Celebrating our differences

Handling and capitalizing upon the differences in the clergy couple.

Ron and Karen Flowers direct the worldwide Family Ministries of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

A healthy marriage is really a blending of two foreign cultures even if the couple belong to the same ethnic group or have grown up on the same street. So says noted family therapist Carl Whitaker.

Nations, tribes, cities, villages, churches, and families have often learned the hard way that the manner in which we deal with our differences determines the quality the peace, prosperity, and progress of life in community. This is especially true of the intimate relationship of marriage.

Personal differences loomed large in our relationship from the start. I (Karen) admired Ron's organizational ability. I hadn't counted on his having such great difficulty understanding how I can lose things my keys, glasses, or my car in a parking lot. I was also duly impressed by how much this man could get done. However, I had no idea in the beginning that 1 would be caught up in his whirlwind.

I (Ron) admired the care Karen takes in her personal appearance, but I had no idea how long it would take every day for her to look so beautiful! I appreciated her creativity and her continuing quest for information. What I didn't realize was that we'd be constantly buying more books than we can read and, worse, revising presentation notes just minutes before we stood up together to preach or teach! I was attracted to her communicativeness and openness, but I didn't know that she would knock so incessantly on the closed doors of a past that I wanted to forget and really hadn't planned on opening to anyone.

We can readily admit to, even laugh at, some of our differences. But these few sit atop a vast iceberg of diversity. According to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator research, only about five per cent of all married couples exhibit differences as extensive as ours. Facing our differences and working through the issues they create have been among our most significant marital challenges.

Major sources of differences

Gender. John Gray, author of the popular book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus,1 has accurately described male-female differences.While we're not sure how traceable all the characteristics he spotlights are to gender alone, tests like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator do give credence to the idea that some differences seem to be primarily gender-related. Among a large sample tested in several cultural groups, more men reached conclusions through logical analysis, while more women made decisions based on their internalized values. More women were concerned about how an action or decision will affect people, while more men focused on the objective reasons why such an action must be taken or decision made. More men found satisfaction in a job well done; more women expressed satisfaction in meeting the needs of people. Understanding that there are some gender-based differences high lights the importance of dialogue be tween husband and wife.

Temperament. Opposites frequently attract. A quiet introvert may be enamored with an effervescent extrovert, while an extrovert may be intrigued by the unagitated tranquility of the introvert. The two may clash, however, over how to spend an evening. While the introvert finds refuge from a hectic day in a quiet evening at home, the extrovert may want to party. Learning about temperaments can often help those who differ in this area to be more understanding of them selves and others.

Family background. My (Karen's) dad was a wonderful cook. Often, while my mother did other chores, he was busy in the kitchen, setting meals on the table whenever everybody could be rounded up. I (Ron) grew up in a home where my mother cared for all house work, including meals, which she rhythmically set out at 6 a.m., noon, and 6 p.m. My dad expected to sit down to the table on time and to find portions to his liking already served up on his plate. It's not hard to imagine the scenario that was waiting in the wings when we got married!

On our first full day at home after our honeymoon, I (Karen) was preoccupied with some project. About noon, Ron cleared his throat and reminded me what time it was. I thanked him for the time-check but had no idea what was actually on his mind. As 12:30 approached, he cleared his throat more forcefully and pointedly asked, "Isn't it time for lunch?" Unaware that it would create any stir, I indicated that I needed to finish what I was doing and that if he was hungry, there was plenty of food in the refrigerator. Well, I (Ron) survived even learned to cook. It took time and energy, however, to forge out the new realities of ourselves as a couple, learn new skills and develop habits and routines that incorporated our individual interests and talents.

The challenge of differences

During that earlier period of marriage, which David Augsburger in Sustaining Love2 calls the "dream" phase, couples tend to deny and attempt to ignore their differences. However, as time passes, differences often begin to create friction and irritation. It is not unusual for one partner to try to change the other in an attempt to eliminate or minimize the discomfort. Without a way to man age differentness, disagreements arise. These disagreements can heat up into conflict and quite suddenly the couple becomes aware that the "dream" has given way to "disillusionment."

Unresolved conflict usually leads to resentment, bitterness, and alienation. Sometimes one partner capitulates to the other in a desperate gesture to secure peace. She or he may surrender his or her personality and will to the more dominant spouse. Many simply with draw from each other's lives. Still others escape the relationship through separation or divorce. Many search for someone else who they dream will be more compatible. To a lesser or greater extent, in every marriage "dream" eventually gives way to "disillusionment." But there is a path through "disillusionment" that leads to the delights of discovery, growth, and deeper intimacy in marriage.

A Christian approach to differences

At the heart of the matter is the fact that Christ has already dealt with differences. The gospel expressly attends to the gulfs which have separated God from human beings and human beings from each other. In Christ, God has reconciled the world to Himself (2 Cor. 5:18). In Galatians 3:28 and Ephesians 2:13-22, Paul catalogs differences in the macrospheres that have divided the human race over time: religious, ethnic, cultural, tribal, and national differences; political, societal, and economic differences; as well as gender differences. Had Paul chosen to do so, he might have extended his list to include differences in the microspheres of family origin, health, habits, age, education, temperament, birth order, physical stature, and appearance. The point is that God, through Christ, has reconciled all kinds of people to one another.

