Opposites Attack

Conflict is inevitable in relationships. Here's how to handle it.

One of the things that first attracted me to my husband was the fact that he is so laid back. His motto in life tends to be, “No worries; it will get done,” whereas mine desperately proclaims, “If I don’t do it, then no one else will!” Our premarital counselor said it best: “You’re the gas, and he’s the brakes.” There is no questioning there are some areas in our marriage in which we are completely opposite.     

But it makes sense, doesn’t it? You’ve heard opposites attract. Essentially, it’s part of the law of nature. Opposite forces tend to be drawn together because they each possess something the other lacks. Relationships have a tendency to work in a similar fashion. We’re drawn to people who can make up for what we lack. We’re attracted to situations in which we can fill in the gaps for someone else. It makes us feel needed, valuable and secure. I’ve found that to be true in my marriage. The places in which I am weak, my husband is strong. The traits in which he is lacking, I am overflowing. We’re partners, and when we became one in marriage, our differences created a beautiful scene that would have never existed without the other’s perspective.

But have you also heard that "opposites attack"? Because this is also a reality when it comes to differences within a relationship. Yet for some reason, it’s a reality that tends to be glossed over. 

Calculating the cost

Opposites attack, and when they do, it can be fierce. As a professional counselor, I often find the couples who walk into my office for marriage counseling were first drawn together by their differences … but those very differences are now repelling them apart in a devastating way. Conflict and stress are exponentially increased with each opposite trait you and your partner posses, whether in the form of educational levels, cultural differences, financial opinions, personality traits, religious backgrounds or political beliefs. And the list goes on and on. 

While differences may be initially attractive, they don’t come without a price—and unfortunately, when that price gets too high, our society encourages us to file for bankruptcy and call it a day. This is definitely not the way God intended it to be within the context of marriage. 

In preparation for marriage, it's important to really take into account the cost you are willing to pay before you commit to a lifelong journey with those differences. For those of you who are in a dating relationship or considering getting into one, the magnetic power of opposites is an important factor to keep in mind. Most likely, you will find yourself drawn to someone who complements you by making up for what you lack. It’s important to take note of these differences and allow them to sharpen and refine you, making you a better person in the end. 

Being exposed to differences in relationships can challenge our way ofthinking, offer us new and fresh perspectives, and widen our horizonsthrough experiences and ideas we never would have otherwiseentertained. There can be priceless value in seeing the world through theeyes of another, expanding our vision farther than it would have everdared to venture on its own. There is so much to be discovered throughthe lens of another, which is why in so many cases, opposites tend toinitially attract.  

But it’s also just as important, if not more so, to calculate the price that comes with each difference, making sure it is one you are willing to pay and an investment you are committed to making. 

Investing in communication

In order to assess if the differences you possess in a dating relationship are worth the long-term investment, more than anything else you’ve got to take a look at how you manage those differences. As a counselor, I find myself less hung up on the differences between a couple and more concerned about the communication abilities (or deficits) they possess. The more dissimilarity you choose to take on, the better your communication abilities need to be in order to work through those differences in a healthy and mature way. 

Whether or not you are currently in a relationship, it’s important to take inventory of your communication abilities. When differences arise and conflict begins to rear its head, it’s important to be equipped with the ability to interact and communicate with your partner in an open, honest and healthy way. Get real with the kind of communication you are actually investing into your relationship, because what you put into it will inevitably determine what you will get out of it.

Most likely, you fall into one of three kinds of communication styles when it comes to facing differences.

1. Avoidant. Because avoidant personalities see communication from an all-or-nothing perspective, differences are easier disregarded than dealt with. Also known as “people-pleasers,” avoiders would rather make peace than start a war, even at the expense of themselves. If differences do come up, they tend to turn into chameleons, adapting to the colors and desires of the people around them. For fear of confrontation or conflict, they tend to repress differences and stifle feelings for the sake of others. The ironic thing is, these repressed needs and desires end up reaping temporary peace in the external world but sowing seeds of bitterness and anger within. With each repressed need and stuffed difference, avoidant communicators tend to slowly build up walls that prevent them from being real with the people around them—and usher them into a world of painful isolation. 

2. Aggressive. There is no room for differences in the world of an aggressive communicator. Aggression is a form of conflict management that steps on anyone and anything standing in its way. Rather than seeing the value in differences, it tries to overpower them due to personal insecurities. This dangerous bulldozer can manifest through negative words or even through harmful physical behaviors. At the root of aggression is a deficit in emotional management and a difficulty facing issues that require vulnerability. It’s a communication style that ultimately presses people down and pushes people away. 

3. Assertive. Assertive communication welcomes differences. It lives with an open-door policy in the face of dissimilarity because it sees value in both perspectives. It is secure and confident—it has nothing to hide; therefore it has the ability to deal with differences by bringing them to the light and working through them. It is about equality, not power. It is about communication, not control. It offers an avenue for honest self-expression without devaluing the person to whom it is expressing it. It is free of manipulation, negative language and intimidation. It’s not only about what you say; it’s about how you say it. When conflict does arise, assertive communication knows how to listen and adapt, while still seeing its personal needs as important and pursuing fulfillment of those needs. Assertive communicators draw people to their side no matter what differences they possess. 

Though assertiveness will always lead you toward growth and maturity, it won’t always lead you to the “happily ever after.” If you still find yourself in the face of some serious differences you can’t seem to overcome within a dating relationship (moral values, worldviews, life direction, etc.), allow assertiveness to be used as the tool to a respectful and clean break-up. Know yourself. Know your needs. And know the differences you can and can’t handle.   

Opposites will attract, and then they will attack—that's a guarantee. But for those who take the opportunity to learn to communicate with assertiveness, relationship differences can be used as instruments for personal growth and maturity, rather than destruction and despair. 

Debra Fileta is a licensed professional counselor specializing in relationship and marital issues. She, her husband and their daughter live in Hershey, Pa. She is currently writing her first book on dating and finding true love. Visit her blog at www.debslessonslearned.blogspot.com.

15 Comments

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Sheeroh commented…

"How many drugs do you take a day, on average?" That's hilarious!

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Debra K. Fileta commented…

Yes, actually! "Your Perfect Right" is an awesome, practical, and insightful book about assertiveness. I use it as one of the text in the Interpersonal Communications class I teach. You'll get a lot out of it.

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Naemcwilliams commented…

Faith, core values, ambitions, to have or not to have and how to discipline children, backgound... these types of things it is imparitive to have in common. Unified level and grounded foundations always make for sturdier houses.

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Anonymous commented…

I will be sharing this article with as many people as I can.

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Anonymous commented…

Excellent article and description of the three basic communication styles. Remember, practicing assertive communication is scary and facing that fear is a skill well-worth the investment in time and energy. If one's partner does not receive assertive communication well, then there is a chance that person is not ready to talk through differences. Be honest up-front before those "differences" are built up into assumptions about the other person. Ask the hard questions, there's no excuse not to and it can be really fun to find out more about someone else's story.

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