Skip to main content

Irreconcilable Differences

By July 17, 20084 Comments

“Irreconcilable differences.”

That seems to be one of the most common reasons for divorce that you hear today. And I really have no idea what it means.

I sometimes wonder if it’s a generic way of categorizing more specific problem, ie. “I want my wife to stop cheating on me but she would prefer not to” or “I want to use our money for food, but my husband wants to use it at the casino.” Those sound like fairly irreconcilable differences to me.

But perhaps the most likely reason for this term is that couples simply get tired of trying. Marriage is hard work, and if you fall out of love with your spouse, or someone better comes along, it no longer seems worth the effort. Little decisions become huge debates, and you can’t seem to agree on anything. At the end of the day, you are just too different to make it work, so you split on the basis of “irreconcilable differences.”

Well science and psychology are now disagreeing with this premise. Psychologist Dr. John Gottman is the founder of The Gottman Institute, which has done ground-breaking research into marital relationships and what makes them work. Specifically, Gottman did a study in which he videotaped newlyweds discussing an issue about which they disagreed, and then he tracked the couples over the following years to see which couples stayed together and which ones divorced.

After years had gone by and the fates of the marriages had largely been determined, Gottman went back to the videos and examined the interactions between the couples in an attempt to discover which couples were built to last, and which couples were doomed for destruction. Based on that information, Gottman now feels he is able to predict with considerable accuracy which marriages will succeed and which will fail.

And what were the characteristics of a doomed marriage? Gottman observed that in couples who later divorced, there was an element of contempt in their disagreements with one another. While arguing, they would be condescending, they would freeze one another out by refusing to listen to the other, and they would tear one another down with name-calling and insults.

The successful couples, on the other hand, were quite the opposite. Though they still disagreed on things, they were willing to listen and grow from one another. And even more fascinating about their interactions is that for every negative thing they said toward the other, they would counteract it with an average of five positive things.

The successful couples also prevented the argument from escalating. Gottman found that the more a person’s heart rate increased, the less they were able to listen and respond rationally. When the heart rate increased, they were more prone to become defensive and lash out. Couples who were able to be patient and gentle with one another, thereby preventing the argument from escalating, were able to sustain a conversation that was not only respectful, but from which they both could grow.

When this decades long study was all said and done, Gottman came to the following conclusion: a happy couple is not a couple without conflict. According to Gottman, all couples fight. All couples have irreconcilable differences. It’s how you handle those differences that makes or breaks your marriage.

Since Gottman first began his research, he and his wife now offer programs and seminars to help couples work on their marriages, and his teachings have met with tremendous success. Married couples do well to heed his advice–not to mention the fact that he’s merely reinforcing Scripture’s countless commands to guard your tongue, be quick to listen and always loving. After all, love is patient and love is kind, not sarcastic and condescending.

But what about us single folks? What’s the take away message for us? Well even though Gottman’s study relates to marital relationships, his principles are important to apply in almost any situation. Our spouses shouldn’t be the only ones we labor to love well–we should seek to listen and grow from everyone around us. That is a reputation that Christians do not have right now. The way we relate to non-Christians often looks more like the soon-to-be-divorced couple’s interactions–we know that we are right, and we treat people like idiots if they do not agree with us.

So whether or not you are married, we all need to cultivate the art of loving disagreement. This does not mean compromising ourselves, but it does mean that we convey respect and care amidst our irreconcilable differences. When we do this, we increase the likelihood that others will actually listen, and we might learn a thing or two as well.

I have heard it said that Christians never impose their beliefs on others–they simply propose, as a lover to the beloved. If that is our model for evangelism, then the keys to a healthy marriage have implications for us all.


  • Melissa-Leigh says:

    I just stumbled upon your blog a week or two ago on a search engine and loved browsing through the archives. I thought the study you cited here was fascinating, how interesting that things the Lord has always taught us hold true in our personal relationships. This probably shouldn’t be surprising but sometimes the voices of pop psychology would have us think otherwise. I think couples are sure to have these differences, but loving your very closest neighbor (i.e. your spouse) as yourself will always help you find the light and the other side of even the most difficult arguments. A fantastic read, thanks 🙂

  • mattcapps says:

    Wonderful insight.

  • StepUpToTheCall says:

    Excellent post! I really like your application to singles and other relationships in general. The study had some results similar to what we’re studying in a book ‘A Lasting Promise’ (see if you want to hear more about that)

    Our women’s ministry director isn’t technie enough to follow blogs or RSS, but I find myself pointing her to posts on your blog more and more 🙂 Keep up the great writing!

  • Anonymous says:

    I dont think that it is true that all differences can be worked out. I believe that there are fundamental issues in a marriage that need to be agreed upon and if they cannot be then a marriage cannot exist. The bases of beliefs and practices within a marriage need to be the same. And I think that is what is meant by irreconcilable differences. Those things that are unable to be worked out and that two people cannot live together while disagreeing upon.

Leave a Reply