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Cameron Wright: This is Cameron Wright, and I'm the author of The Orphan Keeper. So listeners understand, let me set the scene up for you. The Orphan Keeper is the story of Tag Roeland. Now, Tag was a little boy in India who came from a very poor family. They were living in a thatched hut with a dirt floor and he was always running off getting into trouble and despite his circumstances-- sometimes going hungry, he thought life was actually pretty good. Except then when he was about seven, he was kidnaped. He was sold to an orphanage and then adopted to a family in Utah who thought that he was an orphan.

It took Taj about a year to learn enough English to tell them otherwise, and when they realized, they were horrified. They tried to find his family, but it was pre-Internet and all roads pretty much led to dead ends and so Tag was raised in the United States.

As he grew older, he was around 19 or 20, snippets of memory began to resurface, causing him to wonder about his past and cultivating an intense desire to seek out his heritage. In the following scene Taj is in London. He's been introduced to an Indian family there, the Tambolies, and he's conversing with the head of the family Papa Hari and his son Pranay. And Taj has noticed that as Hindus, they have a variety of carved figurines of their gods, and it sparks a bit of both memory and curiosity in Taj, and so he wants to know more. 

So let's listen. 

Simon Vance:

 "What about your carved figurines, all these little statues?"

 "What about them?"

 "They're your gods, right? Why so many?”

 Papa Hari rapped his cane on the floor as if to jar it awake, "Why not? As Hindus, we love our variety. We exclude nothing. Yes, we have many gods: Vishnu, Shiva, Saraswathi, Lakshmi--In fact, many devout Hindus also worship cows, monkeys, trees, mountains, rivers, even the ocean. In the end Taj, we believe that God and the many creations in the universe, no matter their form, are one.".

 "It's confusing."

 "I would say encompassing." 

Taj was quiet, hesitant.

 "What is it?" Papa Hari asked.

Taj picked up a carved bearded man with four faces and a lotus flower growing from his head. He studied it, placed it beside the others. "I must have had some of these same gods when I was a kid. They seem so familiar.".

"You don't have them now?" Pranay asked.

"I'm a Christian."

"Excellent," Papa Hari chimed in.

"Excellent?" Taj breathed surprise, "You don't care that..."

Papa Hari interrupted, "Taj, there is a declaration in our sacred texts that reads 'Vasudhaiva kutumbakam,' which means the whole world is a family. Does your belief help you to become a better person, to grow, to progress? That is our only concern.

Sherrae Phelps: Navigating and making room for the differing religious views of others can be very challenging, especially within a marriage.

Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Do I want to partner with this person, even though he or she drives me crazy in these other ways? Do I still want to see if we can build something honest and is that person is willing to do that, too? And I think, well, then you can do it, you can find a way. I've worked with lots of couples that find a way, even though they relate to faith differently. (Dr. Finlayson-Fife, Interfaith Relationships & Faith Crisis During Marriage Podcast @minute 48ish)

Sherrae Phelps My name is Sherrae Phelps and I'm talking with Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife about how happy couples navigate religious differences and differences in general, within their marriage. Wrapping up the conversation, Dr. Finlayson-Fife will discuss how to act from a place of strength and integrity when those differences are too big or too much for the relationship.

The closer the relationship is, the harder it is to navigate differences. And I feel like religious differences present a unique challenge separate from just differences in general. I wonder if you can speak to that a little bit.

Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Well, first, the closer someone is to you, the more the differences impact you. It doesn't really matter what someone at Church does with their checkbook because it doesn't really affect you. If your partner doesn't balance the budget then, of course, it deeply impacts your happiness. So it's harder to stabilize ourselves around limitations in the people closest to us because it impacts us. But also differences that can be inconvenient on one level, make us feel more alone on another level. And differences can challenge our view of things--when someone we care about sees the world and sees us differently than what we currently believe or perceive.

So religious differences are challenging because they confront the framing reality of one’s life.  To have those kinds of core assumptions solid and clear allows you to get busy with the details of life. So it's very disruptive to have your anchoring frame messed with, especially if a spouse is relating to that anchoring frame in dramatically different ways than you--that is very stressful and very hard. Even minor differences can be hard in a marriage.  I'm not saying that anything's going wrong, in fact, I think if you get two honest people together, you're going to be bumping up against a lot of differences.  It's just a fundamental reality of marriage. But, the more that it defines your sense of meaning, place, belonging and sense of direction--the more disruptive--the more difficult it is to navigate.  It’s instinctive to just try to get the other person to be more like you.

