Core Differences in Ways of Maintaining Emotional Stability (If you have a male partner)
(Legitimately Different Ways of Navigating Life)
By Brent J. Atkinson, Ph.D.
Copyright to Brent J. Atkinson, All Rights Reserved
A hallmark of people who are good at getting their partners to treat them well is that they know that when they get upset with their partners, it doesn’t necessarily mean that their partners have done something wrong. They realize that there are many different ways of prioritizing things that can work in relationships. People who are less effective in their relationships don’t realize this. When their priorities or preferences are different than their partners, more often they believe that theirs are right and their partners are wrong. This is especially true when partner’s nervous systems are wired so that the very same conditions that make one partner feel calm and stable makes the other partner feel anxious and unstable. It’s one thing for your partner’s behavior to be annoying. It’s another thing for your partner to behave in a way that threatens your sense of stability, but this is inevitable if you and your partner have nervous systems that are calmed by radically different conditions. If your partner’s way of maintaining emotional stability threatens your sense of stability, it’s almost natural to think that he’s doing something wrong. But studies suggest that most of the time when partner get upset with each other, neither partner’s priorities or expectations are out of line. Each partner tends to prioritize things in ways that are calming to his or his nervous system. In our investigations in the past decade, we’ve found five specific differences in nervous system wiring that most often result in partners becoming critical of each other. Let’s go through them one at a time.
Independence First vs. Togetherness
First The first difference in nervous system wiring involves the extent that you feel calmed or stabilized more though operating by yourself, or through interaction with other people. If your nervous system is stabilized more through independent activity, you’ll need solitary activity and you might feel anxious if you don’t get enough alone time. We’ll call your type of nervous system wiring “independence-first.” If your nervous system is stabilized more through togetherness, you need more interaction with other people; you might get anxious if you don’t have ready access to your partner. We’ll call this your type of nervous system wiring “togetherness-first.”
Some of the most rigid gridlocks we have seen in our work with couples involve the different ideas that people have about who should be responsible for whose needs. If your nervous system stabilizes most readily through togetherness, you probably like the idea of having a relationship where both you and your partner take on the task of anticipating each other’s needs and helping each other shoulder life’s demands, whenever possible. You probably offer to help your partner without being asked.
But if you’re an a person whose nervous system stabilizes most readily through independent activity, you probably prefer that you and your partner each assume responsibility for taking care of your own tasks and burdens. You probably don’t like having to guess what your partner wants or needs, and you might have even said on occasion, “Look, if you want something, just ask for it. Please don’t expect me to read your mind.” If you’re in a time crunch, or you’re tired, you might be especially annoyed if your partner expects help from you. You want your partner to take care of his own tasks, just like you take care of yours. It’s likely that you don’t ask for support or help nearly as often as your partner does, and for this reason, you might feel somewhat burdened by him or even resentful. You want a relationship where each of you carries your own weight. You might think that your partner is being too dependent or needy, or even lazy.
But if you’re a person who’s wired more for togetherness, you’ll be offended by the implication that you’re overly dependent, or that your expectations are too high. In your way of thinking, mutual dependency is healthy. In fact, to you it might seem barbaric to go through life mostly thinking about yourself. You want a relationship where your partner cares enough about you to volunteer to take your needs into consideration without you having to ask. If your partner stabilizes more through operating independently, it might seem like he is selfish or self-centered, and you might have even found yourself thinking or saying things like, “You never think about anybody but yourself!” or “You live in your own little world!” But if you’re a person who is more wired for independence and you have a more togetherness oriented partner, it will probably seem like he is the one who’s selfish, by constantly requiring attention, or wanting you to do things he could easily do for himself. It might seem like your partner is trying to make you responsible for his happiness.
Invest in the Future First vs. Live For the Moment First
A second way that you and your partner’s nervous systems may be wired differently has to do with the degree that you feel calmer and less anxious when you invest in the future, or if you feel less anxious when you set things up to enjoy life along the way. Some people just feel better when they work first, and then play later. Other people feel better when they combine work and play. If you’re one of the latter kind of people you tend to reason that there’s always more work to do, and if you wait to enjoy life until all the work is done, you might miss some of the best parts of life. You’ll probably gravitate toward a career that allows you to mix the things you love to do with your job requirements.
