WTF is irreconcilable differences?

A friend and colleague of mine suggested I blog about Angelina Jolie’s recent filing for divorce from Brad Pitt on the ground of “irreconcilable differences,” noting that South Carolina does not allow divorce on that ground. Instead, South Carolina allows a “no fault” divorce after one year’s continuous separation along with three fault grounds for divorce (there is actually a fourth fault ground, one year’s desertion, that fell into disuse after South Carolina reduced the waiting period for a no-fault divorce from three years to one year).

Many states have a divorce ground of irreconcilable differences. One assumes legislators from these states believe that if spouses cannot reconcile their differences they should be allowed to divorce. The culture, especially the therapeutic culture, believes that all differences are reconcilable through mutual understanding and compromise. Thus, if differences cannot be reconciled, spouses must be incompatible.

That belief is mistaken. For a marriage to succeed many differences must be finessed or ignored rather than reconciled. Perhaps a wife overlooks a husband’s occasional crazy boys-night-out and a husband overlooks a wife’s occasional “unnecessary” shoe purchase. Neither has to like–let alone approve of–the other’s behavior, they merely need to tolerate it.

Most folks enter marriage with the belief that, if they are truly in love and their marriage is meant-to-be, they will be able to resolve all their differences. Many folks enter marriage with a list of “intolerables,” things they simply cannot accept in their spouse. “I cannot stay with him if he resumes smoking marijuana.” “I cannot stay with her if she cannot stay within the budget.” Within a few years most marriages have shredded that list. We learn to tolerate what we didn’t believe we could tolerate. Some of us even manage to forgive the occasional adultery or domestic violence.

Perhaps the most common irreconcilable difference regards sex. So long as couples have mismatched libidos, and so long as the culture sees monogamy as a defining feature of marriage, there will be conflicts over sexual frequency within marriage. The counseling industry would have folks believe such conflicts can be resolved through compassion and compromise. They’re half right. Compassion can ameliorate the problem. Compromise cannot resolve it–often it can exacerbate it. Asking the low desire spouse to have sex more often than he or she feels desire leaves neither partner happy. The low desire spouse now sees sex as a chore–something to be avoided. Unless the high desire spouse is oblivious, he or she cannot help but see that his or her partner is coming to the marital bed less-than-enthusiastically–which, in itself, can be a real libido killer.

The irreconcilable difference of sexual desire is a paradox to be managed, not a problem to be solved. A low desire spouse might ignore his or her partner’s mastabatory habits. The high desire partner might remember to clear the browser history. The low desire partner might approach the other when he or she isn’t in the mood and make an effort to be fully present. The high desire partner might appreciate such effort rather than focus on the low desire partner’s lack of response.

A culture that tells us that a successful marriage will resolve all differences is a culture that is lying to married couples. Marriage is unsustainable if all differences must be reconciled. Living with irreconcilable differences is the gravamen of successful marriage. This may be a paradox but it remains a truth.

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