Sherrae Phelps:  Another reason religious differences might feel more complex is that it's not just affecting the husband and the wife, but it's also trickling down and it's having an impact on the kids as well.

Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: That's right. Religious differences are one of the things that it's harder to agree to disagree on. You can have political differences and just agree to disagree, and it doesn't necessarily impact the kids much to have two different points of view. But when it comes down to actual behavior, you're either going to have family home evening or not, you're going to pay tithing or not. It's harder to find ways to navigate those differences without it having an impact on actual behavior, and it can be hard when the parents have two different goals for the kids' religious lives, for example.

Sherrae Phelps: What if they have the same religious views, but they interpret the Sabbath day, for example, differently. So you have one parent who may be comfortable joining a family get-together that involves going golfing on Sunday and the other spouse feels like that's golfing on Sundays is wrong.

Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: I think that it's in the same category as all differences in marriage with one caveat. Couples that thrive, stay in discussion. They keep wrestling with those differences until they can come to a decision that they both feel comfortable enough with. What people usually do is try to get the upper hand. And so sometimes the more devout one might say, "Well, Elder so-and-so said this, and we know that we should do this," and so they may appeal to authority to get the other person's position more in alignment with their own. Or it's sometimes the more dominant personality who effectively pressures. So somebody may feel uncomfortable with going golfing, but because one of the two is just more self-confident in demanding that the other will yield. But the point is, a lot of times people will try to get their view to prevail, or resentfully put their view away, both of which can be easier upfront than the harder work of struggling with each other. Couples should think about and deal with how they see things differently and see if they can find some common ground that they can both be at peace enough with.

The one caveat I was going to give or why I think this can sometimes be difficult is that it brings up the question of "where is your loyalty"? Is my loyalty to my understanding of authority and obedience or deference to an organization or idea outside of the two of us? Or is my loyalty to creating a partnership that doesn't betray the best in me (or you), and working out something between us that's honest and fair? Or is it, "Well you may not want to obey the Sabbath day in the way that I think God wants from me, and I have lots of church leaders who are telling me I'm right about that. Well, where is my loyalty and how much flexibility do I have?" And I think that's the kind of central question that is at the core of a lot of these struggles.

Sherrae Phelps: I think that a big challenge that starts to come up is when people feel like they are choosing between being loyal to God or loyal to their marriage.

Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife:  I don't think you should be loyal to another person, and I know that sounds strange. But I think you should be loyal to your integrity and to your sense of what is genuinely good. Sometimes what is good gets questioned in a meaningful way through marriage.

For example, it might cause you to question "Is my notion of God and what God wants, in fact, true? Or is it a young version of God? I may need to think about what is truly loving in this moment. What is truly faithful (to the Good)? My good husband or my good wife sees this differently. Do I think they're being dishonest and really just trying to live indulgently and I can be honest about that fact? Or do I think that they have an understanding that stretches mine and that it is worth me thinking about honestly? Am I getting on a kind of moral high ground because it serves me and my fear to get there? Or do I really believe honestly that my spouse is doing something indulgent?".

If your spouse is really doing something self-destructive or destructive period, you should never get on board with that because you're less and they're less for it. By getting on board, what I mean is to support it, as in actually facilitate it. That's different than allowing you and your spouse to both be in an imperfect process of self-development and spiritual development and sorting out what's true and good. So you have to really check your own motivations. 

I know a lot of situations where people are married to someone who is drinking to excess, for example, and they are, in fact, doing something destructive. But they use the idea of "I don't want to get involved or tell them what to do" to not address what they see as honestly destructive. I also know people who will use their own desire for control, to make the world be the way they want it to be, and get into a judgmental, harsh position when their spouse doesn't approach the world or faith as rigidly as they do.

These aren't easy questions. There are no simple answers. But I think the more honestly you take yourself on around it, the clearer you will get. And really prayerfully do it. Be in pursuit with God about what is true and what will create goodness in your life. Ask yourself, “what is an honest position?  Where do I agree with my spouse? Where do I disagree with them? What informs both?" It's a process.