But if you feel calmer when you work first, then play later, you probably don’t have the same requirement that work be mixed with enjoyable activities. For you, work is work; it doesn’t have to be fun. It’s just something that you have to do -- like it or not. In fact, you probably find it sort of difficult to relax and enjoy yourself if important tasks are looming overhead. You feel more stable when you stay on top of your responsibilities.
If you and your partner are different in this area, you probably have different ideas about how an ideal relationship should be. If you’re an invest-in-the-future-first person, you dream of a relationship where you and your partner both work hard, making sacrifices in the present for the sake of a more secure future, when you guys can relax together. One of your biggest fears is that life will become unstable because important responsibilities go unmet while you’re enjoying the present moment. But if you’re a person who needs to mix work and play, you probably dream of a relationship where your partner will be less preoccupied and more relaxed, taking life at a leisurely, enjoyable pace, not forever putting off the good parts of life until later. One of your greatest worries is that life will pass you guys by while you’re preoccupied with meaningless, monotonous routine.
Obviously, if you and your partner are wired differently in the ways I’m describing here, you’ll be set up for some potential frustration. If you’re not able to see your partner’s way of doing things as being as legitimate as your own, you’ll be on a slippery slope toward trouble. If you’re beginning to see your partner as someone who’s childish, or irresponsible, or incapable of delaying gratification, you may be an Invest in the future-first type person who has lost perspective on the fact that different people have legitimately different standards on the question of how much gratification should be delayed. On the other hand, if you see your partner as a boring, preoccupied stick-in-the-mud who is neurotically preoccupied with controlling a future that impossible to control anyway, you’re probably a mix work and play type person who has gotten out of hand with your attitude.
The fact is, there’s no evidence that one of these orientations works better in relationships than the other. If you’re an Invest-in-the-future-first type person, you probably find it hard to believe that two live-for-the-moment-first people could survive in a relationship together. But they do… all the time, as do invest-in-the-future-first people who are paired together. Actually, most people have both orientations in them. It’s just a matter of how much. Mix-work-and-enjoyment type people are also quite interested in investing in the future, just not as much as invest-in-the-future-first people.
Sometimes, partners who are mismatched in this dimension become more extreme in reaction to each other. If they were living alone, they’d be much more balanced. For example, if you’re a person who needs to mix work and enjoyment and you have a partner who wants to work first, then enjoy later, your partner might have trouble relaxing and enjoying life along the way partly because it seems that you are always wanting him to live for the moment. And if you’re a work-first, enjoy-later type person and have a mix-work-and-enjoyment type partner, he might always be pushing for having more fun now because it seems to him like if he doesn’t push, you’ll never want to relax and just enjoy life.
The fact is, there’s an upside and a downside to both of these orientations. People who have a higher requirement for enjoying each moment may have a better time along the way but run the risk of ending up in less-than-optimal circumstances. People who work hard and postpone enjoying life may build a more secure future but be less able to enjoy it when it comes, because they tend to always be occupied with what comes next. People who succeed in relationships respect the legitimacy of their partner’s orientation, and simply ask their partners to try to stretch themselves enough to meet in the middle, and they try to do the same.
Predictability-First vs. Spontaneity-First
Another difference in nervous system wiring that often underlies relationship gridlocks involves the level of predictability or structure you need in order to function best. If your nervous system is calmed by predictability, you do best when you’re able to organize your life so that you can know what to expect. You like to have all your ducks in a row. You prepare for life’s challenges, leaving little to chance. This level of structure will actually make many other people feel anxious. If you’re one of these other people you may have a nervous system that craves novelty and variety. If your nervous system is wired this way, you’ll become restless or anxious if things become too routine. You thrive on the unexpected; and you specialize in improvising with life’s unpredictable turns. You want your partner to be a co-adventurer with you…a cohort in a wide open exploration of life. You’re probably more of a risk-taker, and you enjoy not knowing what to expect next. You may actually like the feeling of not being in control, and you love it when life surprises you. Monotonous routine can trigger a sense of claustrophobic-type panic in you. But if you’re a person who needs more predictability, the more your partner pushes for an unplanned, spontaneous lifestyle, the more anxious you get, because your nervous system gets calmer when you know what to expect.
