A relationship therapist says too many couples make a mistake early on that can lead to major conflict down the road
- Rachel Sussman is a relationship expert and marriage counselor in New York City.
- She sees many couples who are struggling with differences in their personalities and values.
- Sussman said that opposites may attract initially, but over time it may become more of a problem.
The beginning stages of a relationship are all about guesswork: Is she into me? Was that a flirtatious text, or just a friendly one? Is he still seeing other people?
As the relationship progresses, the guesswork continues, but in a slightly different capacity: Will she still be into me in 20 years? Will I still be into her? And those type of questions are a lot harder to answer.So hard to answer, in fact, that many couples guess wrong and wind up seeking out professional help for their problems. Some of those couples land in Rachel Sussman's office.
Sussman, a relationship therapist and marriage counselor in New York City, told me that opposites may attract initially - but over time, too much difference can start to wear on a romantic bond. She said:
"Oftentimes the problems that you start to have early on when you're dating that you might not pay attention to, or you might brush them under the rug or say, 'Oh, that's not so bad; we'll get through that,' then add 10 years of marriage into that, and all of a sudden all those things that were bothering you when you were dating seem to be major deal breakers … where you are considering: Do you want to go forward? Do you still want to be with this person?"
She added: "The way I see it is, opposites attract and with the passage of time, a lot of couples tend to resent the things that are opposite."
Sussman used a hypothetical example of a couple in which one partner is highly social and outgoing and the other is more of a homebody. Initially those tendencies might complement each other, Sussman said; the couple might even say, "we balance each other out."
The problem is, Sussman said, over time "people get more set in their ways" and there's less opportunity for compromise or mutual understanding.
Pay attention to the differences between you and your partner, even when you first start datingSussman's observations echo those of Gretchen Rubin, an expert on happiness and habits and the author of, most recently, "The Four Tendencies." When Rubin visited the Business Insider office in September, she explained that people with opposite personalities may initially gravitate toward each other, only to clash later on.
Research on the importance of having similar personalities in a romantic relationship is mixed. One study, for example, of middle-aged and older couples, found that while personality similarity wasn't related to initial marital satisfaction, it predicted a downward trend in marital satisfaction over the next decade.
I asked Sussman if most couples who come to her because of clashes in personality or habits are aware that that's what they're fighting about - if they're aware that the very behaviors that drive them mad today are the same ones that drew them closer a decade earlier.
"Sometimes yes; sometimes no," she said. Sometimes she'll point it out herself and one partner will say, "Yeah, but it's gotten worse over time," while the other partner says, "No, it hasn't."
As is typically the case with romantic relationships, there are no definitive answers or solutions here. But perhaps the greatest takeaway is not to ignore or shrug off your differences, as Sussman said so many couples do. It's not necessarily a sign that you're doomed to divorce, but it's worth paying attention to and having a conversation about.