One of the things I remember from the discussions when I was a missionary, was that the purpose of life is to get a body, but also to discern between right and wrong. The implication being that it's a lifelong process and beyond. And I think that's absolutely true. I think the way that I thought as a younger person was much more rigid and easier than as I keep living in the complexities of life, I’ll sort out what is right and wrong, or good and evil.  Which is not to say that there isn't such a thing as right and wrong. Not that everything's gray, but it takes more wisdom and context and self-scrutiny and discernment to know what really is wise, loving and fair.

Sherrae Phelps: You talked about being self-indulgent. You could have two different people, maybe both moving away from the word of wisdom, and one may be doing that in a self-indulgent way and someone else might be doing that more out of a self-definition kind of way. Can you kind of explain what that difference looks like between indulgent and self-definition?

Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: For starters, I think for something like the word of wisdom, the indulgent version would be where somebody is using a substance to get away from themselves and get away from their lives. So any time anybody would be doing any process--whether that's Word of Wisdom related or porn or spending money or eating food, that is designed to numb oneself out and to handle life's anxiety in an avoidant behavior--that’s indulgent. People always will do a little bit of that in life. You watch a movie when you want to settle down or something. I think that in any way that is really making your life worse--that when you come back to reality, you've now got more of a mess--that's always going to be indulgent. That is, it's being utilized to get away from the responsibilities of one's life.

If it's making one more responsible for their life, if one is saying, "I don't believe this or I don't believe this in this way and I'm honest about it, I don't have to be deceptive about it. I don't have to pretend anything. It's really what I feel is true." You may disagree and you may still think they're wrong, but they're not trying to hide something. They're not using it to get away from something true within themselves. They're claiming who they want to be in the world. And it may make you uncomfortable because it doesn't reinforce your choices, but it's not being destructive-- other than not giving you what you wanted, like a spouse who doesn't drink coffee or something like that, or representing a shared idea to the kids.

These are the challenges of marriage, which is definition of self in the context of being partnered with a person who's different from you. And it's a paradox and a tension that is not easy.  That said, it is a developmental mechanism. I do think this just comes back to tolerating difference, which is "Do I want to use harsh judgment as a way to handle my disappointment or my fear?"  I think what many of us imagine is  “I'm going to marry someone who's going to see the world exactly as I do, share the same goals, share the same ambitions, roll their sleeves and do it with me in the same way, have strengths that I don't have and then value my strengths.  And ultimately, we're just going to be a united front. And that's seldom what you get in marriage. I mean, you just have to confront more limitations and differences than you want, and in inconvenient places. You have to look at how much am I trying to get my spouse to look like me and reinforce me (in the name of love)?

I can be intimate in the sense that I can share my honest view, such as, "It's painful for me that you have the view you have. It's hard for me for A, B, and C reasons. It challenges my sense of what I want. It challenges what I thought we would share together. It makes me feel isolated. It makes me feel frustrated because I think your loyalty is to something other than me." And so you can be intimate in that you're sharing genuinely what impact it's having on you as long as you're not trying to manipulate them, but to say "We're a partnership and I'm not trying to tell you that you have to be different. But it is hard for me for these reasons." And they might say, "Well, yeah, I get that, and it's also hard for me that you don't see the world as I genuinely see it. Because I feel like you're too rigid or you're too fear-based or you're too critical."  I think when a couple cares about each other, they make room for themselves, but they also care about their impact on the other person and try to be true to both as much as they can.

For my husband and I, especially earlier in our marriage, I think in reality we were quite similar in terms of our relationship to faith. But in some ways when we got married, we kind of polarized more where we each took different positions and then kind of managed our ambivalence between ourselves rather than within ourselves. Does that make sense? So one person took a more liberal view, the other one took a more conservative view around faith and then we'd fight each other. It's kind of funny when I think about it. But I think we really did identify with both views and it was just easier to fight with another person than to ask ourselves, "Who am I around this? What do I want? What do I believe? What am I going to embrace or not?"  We spent most of our time at first just trying to hammer the other person into the correct shape and using lots of our own self-righteous positions to do that or to avoid. But I think that, with time, when we could settle down and own our own positions a little bit more, we found there was more nuance within both. I think the more you can kind of struggle with yourself instead of the other person, for example, "He or she is going to be who they are. I'm not going to control it. Who am I around it? What do I actually find to be true in my spouse's view that I don't want to deal with? What are they saying that is inconvenient, but I know they've got a point. And if I were to live more honestly around that, what might it mean for me? Or if I were to be fairer to them around their view, what might it mean for what I choose?".

