When I first met my husband, I knew he was a little more frugal with money than I was. Maybe it was the coupon he brought with him to the bowling alley or the way he never hesitated to pick a penny off the floor, but I picked up on this feature quickly. In fact, part of what attracted me to him was his sense of responsibility and self-control. It’s not that we differ that widely on the ways we like to spend money—I also savor a good deal, overthink larger purchases, and feel guilty if I spend more than I’d like on myself. In fact, most of my friends would probably say that I, myself, am quite frugal. My husband and I are just not the SAME amount of frugal.
How Polarization Results from Different Preferencesrelationship.
I started feeling suffocated by my husband’s desire to save every penny. I’d mention wanting a fancy kind of cheese at the grocery store, notice a pained look on his face, and put it back on the shelf. At the same time, he started feeling overwhelmed by the way I spent money. He would see bags of new clothing or an item for the house, and his anxiety would go up. In order to obtain a sense of comfort with money based on our own upbringings and experiences, he would subtly try to encourage me to save more, and I would push back and encourage both of us to spend money on ourselves and our own happiness. As time went on, our subtle tactics escalated. Suddenly, it seemed like I was married to a miserly cheapskate, and he felt like he was married to a spendthrift.
I see lots of advantages to the way I spend money, and I would find spending money the way my husband does incredibly painful. Labeling our issue as “polarization” and recognizing that we don’t differ that drastically from one another was helpful.Polarization occurs when two people differ on a preference they have in a relationship—it can be the preference for closeness versus distance, the preference for control versus spontaneity, or the preference for complete tidiness in the house versus some disorder. Drs. Neil Jacobson and Andrew Christensen detail this phenomenon beautifully in their book Integrative Couple Therapy: Promoting Acceptance and Change. In trying to get our needs met on this preference dimension, we dig in, and relatively small differences begin to seem dramatic.
Couples often experience this in the form of the Demand-Withdraw dynamic, in which one partner wishes for more time and affection with the other partner, who instead feels like withdrawing and avoiding the other partner in order to have time alone. So, what can you do if you find yourself in the midst of polarization?
Label Your Difference as a Difference without Judgment
It certainly feels to me like I’m the “right” level of frugal and my husband is the “wrong” amount. I see many advantages to the way I spend money, and I would find it incredibly painful to spend money the way my husband does. Labeling our issue as “polarization” and recognizing that we don’t differ that drastically from one another was helpful. Even more helpful was accepting my husband’s feelings toward money as valid by understanding the role money played in his own childhood and the way saving money was incredibly adaptive for him and his family. In turn, I shared my own childhood experiences with money with my partner, explaining how I consistently felt anxious about money while growing up. Treating myself to small pleasures was a way to get some distance from that anxiety I experienced as a child.
Talk about the Problem When You’re Not in the Middle of It
Find a time when you and your partner aren’t arguing about your differences, and anxieties are low. After acknowledging that polarization is not a problem with the other person, but rather a difference in preference, see if there are places for compromise or ways you can both get your needs met.
Keep Turning toward Each Other
Many happily married couples are challenged by polarization and work to navigate differences throughout the entirety of their marriage. What makes them different from couples who are less stable or happy is that they continue to turn toward each other, day after day, to figure out how to move forward together. Couples who start withdrawing from the relationship and turn toward other people to get their romantic needs met, or couples who cope in ways that leave them less present, are much more likely to be negatively affected by polarization.
Jacobson, N. S., & Christensen, A. (1996). Integrative couple therapy: Promoting acceptance and change. New York: Norton.
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