Relating to Difference In Relationships

Last weekend my husband and I had the opportunity to travel to the mountains in Southwest Virginia with some dear friends of ours to see a bluegrass concert at an outdoor venue that is in a limestone rock quarry.

There were food trucks, twinkly hanging lights, and summertime goodness vibes.

I’m a mountain girl myself, so having a weekend away for live music in the midst of nature’s beauty was divine.

Once the sun set and the bluegrass band really started thumping, we started to cheer ever more loudly in appreciation for their talent.

These were grammy-award winning musicians, and it showed.

What felt strange to us was the crowd at this particular venue were all sitting down throughout the entire performance, and only offering up a very polite, demure clap at the end of each song.

We wanted to move our body. It felt wrong to just sit there! And we wanted to scream loudly at the end of each song, hoot and holler and let them know how much we were enjoying the show and appreciated them sharing their gifts with us.

In our minds, having that sort of engagement with the audience would be fuel for them.

Probably about halfway through the show, an older gentleman turned his head around, sneered at us and said, “you know, there’s a concert going on”.

In other words, “shut up, would ya?!”

After that mini-confrontational moment, I couldn’t stop thinking about his choice of words: “there’s a concert going on”.

Myself and those in my group kept chatting about how, we know there’s a concert going on, and that’s the very reason we are being loud, yelling, and showing support for the band!

Us and this gentleman had two very different ideas, and obviously different values around, a concert going on.

This lived experience of mine felt like a perfect example to share with you all about the practice of learning how to relate to difference in our relationships.

The ability to relate to difference in our relationships requires our ability to tolerate paradox: that two seemingly opposite things can both be true.

You see, both the gentleman that sneered at us and we could both be right in our responses based on our own lived experiences, values, and perspectives.

It’s precisely our differences in these areas that allows us to both be right from our own vantage point.

For the older gentleman in front of us, it was the right thing for him to show respect to the artist by raptly paying attention to them, and quietly clapping between songs. To him this was respectful and appropriate.

And to our understanding and based on our views, it was the right thing to clap loudly, yell, and “get into it” to show how much we were enjoying ourselves and how much we appreciated their music.

And here’s the thing: neither of us were wrong.

Neither of us being wrong is the part that tends to trip people up. It’s easiest to default to the ego state of “someone has to be right, and someone has to be wrong”.

This is not saying that there is no objective truth whatsoever, but it is saying that in the vast majority of situations, each person paradoxically can be “right” from their own background and vantage point.

Instead of getting frustrated at their difference, how can we become *curious* about their perspectives, their lived experiences, their values, and what makes them think and behave that way, instead?

How can we try to understand them more?

How can we learn to tolerate this difference?

What does difference in relationship bring up for you somatically (in your body)? What do you notice? (tightness, closing down, constriction in your chest or abdomen, for example? Feelings of anger, a desire to control?)

Many of us shut down when we encounter difference in relationship for good reason: we were modeled that in order to maintain relationship with others, we had to be what they wanted us to be or be the same as them. In light of this, difference can feel downright threatening to our systems because it’s been associated with loss of relationship.

We can learn to not just tolerate difference (though maybe it starts there!), but to celebrate it.

In my experience, this starts with learning how to be with the body sensations that difference brings up for you, learn how to tolerate that a little at a time, and learning how to support your nervous system to come back into regulation as you are stretching into the initial discomfort of difference in your relationships.

By doing this, you get to build a new experience of maintaining relationship with someone despite your difference. This provides evidence to your brain and body that it is safe now to be in relationship with someone when there is difference.

Learning how to relate to difference is something that is not just important for our personal relationships, but also for our larger communities and for the healing of our world.

What’s your experience with navigating difference in your relationships? Leave a comment below!

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Kim Kimball

Life coach helping ambitious women have thriving relationships with partners, friends, family, + coworkers by healing codependency. www.kimkimballcoaching.com