How Can Married Couples Respond When They Discover They Have Differences?

marriage-compromise-giftAll couples have different viewpoints from time to time. All couples, especially in the early years of marriage, discover areas where his way and her way differ. The challenge of becoming fully successful marriage partners is to be able to talk over each of those differences toward the goal of creating an “our way” plan of action that truly works well for both partners.

Let’s take a simple example. In Mary’s family, birthdays were a big deal so her expectation is that there will be a whole lot of fuss and specialness about her birthday celebration. In Bob’s family, by contrast, people at most offered a pleasant “Happy birthday!”

So when Mary’s birthday comes along, she’s at risk for feeling disappointed if Bob handles her birthday the way that his family would have—with a mere verbal nod. The initial irritation or hurt Mary would feel signals that she and Bob have a his way/her way conflict they need to talk over. Their challenge then is to create an our way responsive to both of their concerns.

Mary and Bob’s solution? Mary would become the choreographer of all birthday celebrations, hers and her husband’s. Bob then would be glad to join in, and to take out his banjo to enhance the event with music. They created an “our way” that delighted them both!

© Copyright 2010 by Susan Heitler, PhD, therapist in Denver, Colorado. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Sharon


    July 7th, 2010 at 10:16 PM

    I had to laugh when I read about Mary and the birthdays. My husband and I went through exactly the same thing on my first birthday after we were together. He couldn’t understand how hurt and disappointed I was that no-one really cared when my birthday came round. I was crushed that he’d not made an effort, especially when I’d made a fuss about his earlier in the year. He didn’t even get me a card until he saw how upset I was, and that made me feel worse because I was an afterthought. I didn’t realize that in his family, getting a happy birthday was the most that happened for adults. No cards, no nothing! I know now he didn’t intentionally hurt me. It was just not something that had ever crossed his radar as important. He made up for it the next year though!

  • Kim


    July 8th, 2010 at 4:29 AM

    Think that it would be silly to naturally presume that there would be no differences in opinions and expectations amoung married couples. What are we supposed to be now- Stepford couples? Of course there will be different expectations and differences in opinions. How would they not know this before getting married? Of course there are some differences which will prove too difficult to move past and will probably raise some serious issues in the future, but when it comes to the small things, just choose your battles and move along.

  • A roberts

    A roberts

    July 8th, 2010 at 6:46 AM

    my sister got married just last week and yes,she tells me of the differences in her new household,especially because they stay with her husband’s parents.she gets annoyed due to the new things at times but she tries and controls herself and the two of them find a new moderate way to do things that are okay with both :)

  • Jason H

    Jason H

    July 8th, 2010 at 11:27 AM

    Evey marriage will have tension between the partners and conflict of ideas because each of them comes from a different family and different environment and everything.

    So the best thing to d would be to find a common ground,as illustrated in the example given above.But for finding this common ground,it is very important for both the partners to be open to the new idea and they should not be stubborn about making only their viewpoint heard and seen.

  • Wanderer


    July 8th, 2010 at 11:47 AM

    “A great marriage is not when the ‘perfect couple’ come together. It is when an imperfect couple learns to enjoy their differences.” – Dave Meurer

  • Tammy


    July 8th, 2010 at 12:41 PM

    It’s funny looking back on how many things my partner and I thought differently about, from how to hang up clothes properly to the best way to serve food. (I like mine to be steaming hot, and he likes his lukewarm). Trivial as they may sound, minor irritations can escalate into fully fledged arguments if you don’t talk them through. Do it at the start, not when you’ve fumed inwardly for months.

  • helen


    July 8th, 2010 at 9:12 PM

    My soul mate and I disagree all the time! :) We do so civilly. We respect each other enough to not need to feel like we’re clones or have to agree on everything to be a “real” couple. We were individuals before we met and would like to stay that way when we’re together. We’ll never be a couple that wears matching sweaters and finishes each others’ sentences. That makes me shudder just thinking about that.

  • Rachel


    July 10th, 2010 at 12:41 PM

    Why would that make you shudder, helen? Doesn’t that show that you’re very in tune with each other? The finishing of the sentences I mean, not the sweaters LOL. Even I’d draw the line at that. ;)

  • Karyn


    July 10th, 2010 at 1:52 PM

    How about when one of you isn’t open to compromise? What’s the solution then? I am very anti-control and hate feeling that I’m being told what to do whether I like it or not. If I want to sort the cupboards and drawers out one way for example and he likes it another, why should it always-always!- be me that has to give in? I really resent that. And I’m sorry if I sound petty, Susan. What that represents is a big deal to me.

