Husband & Wife Articles


Reconciling Irreconcilable Differences

Spouses need not be alike to make a marriage work

By Kathleen M. Gallagher

Kathleen M. Gallagher 

Last year New York State became the final state in the country to allow “irreconcilable differences” as grounds for divorce. All one spouse has to do is swear under oath that the marriage has been broken for six months and the differences cannot be reconciled. And that’s it. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just over.

How tragic. Here’s my theory: all marriages have irreconcilable differences. Sometimes it takes understanding, hard work and compromise to work through them and reconcile them. And sometimes you just need to let them be.

Joe and I were not kids when we married. I was 27, he was 37. We were, as they say, set in our ways. And our ways are very different; we are a living testament to the axiom that opposites attract. I am a Type A personality, always running, moving, multitasking, eager not to waste a precious minute of the 24 hours in any given day. Joe is more than content to sit back and watch black and white re-runs on television. I am artistic and love to let my creativity flow into paintings, culinary dishes, poetry and other writings. Joe is much more mechanical, preferring to follow step-by-step instructions to change a light fixture or mend a ruptured pipe.

Joe is a loner who would rather be home than anywhere else in the world. I am a people person; I love street festivals, nightclubs, ball games, parties. Joe is the one sitting back quietly observing the crowd; I’m the one working it. Joe is a procrastinator while my live-by slogan is the Nike ad: “Just do it.”

These are irreconcilable differences. They will not change. Our personalities are a study in contrasts, thank God. Imagine how boring our marriage would be if we were exactly the same. Our differences strengthen us, both individually and as a married couple, challenging us to accept each other “as is.”

But sometimes our irreconcilable differences lead to arguments, and sometimes those arguments can be heated – voices raised, feelings hurt. (It seems stubbornness is a trait we actually have in common!) It can be extremely difficult to be the first to step back and really listen to the other’s complaint, be sensitive to it, respect it and honor it. For me, it is very hard to cast aside my natural “my way or the highway” tendencies and put on the cloak of unselfishness. But no one ever said marriage wouldn’t involve hardship or sacrifice. We promised for better or for worse.

Almost 25 years of marriage have taught Joe and me that when one of us does take that first step of listening, understanding and letting go, it becomes much easier for the other one to follow suit. We often wind up tripping over each other in trying to take the blame for what started the disagreement in the first place. “I’m sorry,” “it was my fault,” “I forgive you” spill out. The barriers come down.  Differences are reconciled.

Here’s the best way I can describe what reconciliation feels like: many years ago Joe was scheduled to pick me up at the airport when I arrived home from a business trip, but for some reason, he wasn’t there when my flight came in. The details of why are very blurry to me now, but I remember being frightened, paging Joe on the loud speaker with no response, running up and down the stairs in a panic searching for him. I don’t recall how long this went on, but when we finally saw each other and fell into each other’s arms, I vividly remember the feeling of relief, security and calm that swept over me. The gap had been closed, harmony was restored.

Just as we are reconciled to God through Christ in the sacrament of Confession, reconciliation with a spouse is an awesome thing. It is the gift of forgiveness. It makes us whole and it brings revitalizing joy.

Pity the spouses who give up, cop out and refuse to try to reconcile their differences, throwing their marriages away like some disposable coffee cup. They are missing out on a beautiful thing.

Kathleen Gallagher is the Catholic Advocacy Network Director and Director of Pro-Life Activities for the New York State Catholic Conference, the public policy organization of the New York state bishops. Her husband is a member of Knights of Columbus Council 272 in Geneva, N.Y.