Managing Differences Is a Key Relationship Skill

Previously Published on Psychology Today



Did you know that at the heart of most couples' issues is the struggle to manage differences? Yep! Couples' issues present in all sorts of flavors and colors. But almost always, the underlying problem is the inability to manage their differences in a healthy way.

Being in a relationship means you connect with another person. There's no way to avoid having differences, no matter how similar you are. When you can accept your differences in a relationship, they lead to closeness. There's a sense of trust, acceptance and safety. When we can't, our differences lead to disconnection. The sense of safety isn't there, and that is painful. That's why learning to manage your differences with others is a key relational skill. Whether you are single and dating or in a long-term relationship, strengthening this skill is imperative.

The struggle to manage our differences with others can manifest as:

  1. Judging others. Judging the way they do things, judging who they are, how they think, where they are in life, what they look like, etc.

  2. Criticizing them. This could be direct criticism or advice that usually wasn't asked for.

  3. Lack of respect for them. Thinking, what's wrong with you?

  4. Believing they should do things the way you think they should be done. Not understanding why they would do things their way.

  5. Having expectations of others, and feeling repelled when they don't meet those expectations. Thinking others aren't good enough because they aren't who you think they should be.

  6. Feeling hurt or angry when they do things in a way you don't like (or don't understand). Believing they are dumb or that they don't respect you.

How can you respond to differences in a more relational and healthy way?


  1. Recognize that you want a healthy relationship, not a same-tionship. In other words, you're looking for a person to connect with, not a person to be exactly like you. You don't need a relationship if you want to be with yourself! You're going to need to accept the other person in their sameness AND in their differences.

  2. Take ownership of your judgments. Accept that your judgments of others are yours. It's not up to other people to accommodate them. Recognize when you have a judgmental thought. Remind yourself that it's your responsibility to let go of judgments. It's not their responsibility to be the way you want them to be.

  3. Your way is not the right way for anyone but YOU. You may like things to be a certain way. You may believe someone should be a certain way. But you are not God. You don't get to determine how someone else should do things. You don't get to dictate what the other person should be like to be good enough. All you have agency over is whether or not to be with them. If you want to be with them, you have to accept them. If you don't want to be with them because of your judgments, you may be pushing someone away for the wrong reasons.

  4. Things can be different without being better or worse; just different. Differences can be exciting! Differences can be interesting information about yourself and about the other person. Remember, you wouldn't want someone to judge you for the way you are, how you do things, where you are in life, past mistakes, etc.

  5. Keep the end goal in mind. You want a loving, trusting, lasting relationship, right? That means you're going to have to own your judgments. You're going to have to learn to be uncomfortable as you learn to allow for differences. And you're going to have to learn and strengthen new relational skills. It's hard at first. But trust me you won't regret it when you're in the relationship you long for.

  6. How is creating distance between you and others serving you? Are you protecting yourself from closeness? Fear of getting hurt? Fear of abandonment?

  7. Where did the beliefs you have about how people should be, come from? Do you agree with what you learned?

I wouldn't have been able to create a healthy relationship if I hadn't learned this and other important relational skills. I learned these skills while I was single, between relationships. However, I've taught these skills to people in long-term relationships as well as single people. Learning to be relational is imperative for everyone, regardless of your relationship status.


We aren't taught how to navigate differences, or how to communicate. We aren't taught about the behaviors that lead to distance and loneliness. We aren't taught how to build connection and trust. We aren't taught much of anything when it comes to relationships, despite the fact that the quality of our relationships directly impacts the quality of our lives.


That's the bad news. The good news is, we can all learn these skills now. It's never too late.


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