Many couples become gridlocked when dealing with these differences. If you’re a person who feels better with predictability and you have a more spontaneous partner, it might seem to you that your partner is not delightfully spontaneous, but just plain irresponsible! For you, some things seem just basic. You might be heard saying things
Of course, people who prefer predictability aren’t the only ones who can be critical of their partners. If you prefer spontaneity and you have a more structured partner, you might think he’s boring and too scared to loosen up and enjoy life. But fact is, again, there are pros and cons with each of these types of nervous system wirings. Most people just feel that the pros of their own temperaments outweigh the cons. The problem comes only when they expect their partners to act accordingly, rather than trying to meet their partners halfway.
Slow to Upset vs. Readily Upset
A fourth difference involves how your nervous system reacts to things you don’t like. Some people have internal mechanisms that generate upset feelings quickly and intensely while other people have mechanisms that dampen upset feelings as soon as they happen. If your nervous system is wired to diffuse upset feelings, you probably pride yourself in your ability to let frustrations roll off your back, and in your ability to avoid making a big deal of it when things don’t go the way you want. You probably believe that the world would be a better place if everybody were more accepting of the fact that life can’t always go according to plan, and if people didn’t get so bent out of shape when things didn’t go their way. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re always willing to “go with the flow.” In fact, you might be a powerful agent of change and feel that the secret to your success is precisely in your ability to remain calm. On the other hand, if you’re a person whose nervous system generates upset feelings quickly and intensely, you create change in almost opposite ways. Your emotional intensity may be the primary vehicle for change. Your upset feelings provide internal motivation, and also they motivate others to take notice.
If you’re more of a readily-upset type person, you probably tend to value justice and quality over peace and harmony. If a situation doesn’t seem fair to you, or if something seems sub-standard in some way, you have no problem shaking things up and creating the impetus toward change. You don’t mind “rocking the boat” and you’re probably comfortable with conflict. For you, anger is a normal and necessary part of life.
But if you’re more of a slow-to-upset type person, you get anxious when anger or tension is in the air. You tend to value having peace and harmony more than being “right.” Even if something doesn’t seem fair to you, you might give in to keep the peace. You might feel that it’s just not worth the hassle of the turmoil that might follow if you assert yourself. You tend to live by the motto, “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” a philosophy that actually isn’t relevant to readily-upset people, because they can get upset without even breaking a sweat! If you’re more of a readily-upset type person, getting upset simply isn’t that big of a deal to you, and you probably have the ability to maintain an inner calm while appearing outwardly upset. In fact, expressing upset feelings may actually be calming to you.
The dreams and fears of people who are readily-upset and slow-to-upset are different. If you’re more of a readily-upset type person, above all, you want a partner who’ll accept influence from you. Your biggest fear is that your partner might want you stifle your feelings, bite your tongue, never rock the boat and pretend everything is OK. If you’re a slow-to-upset type person, your dreams and fears are different. You probably dream of a relationship where you and your partner are accepting of each other’s differences and don’t freak out every time the other person fails to meet your expectations. Your fear is that if you were to become more like your readily-upset partner, life would be a never-ending series of upsets.
If you’re a slow-to-upset type person and you have a more readily upset type partner, you may become very critical, seeing your partner as being like a child who throws temper tantrums if he doesn’t get his own way. You might be heard saying things like, “Do you have to get upset over every little thing I do?” or “You make a mountain out of a molehill!” You might see your partner as a negative, unhappy person for whom “nothing is ever good enough.”
If you’re a more readily-upset type person, you can be equally critical if you have a more slow-to-upset type partner. You might accuse him of covering up his true feelings to avoid conflicts. You might think he’s afraid of his emotions, and you might have trouble respecting her, because he seems wimpy, and won’t stand up and fight.
