton Power: Well, I think there is some psychology behind that, because what theory says is that we’re actually unconsciously attracted to often people that represent the best and the worst of our caregivers, but we’re also drawn to people that actually in some way – although initially they may seem like the perfect partner that can meet all our needs – over time, what happens is we actually realise that often they can’t meet our needs, sometimes in some really fundamental ways. And this is a big problem in a relationship.
Sarah McVeigh: Do you think that, in your experience as a relationships counsellor, that political issues, for example, are ever that serious a deal-breaker?
Clinton Power: Well, you know, in the past I wouldn’t have thought so. But talking to some of my colleagues in the US, with Trump becoming president, what a lot of my colleagues are seeing is actually relationships have broken down; couples have got divorced, family reunions and special events like Christmas and Thanksgiving have turned into massive events full of conflict because of people having different political views. So it certainly can be affected, particularly when people feel so strongly and are so divisive as they are today.
Sarah McVeigh: Maybe in Australia it’s because we don’t have such a kind of extreme political spectrum, it’s maybe not one of the big ones. But I am a reporter on Hack, normally, and we were talking about rodeos this week. And it’s so divisive, and we just heard someone who said it was enough for her to break up. What about things like animal welfare, all those kind of issues like abortion or hot button more emotional issues? Do you see those breaking apart relationships? Or, in your experience, do people just not get together in the first place?
Clinton Power: I think even if a couple gets together, at some point they’re going to find out there’s a really fundamental difference and often the relationship won’t survive. I mean, I guess there’s a spectrum, isn’t there, in beliefs and passions. There’s one thing to have different political views or maybe want to debate certain philosophical ideas, but when it comes to things like abortion and some of those really big issues, sometimes they’re just going to be deal-breakers, and there’s not much you can do about that.
Sarah McVeigh: You’re listening to Clinton Power, he’s a relationships counsellor, and I was just asking Katherine before, she was saying how she would like to know a little bit more about the political leanings of future boyfriends. Do you think that’s there’s a space for people to put their views upfront on dating profiles?
Clinton Power: I think if it’s a deal-breaker, if it’s something like you said before – if you know that you cannot date someone who isn’t really an advocate for animal rights, for example – that might be a good thing to put on a dating profile, because you just want to filter those people out. But probably not just putting general ideas and beliefs, but the ones you’re really passionate about or you just know you couldn’t live with someone; I think that’s worth putting on a dating profile.
Sarah McVeigh: It’s a good filtering mechanism.
Clinton Power: Yeah.
Sarah McVeigh: What do you think is to be gained from dating someone who is different to you?
Clinton Power: I think there’s lots to be gained, because who wants to date themselves or someone who’s a carbon copy of yourself? I mean, it’d be incredibly boring. But difference is fun, it’s novel, it’s exciting. You can learn a lot about things just from someone having a completely different perspective to you or having a different outlook on life, and that can be really interesting. It can expand your horizons. So I think differences are good in a relationship. I never think that differences are a problem; I think it’s the way we manage differences, that’s where people kind of become unstuck.
Sarah McVeigh: Yeah, so Katherine and Brandon, they would debate, and they had techniques around it not being the last thing they talked about and this obvious respect that you could hear. What are some tips that you have about negotiating those tricky conversations?
Clinton Power: Well, you need to be curious. That’s really important; don’t make assumptions and don’t jump to conclusions, but just be curious, even if your partner, or maybe your date – maybe it’s someone you’ve just met – has a really different opinion to you. Just be curious about that and say, “Wow, that’s interesting, tell me more about that.” Or, “How did you come to form that point of view or see things in that way?” Because I think just to write someone off straight away, you’re not going to get very far if you’re doing that immediately. And, as I said, ask them to explain themselves. Always be respectful in your communication as well. You don’t want to be letting things break down right on just because they have a different point of view, and that’s really the case for any kind of getting to know someone better. You want to be curious and bring that approach.
