How to Navigate Your Relationship Through Polarization

couple standing far apartWhen 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 Preferences

Over time, a pesky (sometimes horribly toxic) process called “polarization” started creeping into our relationship.

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.

© Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Maria Saavedra, PhD

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.

  • Leave a Comment
  • regina

    September 16th, 2015 at 10:39 AM

    While I do think that opposites attract, there has to be more commonality in a relationship to make it work over time than there are huge differences.

  • marc

    September 16th, 2015 at 1:24 PM

    difference without judgement
    unfortunately I really struggle with that concept

  • Teena

    September 17th, 2015 at 8:49 AM

    I will say that it is never a good idea to get fixated on making mountains out of molehills. But at the same time when there is something specific in life that is very important to you, then there is this innate desire to dig in your heels and fight for what you perceive is the right thing.

  • sherry

    September 18th, 2015 at 8:21 AM

    Just as long as you continually look toward one another for support instead of constantly turning away from each other then I think that you can maintain stability and a strong relationship with one another.

  • Blaise

    September 21st, 2015 at 8:26 AM

    If you find yourself making a big issue out of every single thing then it could be time to look at yourself and determine if it you who is not doing a whole lot of compromising. It can be very easy (and tempting) to want to think that it is the other person causing it all to go down like it is. But how are you contributing? And what can you do to bring the two of you back closer to the middle with one another?


    October 4th, 2017 at 11:29 PM

    I think all codependent relationships will be like this, more or less. It can create hell on Earth. Both partners, in reaction to the other’s preferences, increase their codependent sickness. This makes each partner eventually give up on their partner and abandon and reject them. I recommend reading The Addict’s Loop.

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