If you and your partner are wired differently, it might be hard for each of you to conceive that the other’s way of handling upsets is as legitimate as your own, but evidence suggests that neither way is better or worse. Two readily-set people often do fine in their relationships, because they know how to take each other. Being upset isn’t that big of a deal for either of them. But two slow-to-upset people can do just fine, too. Mismatches are the most difficult. But as we’ve discussed before, the nervous systems of most people in long term relationships are mismatched to a degree, and many of them have great relationships. So if you’re mismatched, how do you mange it? Rather than trying to change your partner, try to develop the ability to better tolerate his style, and ask him to do the same.
Problem-solving-first vs. Understanding-first
Even people whose nervous systems are wired to dampen upset feelings eventually get upset, at least sometimes. So once you’re upset, what does it take for you to feel better? Some people feel better mostly by making a plan for how to change things. We’ll call these people, problem-solving-first people. Other people feel better by getting somebody else to understand how they feel. We’ll call these people “understanding-first” people. If you’re a problem-solving-first type person, you don’t see much value in dwelling on negative feelings, regardless of whether the feelings are your own or your partners’. You probably see a lot of wisdom in the phrase, “There’s no sense in crying over spilled milk.” If you can’t do something about the upsetting conditions, you often feel better by making a plan that you can later put into action. Once you’ve done all you can about an upsetting situation, you probably try to detach from negative feelings by focusing on other things. You probably don’t spend much time looking for sympathy or validation when you feel bad. Instead, you look for more concrete forms of action on the part of your partner.
If you’re an understanding-first type person, you may be almost opposite in this way. You know that your uncomfortable feelings can be soothed by your partner in ways that won’t cost him a thing… he doesn’t have to solve any problems; he doesn’t have to change any life circumstances… all you need is a little understanding. You know you can feel better almost instantly if your partner can just give a little understanding and support, and it’s hard to imagine what could possibly be so hard for him to give it sometimes. It’s not that you aren’t interested in changing the conditions that make you feel upset. For you, it’s a matter of timing. Understanding and validation come first; formulating a plan of action comes second.
Problem-solving-first people and understanding-first people can become very critical of each other, because their ways handling upset feelings are in direct conflict. If you’re a problem-solving-first type person, it may seem like your partner just wants to complain and complain, but never do anything to make things better. It might even seem like your partner wants to be upset, and loves wallowing in misery! This is not likely true. Understanding-first people often resist their partner’s efforts to solve the problem and move on because at the moment, they’re looking for understanding, not solutions. It’s all about timing. Usually, they can easily shift to problem solving mode once they feel understood.
If you’re a problem solving first type person, you probably think that mutual understanding is nice, but not necessary in order to function well as a unit. The way you look at it, people could spend years trying to understand each other and still be no closer to working solutions to life’s problems. But if you’re an understanding-first type person, you probably feel that the one of the most important things about having an intimate relationship is the feeling that comes from being really understood. You might think that problem solving is fine for business partners, but intimate partners should be invested in each other enough to keep engaged in discussion to the point where they really feel understood.
Exactly what kinds of understanding are understanding-first type people trying to get? If you’re a problem-solving-first type person and your partner is an understanding-first type person, it might at least sometimes feel to you that the only kind of understanding that will satisfy your partner is the understanding that he is completely right and the person that he is upset with (which may be you) is completely wrong! It may seem to you that if you don’t agree with her, there’s no way he will feel understood. It’ll seem like the only way you can satisfy him is if you basically lie and say you think his feelings are 100% justified and inevitable in the sense that any and every person on earth would feel the way that your partner does if they were in his shoes. If you can’t honestly say this, you might just throw up your hands and give up, concluding that your partner is impossible. In other words, you might not offer any understanding or validation. Listen closely here. If your partner is an understanding first type person, what he needs is just for you to find his feelings at least partly understandable. There’s a big difference between seeing your partner’s viewpoint as valid, but still liking your own logic better, and seeing no merit in his viewpoint. Your partner needs you to see his feelings and interpretations as valid – like he’s not crazy for having them, and that other people very well might feel the same way if they were in his shoes. That doesn’t mean that everybody would feel the same way, it just means that his feelings are potentially valid. The mistake of many problem-solving first type people is that they tend to go sort of black and white. Because they’re good problem solvers, they have confidence in their solutions, and they sometimes forget that there are usually many potentially valid solutions to most situations. They may not only disagree with their partners feelings or opinions, they might also cross the line and conclude that their partners feelings or interpretations are misguided. Actually, it’s not even the conclusion that your partner’s interpretations are misguided that’ll get you into trouble so much… it’s the level of certainty you have about your conclusion, and your lack of an open mind about the possibility that you could be wrong and your partner could be right about his take on things.
