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Dealing with differences

Simple tactics emerge from advice to reach mutual understanding and strengthen relationships, marriages

Simple tactics emerge from advice to reach mutual understanding and strengthen relationships, marriages

February 08, 2004|by KATE COLEMAN

katec@herald-mail.com

Men and woman are different, and that's one of the things that makes decades of marital success all the more impressive.

Connie and Art Richards of Hagerstown know it. They will celebrate their 34th wedding anniversary in less than two weeks, but those years of marriage have not been free of trouble. There have been bad times.

You have to work at marriage, Connie Richards says.

They have come to understand their differences, though, and it's the variations of personality as much as similarities that propel relationships. Much thought and many books have been devoted to dissecting differences between the sexes. There are support groups, advice columnists and therapists. It's a lot of information to sort through while spouses are living their lives and dealing with distractions.

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Art and Connie Richards may or may not have all the answers, but they have the experience of marriage. They are welcoming couples into their home for 12 two-hour sessions to help them understand and delight in their differences. As members of the American Association of Christian Counselors, they became involved in the marriage enrichment program through their church.

"There's a tremendous need," Connie Richards says, citing the high rate of divorce in the United States.

Fifty percent of first marriages end in divorce, says Patricia Love, a licensed marriage and family counselor in Austin, Texas. The rate is worse for second marriages - 67 percent.

The Richardses say they have been separated, but they have stayed married and are happier than ever before.

"We just started on a new walk together," Art Richards says.

It isn't going to work any better with anyone else, Connie Richards says. The grass may look greener on the other side of the fence, but you still have to mow it, she adds.

Art Richards grew up in a family in which love and affection were easily and openly expressed. His parents were married for 70 years.

"I'm a hugger," he says.

Connie Richards' upbringing was different.

"I was a very cold person," she says.

But one of the biggest things to help their marriage is simple.

"We take time to sit down and listen," Art Richards says.

You have to accept aggravations, Connie Richards acknowledges.

For years, she's turned on the light in the back yard and let their two little dogs out before bedtime.

She never remembers to turn the light off, Art Richards says. He's come to accept that particular aggravation, something that irritated him for years.

Irritation is not uncommon.

"It is true that opposites attract," Love says. "We tend to pick someone that has strengths that we don't have."

We tend to be attracted to people who both compliment and complement us, she adds.

But too often, the thing that attracts us can become a liability, says Love, who wrote "The Truth About Love: The Highs, the Lows, and How You Can Make It Last Forever."

After the glow of infatuation wears off, what attracts us to a partner can become annoying. You may be attracted to someone because he is a powerful person. That quality of power may later seem like control.

"Be careful what you ask for," Love says.

John Gray outlines basic male-female differences in "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus," his 1992 book that has sold 15 million copies and recently came out in paperback. To feel better, men like to go to their caves and be alone to solve problems, Gray writes. In contrast, to feel better, women get together and talk about their problems.

The Richardses subscribe to some of the ideas in Bill and Pam Farrel's 2001 book, "Men Are Like Waffles, Women Are Like Spaghetti." The book describes differences in the way men and women process life. It asserts that men's thinking is divided into boxes with room for one issue at a time. For women, issues and thoughts are interconnected - like a plate of noodles intersecting each other. The Farrels say that's why women are better than men at multitasking.

Love points out a structural difference in the male and female brain that may make multitasking more prevalent among women.

But multitasking is different - not better. Love says it's more exhausting to tackle so many things at once, and the person who is able to do more than one thing at a time may not be as effective or productive.

Understanding the differences - not judging that either way is better or right - is a way to avoid or work through trouble. Boys and men and girls and women form bonds in different ways - women by talking, men by doing things together, according to Deborah Tannen, Georgetown University Professor of Linguistics. Her 1991 book, "You Just Don't Understand," explores differences that lead to misunderstandings between the sexes.

A key to understanding and a successful marriage is a long engagement, Love says.

"You have to be with someone long enough to see the flip side," she explains. She's not talking about a formal, ring-on-your-finger engagement, but enough time - maybe two years - to see the potential spouse for better and for worse.

The Richardses' 12-week program will begin March 22 and costs $25 per person for materials. For more information, call 301-797-4478.

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