So that you are not just in a power struggle, which is very easy to do in marriage, but instead looking for what's wise in the other person's view, what do they see that you don't want to deal with or haven't yet seen? Because if you let yourself do that, you end up coming to a much more similar position. I don't mean that ever will a couple just collapse into each other, nor should they. But you get more able to learn from each other and become wiser people through those two different points of view. And a lot of who I am and how I talk now has a lot to do with the positions that my husband was much clearer about within himself, that I would fight him on at first. And I'm grateful for it because it definitely has made me a broader thinker, a wiser thinker.

Sherrae Phelps: So you've talked about being clear with your view. That when you're feeling ambivalent about your view, it's tempting to argue more about it, but when you are more clear about your view that it's easier to be at peace with differing views.

Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: There were things, when I was writing my dissertation, that were distressing for me and things that were disillusioning for me and it was hard for me. And so rather than metabolizing that myself and sorting out what it meant for me and my faith and so on, it became easy to blast it at my husband and make him deal with it. And he'd push back and resist and defend, which would then make me push back on him. It just became easier to deal with it outside of myself. And this is normal, I'm not trying to say that that was so horrible. I can understand why it was going like that, but I think it was easier to fight with him than to fight with myself. It was easier to fight with him than it was to push myself and ask, "What do I really want here? What do I really believe? Who am I going to be in the faith with some disillusionment yet in a faith that really matters to me? Where am I going to stand in this?" And that was just a process. And I think the more I pushed myself to be honest with myself, to wrestle with God around it, to sort out who I am going to be, I think the more I came to peace with myself around it and I wasn't struggling with John. And I am married to somebody who wasn't trying to make me into anything. He was willing to give me the room to be who I was, even though I think it scared him a little bit. So I think that allowed me to be comfortable, not that I thought that "I've got everything right" but at least I'm in a peaceful enough position within myself that I can own what I think enough to stay open to what I don't yet know.  I can hold on to what my honest position is, without the idea that I've got everything right, it's just where I stand honestly right now.

When I was a missionary in the MTC, there was so much pressure around conformity. To get up and bear your testimony and make sure you hit the four points, for example. And it just felt like brainwashing. It felt false. It felt dishonest to me. I'm probably more sensitive than other people to these things, but it felt wrong to me. And so I was really wrestling with God around, "Is that what you really want from me? Do you just want me to fall in line, be a puppet, play a part? Or do you want my honesty?" And I was trying to figure out who God is. Is God a God of compliance, shut up and just to it? Or does God want me to struggle honestly with what is true? And for me, it was very clear in my relationship with God, that God wanted me to struggle honestly with what was true, not to be indulgent or use that to get away from things I didn't want to see or deal with. But to really be earnest and honest-- that was the right path.  And that's been helpful for me because I think that's what God asks of all of us, to strive to be as honest as we can, even though we're only touching part of the elephant.  That's the only way we're going to come to a collective wisdom, to greater wisdom. Some people are having very different experiences and they have different realities for good reasons. It's not because they're wrong, even if their point of view is limited by their experience, just as it is for anyone else.

Sherrae Phelps: And so it sounds like, partly what you're saying, is that when you're struggling with differences, sometimes the tension isn't so much about the differences, but that that tension created is partly due to areas in your personal development that are underdeveloped or areas where the relationship is underdeveloped. And that tension can expose flaws and limitations and weaknesses within the relationship or within yourself. So that tension is not just about the difference. 

Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: That's right, it's exactly right. It's easy to say, "What is the problem with my spouse? If they would just be more like me, everything would be going way better!" And that's a very, very tempting idea. And in my case, it's true!---Okay, just kidding.  Ask yourself, "What do I not yet understand? How am I not yet developed?"  One of the real liabilities in our country, and this has been true with the Internet and the ability to create these echo chambers of information, is that people can go and find a group of people that reinforce their very limited view. And then they can shout at other people in a self-righteous (but ignorant) way about how stupid the other side is, when they're so blind to what they don't yet understand, that they don't see how much that other echo chamber has scapegoated them. And this is just a really huge problem we have, and it makes us very vulnerable as a society. When you get social reinforcement for your view, it's very easy to be ridiculously blind to what you don’t yet understand. And so if you're going to be a wise person, you have to consider what you don't yet understand, and tolerate the disruption of it, and the discomfort of it. And I find it very, very disruptive and uncomfortable, but I'm always grateful when I tolerate the process because it expands my understanding of humanity, of other groups, of people, of what they understand about the world that I don't yet understand. It helps me be, first of all, a better person, a kinder person, but also a wiser person. And you don't want to be working with just a really limited roadmap in a complex world. It's a liability and it makes you vilify people too.

Sherrae Phelps: You've talked about owning your view honestly. I wonder if you could just kind of talk about what that means when you hold on to your view honestly. I think that by holding on to your view, you're not dismissing someone else's differing views and by making room for someone else's views, you're not necessarily betraying your own views. 

Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: That's right. It's like saying, "I'm comfortable enough in my ability to be a person who will discern honestly, that I can tolerate understanding an invalidating view because I trust myself to honestly consider that information. I trust myself." I think people that feel the most afraid of alternative views, feel that if they open themselves up to a different view, their own view or their own sense of self will get obliterated. So they're resisting and fending off any other view because they feel fragile in their ability to stabilize themselves around what they think or believe. So they either go out and demand that other people see things the same way, or they fold into the view of somebody who's more confident than they are.

I think the people that are the most humble, in the true sense of the word--humble, as in receptive and willing to learn and grow--in fact, paradoxically, humble people have more comfort with their ability to stabilize their own perspective. That is, they trust themselves to discern and to think through it honestly, so they remain open.  They don't just agree with something because they're getting pressured, but rather if they change their mind it's because they genuinely change their mind. They're like, "No, I think that's true. I think I've been missing that point. I think I haven't been fair in my understanding of that perspective. And it sounds right to me." And that's why humility is a virtue. It's a virtue because you stay open to what you don't yet understand, but that's not to say "I understand nothing or I am right about nothing.".

For me, it's not about "I know I'm right," but instead, "This is my best and my most honest assessment of what is true." It's self-defining, it's self-expressing, but it also leaves room for saying, "But I may not fully understand it yet...This is what I think, but I may be wrong." And both can be true. It's not saying "I think nothing, and whatever I think is stupid." No. Nor is it saying, "I’ve got everything settled, so I don't need to listen to you." Collaborative couples are really able to say, "This is my honest view of our child's challenge. This is how I see you playing a role in it and how I play a role in it. That's how I see it. But it's coming from my view only. How do you see it?" A collaborative couple can get their genuine perspectives on the table, and then look at where the other person is seeing it differently and ask themselves, honestly, "What are they right about in that?" Couples that are more limited will just get into an entrenched power struggle of whose reality is going to dominate here, and that limits the intelligence in the couple.

Sherrae Phelps: And when you explain it that way, the dynamics of what it could look like with honest collaboration, it's a very appealing thing to create in your relationship, to have that collaboration, to have those different viewpoints and perspectives.

Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: But it takes some moral courage because you have to sacrifice your ego and your sense of security around an idea. Human beings love ideas because they anchor us. For example, everybody in the United States over the last four years would get so clear about their own view generally and just be like, "What is the matter with the people on the other side?? People are whacked on the other side!" It was just very easy for two groups of people to be very confident about their views. And of course, the media would fuel that narrative of the crazy on the other side. And I think a much harder question is, "What am I missing because a whole group of good (enough) people sees it differently? What am I missing?" And it's amazing how hard it is to do that, to literally walk in the shoes of the other side and say, "What do they see that I don't see? How do they see me? How do they see themselves?"  It's very stretching to do that, but it's so important because if you want to be smart about how we solve things as a country (or in a marriage) you have to know what you don't know. I know that's just one version of this, but that's hard to do in life. It's hard to do in a marriage. People tend to hunker down and dig into their own view and complain to their friends about how whacked their spouse is. And their friends will say "Oh, my gosh, I do not know how you put up with it!" Rather than asking yourself, "OK, what am I missing here? And what does the world look like from my spouse’s perspective? And what do I look like from my spouse's perspective?" Sometimes I ask myself that question and haven't liked what I see.