You might be worried that if you give an inch of understanding, your partner will want to take a mile. You don’t want to feed into what seems like your partner’s tendency to dwell on negative feelings. If your partner seems to get stuck on negative feelings, you may not realize that it’s likely that this happens, at least in part because you’re not very good at giving even a little bit of emotional support. Things often change dramatically when understanding-first people experience a few moments of full-blown, no holding back support and understanding from their partners. Many problem-solving-first type people are amazed to see how willing their understanding-first partners are to shift into problem-solving after a few minutes of serious support and understanding.
But let’s flip it around for a minute. If you’re an understanding-first type person and your partner is a problem solving first type, you would do well to explicitly clarify for him that you’re not looking for him to just agree with whatever you feel. You’re just looking for him to see your feelings as at least partly valid, or understandable. Unless you make this clear, you’ll have a hard time getting any understanding from her. But there’s something more important you need to realize. You need to understand that there’s nothing wrong with your partner’s desire to detach from negative feelings. To you, I’ll seem like he’ sweeping things under the rug, or putting on rose colored glasses and pretending everything is OK. But not everybody needs to discuss their feelings as much as you do. If you take the attitude that there’s something wrong with your partner for wanting to move on and figure out what to do, he will have a much harder time giving you some understanding or validation.
Problem-solving-first and understanding-first people are wired so differently that it’s really hard for them to conceive that there may be legitimacy in the other’s way of operating, but people who succeed in their relationships are intelligent enough to keep an open mind. Rather than judging their partners, they each stretch their comfort zones a bit and try and meet in the middle.
Concluding Comments on Core Differences
The differences I’ve been describing so far aren’t the only ones that are can be difficult for couples to navigate. They’re only some of the most common ones. Another common difference involves how quickly people make decisions. Some people feel best when they make decisions fairly quickly, not wasting a lot of time deliberating. Other people feel better when they take their time and consider all of the possible options very thoroughly. There are pros and cons with each style. Quick-decision people often cover more ground. They make decisions and then throw themselves into courses of action and can be halfway to accomplishing goals goal in the period of time it takes slower-decision-making people to just make up their minds. But, if the decision made is flawed, this person could be wasting time running down the wrong road. A more thoughtful decision-maker might actually save time by taking more time making a well-thought out decision. The point is that neither style of decision-making works better or worse in relationships. People gravitate toward styles of decision-making that somehow make them feel better, and minimize anxiety.
Differences in nervous system wiring are so difficult to work with because each partner’s way of maintaining emotional stability interferes with the other’s way. It isn’t just inconvenient that your partner has a different coping style. His natural way of navigating life messes with yours! Its no wonder that you might feel that your partner’s behavior is wrong. It’s normal for you to view his behavior from within your own framework. But if you’re smart, you’ll learn to keep perspective. Usually, when you feel that your partner’s way of prioritizing or going about doing things is wrong, it really isn’t. It’s just different.
This doesn’t mean that you should just back off and let your partner do whatever he wants. Of course, he has just as much right to ask you to stretch yourself as you do to ask her. No, you should ask your partner to try to expand his comfort zone --– not because he’s doing things wrong. Rather, because he’s in a relationship with you and your expectations are just as important and legitimate as his. This isn’t easy, because each of you has to literally expand your ability to tolerate stress. If you’re a predictability-first person, it’s stressful to endure clutter or disorganization, and if you’re a spontaneity-first person it’s stressful to have to live life in a more structured way. And there’s no reason why either of you should have to change other than you’re in a relationship with someone whose wired differently. On the other hand, it wouldn’t hurt either of you to become more flexible. In fact, this is usually what happens in successful relationships. People become more balanced and flexible in their coping styles over time.