The Key in a Marriage

I am privileged in my job to have authentic discussions with many people.

Recently, an entrepreneur mentioned how difficult his marriage has been. He thought a separation would be best. He has been married over 20 years and is finding it difficult to persevere. He and his wife are in a state of “gridlock” (about which I’ve written previously here).

I paused and then asked: “Have you heard about ‘Differentiation’?”

“No, what’s that?”

“That you very much want to be with your spouse but, at the same time, you don’t need to be.”

I know this sounds odd, but let me explain. Former Harvard Prof. Tal Ben-Shahar has written extensively about this. Differentiation is about being your own person and not relying on others to boost your self-worth.

Validation and affirmation from others are good, but if those are your biggest drivers, you’ll have an unstable sense of self. Sometimes the crowd cheers for you, and other times, it is silent.

IMO, a version of this dynamic exists in every long-term human relationship. It will exist with your VCs or co-founders in a start-up, if you stay together long enough. In this post, I will focus on marriage, as Gridlock tends to be unique in that type of relationship (more on that below).

So, if your life revolves around what your partner thinks about you, you’re bound to be disappointed. This particularly happens when children arrive, and usually, the children’s needs become to your spouse more important than yours. If you take this personally all the time, I suspect your marriage will deteriorate in your mind.

There’s more.

For example, your life partner is not there to make up for any poor parenting you experienced. Your spouse is not there to be your cheering section at all times. Your partner has his/her own needs and agenda. It is impossible to be fully aligned at all times.

Differentiation talks about very much desiring your life partner and wanting to be with him or her. Wanting to share the joys and trials of life. But, being your own person and developing an ability to soothe yourself vs. always running to your spouse when you’re troubled.

It would be way too difficult for one partner to constantly emotionally uphold the other. That’s not a partnership. That’s a form of parenting.

Now, a state of Gridlock will happen in every marriage. It is the byproduct of time. Through a process of elimination, all other controversial issues are resolved, except for one. That becomes the Gridlock issue. Neither person feels compromise is possible without violating one’s own integrity. You’re at odds with one another.

What tends to cause Gridlock? Money, sex, in-laws and parenting styles are the Big 4. You may see these in your own marriage or in your parents’.

The good news is that Gridlock forces you towards Differentiation. It forces you to really grow and mature. As each spouse evolves, their relationship actually becomes more stable and filled with more desire. That’s because there’s more mutual respect. It’s hard to love consistently someone whom you don’t respect.

And, when Differentiation happens, you have more authentic discussions. You can give each other more feedback more quickly. When you’re more secure as a person, you can take more risks and share more love with your life partner.

So, if you’re in a state of Gridlock with someone, don’t feel so bad. As I told my friend: “Gridlock is natural. Doesn’t mean she or you is bad or has failed. In fact, it is something you and she have co-created. It is custom-made by you both, for you both. Don’t be so hard on her or yourself.”

It is Sunday. So, I want to close with this. Many spiritual people believe that three persons are required in a marriage: you, your spouse and God. You ask for God’s help as you and your spouse co-create a life together.

Marriage is filled with tremendous joys, but also, deep struggles. It makes you a better person. It is incredibly rewarding.

Just a thought, as some of us prep for Passover or Easter.


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