So that's the kindest thing you'll ever do, but it does take moral courage and that's why we resist it. And as much as I know that it's the right thing to do, I resist it every time because it hurts and it's uncomfortable and it's destabilizing for a little while until you stabilize at a higher level of understanding.

Sherrae Phelps: Maybe one thing that gets in the way and makes it challenging for us to discuss differing views within a marriage, is there's this idea that confrontation is negative, bad, and wrong.  And you're saying that in a marriage you're going to bump up against differences, you're going to have invalidating realities.

Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: You will if you're being honest. First of all, what is meant by that, is that contempt and contention are bad. I know couples who don't even talk to each other, that are loaded with contempt. So they're not fighting in the overt sense, but there's still so much hostility. Hatred will always undermine any relationship, obviously, and so dealing with your hostility matters. But any marriage that is honest and growing and passionate is going to have friction that comes out of two honest people trying to forge a life together. And again, because that's uncomfortable, a lot of times people will do one of two things--which I talk about in my courses all the time--they'll either try to dominate and get their view to dominate or they will succumb or yield to keep the peace. So it can look healthier than it is because it might not have a lot of conflict, but there's resentment in the marriage. The resentment for the more dominant one, for the validation they don't get, for the love and admiration they don't get. Or the one who's yielding so much, there's resentment for the sense that they're disappearing in the marriage, that there's no room for them. And so these are kind of immediate solutions that help you navigate the discomfort of confronting or seeing those differences, but they have a long-term negative effect. And I don't mean you just go in guns ablazing around every difference. You want to take yourself on first, ask yourself, "What is my view? And is it important? And is it important enough to bring up? And how do I see my spouse? How do I see myself around this? Is there a way to talk about this while still being decent to each other?".

You can have conflict without getting indecent. I know of a situation where the husband would never put any checks on the marriage and so he'd never confront his wife ever. But that was bad for him because it created resentment. It was bad for her, too, because marriages need the checks and balances of two honest people.  I'm not saying that you have to just do what your spouse says, but at least it's putting some friction in there to get you to self-check a bit and to think about who you are. That's very valuable.

Sherrae Phelps: Talk about how you come to a decision, with integrity, when deciding and choosing if a specific difference is too big for the marriage or the relationship. In one of your podcasts, you used an example of a client or friend whose husband wanted to have multiple partners and she told him that was too big for her, that she wouldn't judge him if he chose that, but that if he did she wouldn't be able to stay in the marriage. And to me, that feels easier to say that that's too big. But I'm wondering if two different people have spouses who are choosing to drink alcohol. Is it possible for it to be too big for one person but not too big for the other person, but yet they're both making that decision with integrity and not fear and self-righteousness? It's not like you can't just make a list and say, "Well, these things are too big and these things aren't too big. So if what's happening is on the "not too big" side of the list, then you should just get on board and make room for it.

Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: It's hard for me to know...the question of "Can it be too big for one and not too big for the other?" I think that that's an important question for people to really take on within themselves very seriously, which is, "Can I really give this? Can I give this and be honest with myself? Can I be at peace with it even if I don't wish it were true?".

Let's say you have a spouse who drinks alcohol. Ask yourself, "Can I be tolerant of it and say they matter more to me than this particular choice, and that I want to be in a partnership with them even though it's not my favorite thing and I don't like it and and I wish it weren't the case, but I honestly choose them. Or is it just too much? And I will feel too much resentment, and I will make them pay every day of the marriage and I just can't give it, even if I think I should, but I know that I can't." That's where I think you just have to take deep responsibility for yourself. I'm not really answering your question, I'm just saying what I think is required of a high integrity person is to really own that choice one way or the other. The easier move is to say, "I'm just going to make you pay for not being the person I wish you were, but I'm not going to go anywhere."

Sherrae Phelps: Do you have some examples that you could share of people dealing with some differences in their marriage and having to choose if those differences were too big?

Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: The ones where I've seen individuals saying, "This is just more than I can do," often have to do with issues around fidelity. With fidelity, I've seen people who say, "It's undermining my dignity to be here. I can't do it. I do care about you, but I'm leaving." And they leave, and they leave in a way that has dignity and integrity in it. And they go on to live good lives, even though a lot was lost. And I've heard of people where they just want to make the person pay all the time, but they don't want to actually stand up and take responsibility for their choice. The smaller things, you know, I've worked with a lot of couples where religious differences have emerged, sort of mid-marriage. And that can be hard, there can be a lot of struggle around it. The question is how honestly is this couple going to deal with this versus just kind of hide who they each are from each other. I haven't seen a couple that ends the marriage over those differences where there wasn't already a lot of anger and resentment and immaturity that was already operating in the marriage, and this just became like the last straw. Where when it's a solid marriage and there's already quite a bit of trust there, well, then it just means the two are figuring out, "How do we build a bridge?" And I think it ends up shaping both people in a lot of ways. So I can't say that I have any good examples of where somebody was saying out of integrity, "I can't make room for your honest difference." Because even the person who's changing in a particular way, if they're doing it with integrity, they also care about the impact it has on their partner.

Sherrae Phelps: It sounds like what you're saying is that the issue of whether or not the difference is too big, depends upon the quality of the relationship.

Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yes. And how much you care about your impact (which is fundamental to a good marriage). For example, one couple--she wasn't a client, but somebody at a workshop--was saying that her husband went through a faith transition and he started drinking and she took a self-righteous position. She was saying, "Keep your beer in the garage."  So he did. And then she said she came to a place of realizing that she just punished him for so long about this and that she didn't feel good about who she was and that even though she wished it were different, that she felt unloving, she felt like it was indulgent on her part. And so she came home to him and said, "You know, I've been thinking about myself and I don't like who I've been with you. And I don't think I've been fair. And you can put it in the regular fridge. I'm not going to banish you to the garage anymore." And he just said, "I really appreciate that. I appreciate you saying that to me. I appreciate your goodness and looking at yourself, but I know that you don't like it and I don't want it to undermine you. I'm just going to keep it in the garage." It's this kind of "I care about you. We do have a difference. It probably is hard for both of us a bit, but me caring about you and my impact on you is the primary thing." That's how couples build that bridge.

Sherrae Phelps: I mean, maybe it could feel too big if both people in the marriage aren't turning to each other and finding ways to make it work for each other. It feels like it's a one-way thing, that might make it feel too big.

Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Exactly. And so you may not like the particular behavior, but there's also this larger picture of a person who isn't really invested in my happiness, and maybe that's the biggest issue. I say all the time, happy couples handle quite a bit of difference. John Gottman's research points to this. It's the way they relate to the difference. That's the big difference in determining marital happiness. Is it around self-justification and demand and resentment? Or is it about, "We're different people. I care about you. I want to be true to myself, but I don't want to harm you either. How do we do this?” That kind of kindness is what ultimately allows couples to learn from each other and to be friends in a complex world where there are a lot of differences and a lot of differences in perspective and choices. Can we still be kind to each other in the face of that? That's the big deal.

Sherrae Phelps: I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that every day we are thrown into the arena of confronting differences. We are constantly facing the challenge of navigating differing views, opinions, and beliefs. It happens at work and in your marriage, with your in-laws and helping your child with their math homework, during gospel doctrine class, and on social media. And how we choose to navigate those differences matters. If I had to pick and choose only 60 seconds from this entire interview to share with you to navigate the different views in your life, this would be it...

Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: It's like that kind of "I care about you. We do have a difference. It probably is hard for both of us a bit. But me caring about you and my impact on you is the primary thing." That's how couples build that bridge.

What I think is that couples that thrive, they stay in the discussion and they keep wrestling with those differences until they can find a space that they both feel comfortable enough with.

These aren't easy questions. There are no simple answers. But I think the more honestly you take yourself on around it, the clearer you can get.

When a couple cares about each other, they make room for themselves, but they do care about their impact on the other person, and they try to be true to both (themselves and their spouse).

Simon Vance Taj: There is a declaration in our sacred texts that reads 'Vasudhaiva kutumbakam,' which means 'The whole world is a family.' Does your belief help you to become a better person, to grow, to progress? That is our only concern.

 

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