Sarah McVeigh: Someone has just texted in saying, “I’m six months into marriage separation. My wife joined a New Age esoteric religion four years ago, and it’s fundamentally changed the foundation of her beliefs. This is her path now, and I have to accept her choices. One of those is to be separate.” How often do you see really big change happen within relationships, so you go in seeing eye-to-eye on the big stuff and someone moves in a different direction?
Clinton Power: It’s actually quite common, because we often go into relationships – and this often happens with marriage, with this idea that we’re just going to be the same person; “I’m marrying my partner,” or “I’m getting really serious about this relationship – and there’s this idea that we’re not going to change. But people do change; that’s what happens. I mean, none of us are the same person we were five years ago or ten years ago, and I think you have to be prepared to know that your partner’s going to change, and you’re going to need to negotiate and adapt as time goes on. But sometimes – like in that example you mentioned, Sarah – the change is so radical, it’s so enormous, that for the other person, they just can’t continue. And that’s a sad circumstance.
Sarah McVeigh: And the words “you’ve changed” is often used in such an accusing way.
Clinton Power: Yes, yeah. I would say just expect that people will change. Expect that you’re going to change, expect your partner will change. No one stays static.
Sarah McVeigh: Hey, Ash in West Ryde. Why did you end up breaking up with your boyfriend?
Ash: Hey, hope you guys are going well this evening.
Sarah McVeigh: Thank you, hope you’re going well.
Ash: Thanks. I broke up with my boyfriend a few months ago because he literally didn’t have opinions, and when a major issue … No, quite seriously. So when a major issue would come up, I’m quite an opinionated person, I’ve been told, and I would express my opinion, and I’d just sort of have that repeated back. But then of course if I then re-challenged my own opinion and thought about it from a different perspective, well, he was dumbfounded and didn’t know what to do.
Sarah McVeigh: Would he follow you?
Ash: Sometimes, but I broke up with him because he was literally quite boring.
Sarah McVeigh: Did you tell him that?
Ash: I didn’t … I put it in more diplomatic terms.
Sarah McVeigh: Brutal. Well, do you think it was that he really didn’t have an opinion, or was it maybe that he was with a very opinionated person and he felt like you were taking the stage and maybe you were more knowledgeable than him?
Ash: Look, I honestly think he was the sort of person where he was a social … Like, he just wanted to please everyone else, so I think he would always adapt to his situation and sort of be like a chameleon and just take on the environment around him. And you know, that worked in some circumstances, but look: Honestly, when it came down to it, I really struggled to be in a relationship with someone who couldn’t stand their ground because they didn’t know what their ground was. And it just got challenging at some points where you’d want to have a discussion but you couldn’t because there were no differing opinions available.
Clinton Power: It sounds there like you found out you wanted to be with someone who was just a bit stronger in character and had opinions and maybe could challenge you on some of yours.
Ash: Absolutely, absolutely.
Sarah McVeigh: I’m just wondering, though, Clinton, if you’re with someone and you feel that they are being a social chameleon – and maybe that comes from a place of really wanting to please others – what would your advice be to help them feel that they don’t have to perform?
Clinton Power: To help a people pleaser?
Sarah McVeigh: Yeah.
Clinton Power: There’s a lot of them out there, aren’t there?
Sarah McVeigh: Yeah.
Clinton Power: Look, it’s a tough one, because often there are reasons why someone is a people pleaser, and generally it’s because they don’t want to rock the boat, or they want to be liked; they want everyone to like them, and the fear is that if they don’t kind of go with the flow that people are going to not like them or kick back. And essentially, if you want to get out of it, you have to take some risks and you have to be prepared to step out of that.
Sarah McVeigh: Hey, I’d love to hear from you, if you’ve navigated this in your relationship. 04 3975 7555 is our text line, and 1300 055 536 is where you can call us, especially if a difference of faith has ever been a factor for you. How common is it that differences of faith can play a point of tension in a relationship?
