We use the term “couple” to mean a pair of people who are joined together in a relationship, but the truth is many couples exist almost entirely in a polarized state. It’s as if they are on either side of a tug-of-war rope and both are pulling as hard as they can but neither is moving. All this effort and strain ends in frustration and resentment. But their relationship probably didn’t start out this way.
Polarization looks like this:
- Brad feels like Charlie never wants to have sex any more. Charlie feels Brad bugs him for sex all of the time.
- Anna feels like Doug spends money like crazy. Doug feels like Anna is too controlling of the finances.
The more one partner is stuck in their perspective, the more the other partner gets stuck in their perspective. Soon neither of them is able to remember that the “truth” is somewhere in the middle, and each of them feels frustrated and alone.
However, it is often not the difference itself that causes the hopelessness, but instead it is the process of polarization that causes the hopelessness. Polarization happens as one partner’s effort to change the other drives them farther apart. The more one partner tries to explain that their way is the “right” way, the more the other has to dig in their heels and defend their position. Rather than working to see the issue through their partners eyes and looking at the problem from a team perspective, they are locked in a battle to win that compels them to further defend their position.
What’s so striking about polarization is this: the process of getting driven further and further apart is such that people tend to end up locked in a stance that is more extreme than the stance they had before the pattern became a pattern! So Charlie used to initiate sex sometimes, but now that this pattern has become entrenched he feels really shut down. Anna used to enjoy splurges now and then, but now that they are polarized she feels she has to be a total spendthrift. Once a couple becomes polarized, neither feels they can give an inch before the other does, leaving them frozen unless someone is willing to concede and take the first step.
If you are stuck in this trap, the first step is to let go of the idea that you can change the other person. Start by making peace with your partner’s position. Surrender to your current reality. Then, work together to start to look at the difference as the problem, rather than each other as the problem. When you shift perspective in this way, you begin to stand shoulder to shoulder, facing in the same direction and looking together at the problem. Now you can tackle the issue of your differences instead of fighting each other.
Now, rather than playing a game that is win-lose, you can work together as a team to get a win for the relationship.