Have you ever noticed how certain personality differences between partners in a relationship can grow larger if the partners are not aware of them and careful to address this diverging tendency? In working with couples, I have seen how personality differences can reverberate between two people over time, making their differences seem larger and larger. Eventually they become major recurring themes in couples' struggling or growing apart.
For example, so many times I've seen couples where one person is "The Worrier" while the other is "The Laissez-Faire." The Worrier does not feel better to hear from the Laissez-Faire partner, "Don't worry about it," "You worry too much," or "Just forget about it." The Worrier may conclude that the partner "just doesn't get it," doesn't understand, believe or respect his or her concerns. The Worrier feels increasingly alone with the worriers, bottled-up, not understood or appreciated, and may radiate the tension in other ways (e.g., irritable behavior, distancing, demeaning comments, etc.) The Laissez-Faire partner, who means well and is trying to comfort, may feel more badgered in return, or feel married to someone who seems "obsessed with one thing" and "just won't let it go." It becomes harder for both.
Another common emerging dichotomy is "The Cynic" and "The Pollyanna." Many readers will identify with "The Rational" and "The Emotional," "The Intensifier" and "The Suppressor," "The Aggressive" and "The Passive Aggressive," "The Future-Oriented" and the "Present Moment Person," the "Action Oriented" and the "In Their Head Person," "The Security-Seeker" and "The Risk Taker," and so on. Have I forgotten any?
Each polarity seems to grow more extreme over time because of the counter pressure from the other, and the accumulating ballast of disagreements. Rather than acquiesce, each person tries, again and again, to drive home the points that aren't being acknowledged ... Sometimes it seems that, in our closest relationships, we can become like caricatures of ourselves. Our own arguments can feel like two people dueling over strongly expressed views that even we ourselves may not really believe. You know this is true, for example, when you think how embarrassing it would be if others heard the argument; or if you could imagine seeing yourself on a videotape trying to make your point!
[Photo by C. Hindy: Yes, it's a photo of the Grand Canyon!]
The task for these couples is to increase mutual understanding and empathy, so that each person can move somewhat toward the middle again. When each person feels more understood and appreciated, there is less need to overstate or dramatize, to convince, to "make the case" or defend it. They can better see that each person is just trying to cope in his or her own usual ways. Maybe they even can help one another move toward the center (A complementarity which may have attracted them to one another to begin with!). Of course this may be difficult. Often each polarity has accumulated so many "examples" over time, each an unfinished disagreement with hurt feelings (i.e., resentment), and their "being so close to it all" makes it harder to see. Counseling can be helpful with this.
I think of that old TV show, "Crossfire." There were intense political discussions "From the Right" and "From the Left" and certainly they had very different views ... But I always assumed they went out to dinner together after the show and were the best of friends!