Paul's argument in Ephesians 2:13- 22 can be extended beyond the Jew-Gentile differences he cites, to address the divergence that threatens every friendship and intimate relationship. Notice that the bringing together is, first of all, God's work. He has put us into Christ by His own divine act (1 Cor. 1:30). We have been reconciled in His "one body." The hostility between us died when He died. That is the objective spiritual fact upon which the apostle can say that there is now "one" where once there were "two." There is now "peace" where there was "hostility." By virtue of His cross, barriers which separate people from each other have been removed (Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:16). Paul goes so far as to say that Christ is our peace.

In Alfred Wallace's classic film, The Toymaker, two hand puppets are playing happily. Unable to see their own faces, they think they look alike. They do not realize that one's face is spotted, the other's striped. In time the truth comes out. They confirm it with a mirror, and then distance themselves from each other, eventually becoming distrustful and violent toward each other because they are "different." In turn, they each climb the arm of the puppeteer to seek an alliance with him against the one who used to be their friend. The Toymaker ex plains, "I made you both, and I love you both. I couldn't take sides against either of you. After all, you are both the same thing." When they disagree with the toymaker's view of their situation, he moves first one, then the other up his arm, across his chest and down his other arm to discover the other puppet. Despite this demonstration, they continue their warfare but become increasingly anguished within themselves. At the climactic moment of the film they lay down their weapons. Stripe says, "Hey, Spot! We're all one thing! You, me, and the Toymaker!" To which Spot starts to re ply, "Then, when you hit me it hurts you, because...." Stripe finishes the sentence, "because I'm really hurting part of my self." Their sense of connection through the Toymaker's body has brought peace at last.

Steps in dealing with differences

Whitaker describes the healthy process of dealing with differences in day-to-day living: "The capacity to deal with differences is one development that greatly stabilizes and enhances the quality of the marriage. When differences are viewed as inherently bad or as something to be eliminated, they cause schism, evoke defensiveness, and lead to estrangement. However, when differences can be viewed as representing opportunities to grow, they become valuable. Our differences are what allow us to expand. The capacity to really engage in a bilateral process of mutual contamination is central to a dynamic, rather than static relationship. As we rub off on each other, we are enriched. The steps involved in getting to the point of using differences productively go from acknowledging to accepting to respecting to enjoying and, finally, to treasuring them."3

Acknowledgment and acceptance. It was helpful to us to stumble upon Ellen White's comment: "We differ so widely in disposition, habits, education, that our ways of looking at things vary. We judge differently. Our understanding of truth, our ideas in regard to the con duct of life, are not in all respects the same. There are no two whose experience is alike in every particular. The trials of one are not the trials of another. The duties that one finds light are to another most difficult and perplexing."4

Differences exist. While some of us would like to make all the rest of the world into our image, a more mature approach to healthy relationships will acknowledge and accept differences.

We should note here that the differences of which we speak are within the normal range of a given population. Attitudes and behaviors that threaten the health and well-being of family members and of the family as a unit are outside of this range and require consultation with professionals with specialized training. Persons who abuse, or in other ways put the family at risk, are most likely to change their behavior when spouses and family members are helped to establish protective boundaries that prevent themselves being further mistreated.

Respect for the rights of others

Acknowledgment and acceptance must give way to respect. Differences provide opportunities for us to stretch and grow. In Paul's words, "Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others" (Phil. 2:4), Ellen White writes: "Marked diversities of disposition and character frequently exist in the same family, for it is in the order of God that persons of varied temperament should associate together. When this is the case, each member of the household should sacredly regard the feelings and respect the right of the others. By this means mutual consideration and forbearance will be cultivated, prejudices will be softened, and rough points of character smoothed. Harmony may be secured, and the blending of the varied temperaments may be a benefit to each."5

Healing hurts. Sometimes we will be able to simply overlook differences. At other times verbalizing our concerns will be sufficient to secure needed changes by our partner. But there will be times when the hurt runs deep, and the only healing balm is forgiveness. It is then that we can rejoice in the good news that God has forgiven us beyond measure. The gospel calls us to offer that same gift to one another. Forgiveness is painful, costly, and hard. Scars may re main. Memories may arise from time to time to plague us both, but in the strength of God's love and our covenantal commitment to each other, we can plunge further into the process. As we enter into one another's pain and seek to understand the hurt we have inflicted, as we seek to make restitution in every way we can, we will gradually work our way through the hurt and hate toward the release which forgiveness alone brings in.

Focusing on complementarity

The character and personality traits of one, more often than not, complement those of the other. It is a measure of growth in marriage to sense that God has brought us together in a marriage partnership and that the characteristics each brings are the tools He has provided to successfully engage our marriages in some grand mission for Him. Our common love for Him helps us work through day-to-day difficulties that our differences will undoubtedly continue to spawn in our relationships. The love and value He has placed on each one adjusts the lenses through which we view each other. When we re main open to what Whitaker calls "mutual contamination," differentness may even broaden our appreciation for a spectrum of traits and interests well beyond our own narrow sphere. And across a lifetime of togetherness, in the strength of the growth the Holy Spirit engenders, we can affirm, "Out of all the others I have chosen you, and I would do it again."

1 John Gray, Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus (New York: Harper Collins, 1992).

2 D. Augsburger, Sustaining Love (Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1988).

3 Carl A. Whitaker and W. M. Bumberry, Dancing With the Family: A Symbolic Experiential Approach (New York: Brunner/Mazel Publishers, 1988), 204, emphasis supplied.

4 Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers, (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1948), 473.

5 Ellen G. White, Child Guidance, (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1953), 205.

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Ron and Karen Flowers direct the worldwide Family Ministries of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

January 2000

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