  • Bess


    July 10th, 2010 at 6:03 PM

    Oh, don’t talk about cupboards. My husband has this thing about half full boxes taking up space. If there’s a box of crackers in the pantry, he’ll throw out the box and leave the bag of crackers on the shelf. Same with anything that has an inner liner and is less than full. It drives me crazy! Have you ever tried to figure out what you need to shop for when you’re faced with shelves full of anonymous opaque packages? It’s so untidy looking too. He thinks it must help being able to see what’s left in the boxes. Not if I don’t know what’s in the bag, geesh! We’ve argued about that twice and I refuse to argue any more. It’s such a stupid thing to fight over too. Nonetheless, I gnash my teeth every time I open the pantry door. I’m open to ideas as well!

  • Walter


    July 10th, 2010 at 7:45 PM

    My wife and I have our way too. I tell her what I want and then she tells me what she wants and we do it her way LOL. I can’t say no to my sweetheart. :) That’s kept us married for 30 years.

  • Wilma


    July 12th, 2010 at 5:42 AM

    Newsflash. If any of you don’t want to ever compromise and to always have things your own way and to your own tastes, it’s simple. Live alone. Because only when you have just yourself to please does that happen.

  • keira


    July 12th, 2010 at 8:29 AM

    I can’t believe some of these comments. Don’t sweat the small stuff, ladies and gentlemen. If you’re going to fight, do it over things that matter like love, not closet space! Life’s too short.

  • Elliot


    July 12th, 2010 at 6:57 PM

    Good for Mary and Bob! They’re a shining example to us all. May they continue to make sweet music together for many more years. Thanks for sharing that story, Susan.

  • Dr. Heitler

    Dr. Heitler

    August 11th, 2010 at 7:24 PM

    I love all your comments. Thank you!

    I’m particularly fascinated by the contrast between Karyn’s situation, Bess’s, and Walter’s.

    Karyn feels demoralized by the on-going power asymetry in her marriage. All decisions go her husband’s way. The particularly distressing part though seems to be that her husband feels justified in telling her how she has to do things. In my book The Power of Two, I call that a “crossover.” Karyn’s husband crosses into her personal decision-making territory if he is telling her how she should keep drawers. Crossovers are inherently provocative, so Karyn’s demoralization is quite understandable.

    Bess faces a similar asymetry of power but around just a single issue. I hear that her teeth gnash. At the same time, if it’s just one or two issues where a partner rigidly insists on the spouse doing it his or her way, one can feel irritation and yet put the issue on a backburner or even chuckle about it. That’s quite different from the steady diet of powerlessness that Karyn seems to be facing.

    By contrast, Walter’s cheerful comments suggest that there’s a further dimension to who gets their way. Walter doesn’t give in. Instead, he gives. Walter graciously and generously seems to take delight in giving his wife the gift of doing things her way. He does things her way, but from a position of equal power. He’s in a sense the decision-maker–even though his decisions mostly are “let’s do it your way.” Very interesting!

  • Weston


    September 18th, 2010 at 5:13 AM

    I’m extremely alarmed regarding your comments about Walter.

    It seems to me that he is very much “giving in” and his needs, values and desires become irrelevant whenever his wife has a different opinion. I don’t care how cheerily he states it, they do not seem to be partners communicating about and sharing in decisions.

  • Dr. Heitler

    Dr. Heitler

    September 19th, 2010 at 12:34 PM

    On second reading of Walter’s point, I agree with Weston’s concerns. Some people do seem to “give in” quite comfortably, at least on issues that are of relatively minor import to them. At the same time, giving in can be a recipe for depression. Moreover, it’s just not necessary if couples learn genuine win-win problem-solving. Then no one has to give in. The decisions please both partners, and the outcomes are best for them both.

  • Weston


    September 20th, 2010 at 8:23 AM

    Dr. Heitler

    Thanks for clarifying in response to my previous comment. As you can probably guess Walter’s joking response was pretty much the same cheerful response I would give (and still often use) when I would talk about my relationship (particularly around other guys). That didn’t change the fact that I was extremely resentful of the fact that I felt that my needs and wants were subservient to the needs and wants of my wife.

    That’s why I felt the need to comment. It was almost as if I had a funny twin out there.

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