Meet Dave and Kathleen. They are two genuinely nice people. Married for almost seventeen years, if you take a surface look at the ways in which they are very different from each other, you might wonder why they are even a couple, let alone thriving in their relationship for so long. Or, conversely, you might be reminded of the old adage, “Opposites attract.”
But ask them a few questions like I had the privilege of doing, and you might come away with a different conclusion as to the secret of their success as a couple.
I happened to meet Dave and Kathleen at a bowling alley. I had arrived at least an hour before meeting some friends. Since I was already in that part of town, it wasn’t practical for me to go anywhere else. So I went in, opened my laptop and started working while it was still relatively quiet.
Sitting at a table with a view of the lanes, I was minding my own business, writing. After a while, Dave and Kathleen arrived and got a lane just below me and they proceeded to mind their own business, bowling.
As the afternoon transitioned toward early evening, the place was beginning to get louder and busier. While writing, I intermittently watched the action going on; the different bowling styles as many as the individual bowlers.
The first thing I noticed about Dave and Kathleen was their height differential. Dave is tall. Kathleen… is not. Then I noticed that he appeared to be a more seasoned bowler. Kathleen… not so much.
It was also obvious they were clearly not on their first date. Without staring or being creepy, I could just tell that there was a level of familiarity between them and that there was no concern at all about their individual bowling scores. There didn’t seem to be any of the self-consciousness common for a first or second date.
If she rolled a ball into the gutter, he gave her a few pointers and she appreciated it. If he proceeded to bowl a strike and if she then proceeded to find the gutter… again, it was no big deal. Neither cared. They were just bowling.
After they bowled a line or two, he took his ball, put it into his bag… and then removed another ball.
That’s when I felt I had to introduce myself and ask a question or two.
“Excuse me. Would you mind if I ask … what is the difference between the ball you just put in your bag and the one you just removed?”
His answer was fascinating. He said that bowling balls are made with varying degrees of hardness. Some are harder on the outside and less hard on the inside. Others are less hard on the outside and denser on the inside.
The ball’s density and exterior hardness help determine how easy it is to get the ball to spin and curve as it travels down the lane. A softer ball will grip the lane better than a harder ball. Hence, the softer the ball, the easier it is to get a good curve or, as Dave says, “the better the ‘grab’.”
Explaining that I write about how people are able to overcome obstacles in life, I asked the couple if they minded if I asked them a few more questions. They were glad to.
We conversed there at my table while I took notes… until my friends arrived. It was an interesting few minutes. Here are the highlights:
- Dave and Kathleen met at college. Some of his friends were friends with some of her friends.
- Five or six of them met for lunch every day.
- Dave says, “To be honest, I was a big coward. And if we didn’t have a professor to intervene, we wouldn’t have dated.” When I asked what he meant by “intervene,” he told of a professor who knew both of them and knew they both hung out around each other and they were both single and sort of liked each other, so he urged Dave to ask Kathleen out on a date. He did. She said yes.
- Kathleen had just started bowling three weeks before I met them. Conversely, Dave has been bowling since he was about nine years old. I asked why she decided to take up bowling after all this time. She said, “It’s one more thing that we can do together.”
- I suggested that many people would not enjoy bowling with a partner who is a beginner. Dave says the score doesn’t matter. “I bowl to beat myself and she bowls to beat herself.” Kathleen readily nodded in agreement.
- They came from vastly different backgrounds. She was a country girl and came from a small town in Montana. He was born in Germany. Dave’s father was in the State Department and his family didn’t live in the United States until he was 13. They lived in places like El Salvador, Canada, Paraguay, the Dominican Republic, and Panama. His parents had divorced. Hers had not.
There are more differences than these, but it seems that for Dave and Kathleen none of them represent obstacles to a successful relationship. Whenever I meet a couple whose individual differences seem to outnumber the ways in which they are the same, I want to know ‘What makes you different than those couples who decide to split because they insist they are just too different?’
For Dave and Kathleen, one of their secrets is willingness. Willingness is an integral ingredient of unconditional love. It makes passable the chasm represented by any difference that may exist. We’re talking about being willing to appreciate the differences; being willing to express things straight out without game-playing; being willing to let the other person just be; being willing to change or to see things the other person’s way when it is called for; being willing to disagree agreeably and to forgive the other person when lines get crossed.
Willingness is a far bigger factor that will help determine the success of a relationship than sharing similar interests or having a similar personality type or possessing a psychological profile that might appear to be compatible with the other person.
People share similarities, but is it possible to share differences? If so, what does it mean to have differences in common? Simply put, having differences in common means to be willing to appreciate the disparities rather than being disparaging when differences cause some initial discomfort.
After meeting Dave and Kathleen, I realized that the old adage “opposites attract” is not so at all. If it were true as an absolute, there’d be virtually no war in the world and divorce would be as rare as hen’s teeth. But it isn’t even true anecdotally. Folks don’t report that they are attracted to others exclusively because of differences. A difference by itself is not a rationale for an attraction, let alone a relationship.
We are attracted to someone we find attractive and appealing in spite of the differences. A relationship develops when two people find that they are mutually willing to appreciate the uniqueness of the other person.
While entire books and many expensive counseling sessions have been devoted to explaining why two particular people fell in love with each other and where things have gone wrong, one of the most important elements that ensure staying in and thriving in love can be known without all that reading and analysis: willingness. It doesn’t need to be a secret.
So it’s not the level of opposite-ness that attracts. It is other things less obvious than differences… or similarities for that matter. But once the attraction is there, the thing that makes the relationship really “grab” and take hold is the level of willingness that exists.
Being willing to “allow” for the differences of the other person is analogous to a bowling ball that is less hard on the outside. It is easier to make it curve as it travels down the lane. As any skilled bowler will tell you, the ability to curve the ball will produce successful results more often than only being able to throw it straight and fast.
Are you “hard” on the outside; unwilling to relate well with others? How attractive is that? An unwillingness to appreciate the differences in others can be a huge relationship obstacle.
The mix of things that makes you attractive, and that attracts you to some and not to others, may be a mystery, but how to build a relationship that thrives despite the differences doesn’t need to be. It’s not rocket science; it’s just simple physics: soften a little. Be open to bending and curving a little. A willing heart is key.
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