How to Survive Incompatibility

Letter #1

Dear Dr. Harley,

My wife and I were married in December of 1995 after a very short 3 month dating relationship. This is a second marriage for both, I had been divorced for 2 years, she for4. I have two children (a girl 7, a boy 11), and she has one (a girl 6). We have all the normal challenges I have read about with second marriage "blended" families, etc.., which I think we are handling fairly well. However, we are really struggling with the issue of what I will call "conflicting independence". We both lived on our own, were independent and caring for our children alone.

Now we are really struggling with how to "merge" our lives, and defining our roles in our new family. In my time alone, I had to do the Man, Woman, Daddy, and Mommy chores. My wife had the same role. We learned to do it all. I find myself on a regular basis trying to decide who should be doing what, and it is causing real problems when we either both want to do it, or neither wants to do it. So my question is, what would your approach be to even begin a discussion on this issue?

Your assistance would be appreciated!


Dear D.R.,

What a great term: "conflicting independence." That pretty much sums up what I've always called marital incompatibility.

Having counseled for over 30 years now, I am convinced that marital compatibility is a problem of gigantic proportions in most marriages. Couples are usually most compatible the day of their marriage, and things go downhill from there. Why? Because, prior to marriage they make a great effort to become compatible. They try to understand each other's likes and dislikes and then try to accommodate those feelings. Then, they are usually willing to change their behavior to become more compatible. And it works so well that they decide to be together for life.

Trouble is, most couples stop trying to be compatible as soon as they're married. "Mission accomplished! We're married, so now I can set my sights on other objectives in life. My career, my children, my health, my . . ."

At first, one spouse is particularly hurt by each other's negligence. He or she feels that they are not the high priority that they used to be. Were they duped into marriage? Is this a trick? But after they have time to let it sink in, they figure that the "honeymoon's over" and the most mature thing to do is to become resigned to the obvious: Love just doesn't last.

So instead of doing something to improve compatibility, he or she makes their spouse less important, just as they felt their spouse made them less important. You can see what happens: A negative feedback loop. The more neglected you feel, the more neglectful you become. Eventually, you can't remember what you saw in each other. A sad story indeed!

There is one, and only one solution, as far as I'm concerned. It's my Policy of Joint Agreement (Never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse). With this one rule, you and your spouse put each other first in your lives, whether you feel like it or not. It's where you should have been all along. This rule, more than any other, creates compatibility. It eliminates everything that is good for one of you and bad for the other. In it's place, you create situations that are good for both of you, and they become your standard operating procedures.

Whatever you cannot agree upon defines an area of incompatibility. It needs to be replaced with a compatible alternative. And you'll find that each resolution solves a repeating problem. Your conflicts are not usually isolated--they revolve around an issue that comes up again and again. Once you find the answer, you sweep many future arguments out the door.

The only way you will be able to "merge" your lives is to follow the Policy of Joint Agreement. Everything you do should be predicated with the question, "How would you feel if I ..." If the answer is not an enthusiastic, "I'd feel fine," you don't do it. Pure and simple. Granted, you won't be "independent" anymore, you will be interdependent. There is simply no way you can merge your independent lifestyles. You must bite the bullet and recreate a lifestyle that take the feelings of both of you into account simultaneously.

At first, it may be very difficult to follow this policy, because you are in the habit of doing so many incompatible things. But if you follow it at all costs for a few weeks, you will find it easier and easier. You will also come to grips with the temptation of trying to gain at each other's expense. When one of you feels that it's okay to go ahead with plans even if the other person objects, you are simply saying, "I don't really care how you feel, I'm going to do it anyway because I'm willing to gain at your expense." As you wrestle with the issues of a blended family (most spouses put the feelings of their own children ahead of each other's feelings, which is a big mistake), give the Policy of Joint Agreement a shot. Personally, I think it's your only hope for a happy marriage.

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