Clinton Power: It can be a very big one, particularly when the different faiths are in conflict or they have maybe very different ideologies. And I think what Andrew’s kind of describing there is – I use the metaphor of food. You can eat something and you can swallow it whole, which is what Andrew did. He just swallowed these beliefs from the church whole. Or you can chew it over, and you can decide yourself, “Well, do I want to swallow this? Or do I want to spit it out?” And it sounds like, over time, that’s what Andrew did. He did a bit more chewing, and he decided, “You know, I don’t think some of this really applies to me. I don’t think I really want to believe and follow some of these teachings that don’t agree with me.” And that’s a very healthy thing to do, but unfortunately, if you have swallowed these beliefs whole, as he described really well, it can actually cause you a lot of grief in the long run.
Sarah McVeigh: But what about for clients of yours, say, who chew it and swallow it and choose to stay in their faith? Do you see them then navigating these difficulties outside their faith?
Clinton Power: Look, I think if you come from the perspective of really believing in your own faith, but also acknowledging there’s many other different beliefs and faiths out there and that’s okay, I think a couple can get along very well, and even have different faiths. But if it is perhaps more a fundamental kind of faith, that’s where it can be problematic.
Sarah McVeigh: On the text line someone says, “How do you deal with significant cross-cultural differences from European to Asian culture? I’m an Australian, and I find that relationships with Asians are lovely, but as time goes on, the cross-cultural subtle differences cause greater and greater discord and arguments. What are your thoughts regarding this, please? I’d be grateful.” And Clinton, I will go to you, but also to the person that texted in, we have a podcast on exactly this, cross-cultural relationships. Check it out. We go in-depth on this very issues. But Clinton, what do you think about navigating cross-cultural relationships?
Clinton Power: Look, it’s more and more common, particularly because we live in such a multicultural society and this is happening more and more. I think it can definitely be navigated well, but again, sometimes you might need to learn a bit more about the culture that your partner or your date comes from, just so you can have an understanding of why they might think a certain way or why they might behave a certain way, rather than just to judge it as wrong, or they shouldn’t do that.
Sarah McVeigh: Also on the text line, someone says, “Hi Sarah, I was seeing this guy and it was going really well. We seemed to have everything in common. One day he was bitching about national parks banning motorbikes from riding through parks. Being an environmentalist, I told him all the reasons behind this. He said, ‘I hope you’re not a Greenie.’ I laughed and said, ‘Of course I am. Why?’ His response sure ended our relationship.” Well, if you have a question about overcoming differences or you want to know if the difference that you’re dealing with could be too big to overcome, I’d love to hear from you, and Clinton can give you some advice. 1300 055 536, or you can text us, 04 3975 7555. Clinton, you said money. What were the other ones that you mentioned, the other big ticket items that really make or break relationships; or cause tension, anyway?
Clinton Power: Sex is a big one. So money, sex, kids, time – people not having enough time – and housework.
Sarah McVeigh: Clinton, we heard Andrew talk about the structures around faith. How possible is it to find similarities in difference? I know it sounds like a kind of weird question, but there are things about faith that you could probably find in other communities like that atheists would share.
Clinton Power: I think that’s very true. And that’s a great thing, if you can keep this kind of open mind of curiosity, being interested, really exploring this person you’re beginning to form a relationship with, getting to know them better. Then you can discover those commonalities, even if you think right from the beginning, “We are so different.” And I think that’s a good point you make, that too many of us have these really long lists, checklists of what we’re looking for and how someone needs to be, and it actually ends up blocking you from meeting people and getting to know people. And I think difference is a good thing; we need to embrace difference. And just because someone seems quite different from you, to begin with, don’t let that stop you from actually being interested in going further.
Sarah McVeigh: Absolutely. Clinton Power, thanks so much for coming on The Hookup.
Clinton Power: My pleasure.
Do you need relationship help?
Since 2003, Clinton Power has helped thousands of couples and individuals as a counsellor and psychotherapist in private practice in Sydney and online in Australia. Clinton regularly comments in the media on issues of relationships and has appeared on Channel 7, The Sydney Morning Herald, and ABC Radio. Clinton’s eBook, 31 Days to Build a Better Relationship is available through his website or Amazon. Click here to take Clinton’s relationship checkup quiz to find out how well you know your partner.