Irreconcilable Differences: What Can You Do About Them?

Irreconcilable Differences: What Can You Do About Them?One of the commonly used causes for divorce is “irreconcilable differences.”  As expected, when people come to counseling for their relationship troubles, most are distressed about the differences between them.  They would typically highlight the issues and problems that they disagree on: “She is a slob…I like to my house to be neat and orderly”  “He is a ladder climber (only focused on achieving success)… To me, there are more important things in life.”  “He does not have any ambitions in life…I want someone who has goals and works diligently toward them.”

When I hear such an intense level of discontent in a couple who have been together for several years, I wonder what drew them together in the first place. Do opposites attract?  If so, why don’t they stay attracted, such that people continue to like those qualities that they were initially attracted to?  Why are they so discontented after several years of being together?  Some people admit that they were aware of those differences between them, but these differences did not bother them when they first met.  However over time, they did.  How does that happen?

Relationships have processes of their own, apart from individual faults, quirks, issues and problems.  I find that people often develop an intense dislike for the very same characteristic that they were initially enchanted by.  For example, the husband is orderly & neat and likes things well-organized. The wife was impressed by his neatness initially.   It seems so much nicer to live with a neat person, rather than living with a slob.  However, the downside of living with such a neat freak (?) is that she has to do a lot to keep up with him.  Because she may have a little bit of messy tendencies herself, he might become critical and feel frustrated with her.  His critical feelings toward her color his interactions with her, which will undoubtedly rub her the wrong way.  In reaction, her messy tendencies might become more intense, as she has been depending on him to pick up after her for quite a while.

This will further upset & distress the husband: He thinks, “Why is she such a slob?  She is acting like this because she takes me for granted.”   At the same time, she thinks: “He is so controlling and overbearing.  I can’t stand to be around him.”  The couple can then get stuck in a pattern of mutual blame and getting negative responses from each other. These interactions further fuel anger and resentment. If these kinds of interactions become predominant part of a couples’ interaction, it may become difficult to change the course.

I commonly see that many couples who previously were able to manage their differences become unable to tolerate the same differences between each other. They get stuck in a negative pattern of interacting with each other.  Addressing that pattern can be highly challenging, but it is possible.  If one person in the couple can own up to and alter their own part of the negative interaction, the resulting benefit for the relationship can be tremendous. One can expect to change their relationship only after first addressing their own part in it.

So should “irreconcilable” differences be a deal breaker for a relationship?  I don’t think so. If the individuals were able to manage those difference at some point in their relationship, I believe that they may be able to achieve a similar level of tolerance and acceptance once again.