02 Jan How Do I Come to Terms with My Partner’s (Difficult for Me) Personality?

Posted at 3:33 pm in Couples Therapy by jlbworks

Many couples come for marital therapy partly because each partner is struggling to adjust to his and her partner’s basic personality. Usually each has gone to great lengths to try to get his and her partner to be different. Lee Blackwell, Ph.D., has outlined typical destructive strategies in his paper “Understanding Personality Dynamics in Relationships (2002).” These include: “1) Blaming and/or criticizing the partner (or one’s self, excessively). Attacking invites the next round of problems; 2) Becoming defensive, trying to defeat the partner’s criticisms; 3) Withdrawing, giving up, withholding; 4) Showing contempt for the partner, either directly or indirectly, by disparaging their ideas, values, and skills; 5) One partner expecting the other to know what they want without saying anything. While this is a popular romantic ideal, it turns out to be very destructive to relationships; 6) Taking everything the partner says and does personally; and 7) Telling the partner what they think and feel, also known as ‘mind raping.’”

If all these very common marital strategies for dealing with my partner’s (difficult for me) personality are ineffective and destructive, what am I to do? We begin with elaborating on Dr. Blackwell’s idea of not “taking everything the partner says and does personally.” Don Miguel Ruiz, in his book The Four Agreements, states the following proposition: “Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves. All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in. When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on their world. Even when a situation seems so personal, even if other’s insult you directly, it has nothing to do with you.” (pp. 48-49)

How to put Ruiz’s proposition into practice is indeed a tall order, but also critically important in many relationships, because so much marital conflict results from the overwhelming tendency to take what my partner says or does personally, and then to react defensively or go on the attack. Terrence Real, in his book How Can I Get Through to You, defines this latter strategy as “offending from the victim position.” By this he means that when I feel victimized by what my partner has said or done, I then feel entitled to “go on the offensive.”

In this book Real discusses an extremely effective strategy for not taking what my partner says or does personally. This strategy involves developing an “internal boundary,” which he describes as a kind of “internal technology.” (See my article on “The Internal Boundary.”). The internal boundary is an invisible shield that I psychically construct that protects me from anything my partner says or does that may invoke my defensive reactions. With an internal boundary in place, Real proposes, “the nastiest comment, the most raw feeling—an emotional atom bomb could go off and you would remain unfazed. Inside your circle you can afford to be open, spacious, curious, relaxed.”

Real elaborates: “The important thing to remember about practicing an internal boundary is precisely that it is a practice, similar to getting physically fit…Although is takes month, even

years, of slow, steady effort before an internal boundary becomes consistent, most people experience an exhilarating glimpse of its effects within a few weeks…The lack of an internal boundary inevitably leads to control or withdrawal. If there is no membrane between you and whatever external stimulus gets thrown at you, then you attempt to regulate your own level of comfort or discomfort by managing the stimulus. (“I could be happy, if only you were less angry.”). When control fails, the only other option is withdrawal.” (pp. 237-241)

Part of what makes my partner’s personality so difficult for me is often that I experience him/her as so different from myself. Harriet Lerner, in The Dance of Intimacy, has written of our human struggle to deal with differences: “Our own reactivity to differences is what leads us to exaggerated and stuck positions in relationships.” Yet, Lerner adds, “It may be hard to keep in mind that differences are the only way we learn.” The well-known group therapist Yvonne Agazarian speaks and writes of the importance of integrating, rather than running away from, or attacking, our differences with a partner. She writes, “All living human systems transform from simple to complex by the process of integrating differences.” We must work, she adds, “to interrupt our spontaneous fight or flight response to differences.” Dr. Blackwell, who was quoted in the first paragraph above, states, “Accepting, even celebrating differences creates a feeling of safety.”

In individual and marital therapy, we learn that the best strategy for coming to terms with my partner’s (difficult for me) personality is to work on myself. Nashville psychologist Richard Taran, Ph.D., in his paper “The Best Relationships of All Kinds,” has written, “Relationships are God’s clever 12-step program for self-improvement; Accept your partner as is, especially their bad habits; Your relationship is in trouble if you try to fix your partner.”

Dr. Blackwell says this even more boldly: “We can only work on ourselves. When we try to work on others, they resist being controlled, even if it is for their own good. There seems to be something in human nature that says, ‘I have to feel free to choose.’…Thus it is a waste of time and totally counterproductive for partners to try to change each other. A better approach is for each to hear criticism as something that the other is experiencing, not as something that they are objective about. When we feel free to decide what to work on in ourselves, we will be much more diligent and sincere in our efforts.”

Dr. Blackwell emphasizes the importance of not trying to change my partner’s beliefs: “It is important to allow each to have very different beliefs, especially about self and other. That is, you have a set of beliefs about yourself and the other, and so does the other person, and all four sets of beliefs must be supported. We resist any attempt by others to change our beliefs against our will, so don’t try to change the other’s beliefs—only your own.” Terrence Real, in his book The New Rules of Marriage, argues that “the need to be right” is the foremost “losing strategy” in marriage. He states succinctly, “You can be right, or you can be married.”

Alain de Botton wrote a provocative article in The New York Times (5/29/2016) entitled, “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.” He writes: “We need to swap the Romantic view for a tragic (and at points comedic) awareness that every human will frustrate, anger, annoy,

madden, and disappoint us—and we will (without any malice) do the same to them…But none of this is unusual or grounds for divorce. Choosing whom to commit ourselves to is merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.”

De Botton continues, “This philosophy of pessimism offers a solution to a lot of distress and agitation around marriage. It might sound odd, but pessimism relieves the excessive imaginative pressure that our romantic culture places upon marriage. The failure of one particular partner to save us from our grief and melancholy is not an argument against that person and no sign that a union deserves to fail or be upgraded. The person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste (he or she doesn’t exist), but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently—the person who is good at disagreement. Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate differences with generosity that is the true marker of the “not overly wrong” person. Compatibility is an achievement if love; it must not be its precondition.”

De Botton concludes his article saying, “Romanticism has been unhelpful to us; it is a harsh philosophy. It has made a lot of what we go through in marriage seem exceptional and appalling. We end up lonely and convinced that our union, with its imperfections, is not “normal.” We should learn to accommodate ourselves to “wrongness,” striving always to adopt a more forgiving, humorous, and kindly perspective on its multiple examples in ourselves and in our partners.”