It’s an old theory that opposites attract, and as a couples therapist and a person in a relationship, I agree. However, that does not mean that a couple must have polarized interests in music, hobbies, political beliefs or the rest. Some level of commonality is necessary for a couple to thrive. In my opinion, the most drastic and compulsory differences occur in communication and emotional processing. These can be narrow individuals down to two categories: minimizers and maximizers.
Minimizers tend to avoid conflict by— you guessed it— minimizing the severity of the issue in their mind. Minimizers are likely to shut down during an argument or emotional discomfort, literally unable to find words to express themselves. They might hold inner logic that if they don’t interact with the problem, the problem will go away. It’s important to note that minimizers usually learn to handle conflict in this manner through childhood. As a kid, parents might have taught their child not to talk about family problems, to bottle up feelings by distraction rather than discussion, or to prioritize keeping the peace via silence rather than resolution. Children can learn this dynamic in many ways to a small child, and the impact is lasting.
Maximizers, on the other hand, take small problems and think them into much bigger ones, often (though not necessarily) becoming loud and vocal about their dissatisfaction. They can also be the one more likely to yell in an argument. Maximizers are more likely to want to talk about the issues at hand and become anxious, if not obsessive, with the unknown until that discussion occurs. As a child, maximizers learn that their needs, often the needs for love and attention, weren’t met unless they sought out the love and attention. That might have taken the form of crying, tantrums, or backtalk.
Imagine a parent who is in a bad mood and a kid who assumes it’s their fault. The maximizer child learns to make the parent their primary focus until they received concise information, perhaps by crying until parent comforts them, or even acting out and causing trouble to understand a parent’s bad mood. The minimizer child learns that the best method for handling an unhappy parent is to hide until the coast is clear.
Following the idea that two people in a relationship will tend to lean toward being a minimizer or a maximizer explains much of a couple’s progression during conflict and needs for resolution. Please note, individuals usually lean toward maximizer or minimizer, but this is not exclusive all the time. Both people attempt to balance the other, but each person’s maximizing or minimizing will be reactionary. The maximizer will justify their obsessions and blame the other person, while the minimizer will justify their avoidance, also blaming the other. Neither logic is particularly helpful for strengthening a couple.
Admittedly, I am a maximizer, through and through, and gaining the freedom to see through that tendency has been liberating. In the past, I would fixate on everything I was unhappy within my relationship. My partner could not do anything right because my expectations were rigid, and I took everything he did or didn’t do personally. It was exhausting for both of us. Though I justified leaving, I never did, and at some point, we went to couples therapy. We learned about minimizers and maximizers and healthy dialogue, and it saved us. I learned that I could not attempt to change someone else’s behavior to make me happy in a relationship. No one can make me feel anything; my expectations make me feel things. I discovered that my partner, in all his minimizing ways, can talk if I create a safe place for him to tell me he’s having a hard time. I learned that some of my complaints were irrational, and my expectations were unrealistic based on the type of human I had selected to be my partner. Though I stubbornly clung to what I wanted our relationship to look like for a long time, eventually I accepted what our relationship could be. I believe we are kinder and more compassionate toward each other now than we have ever been.
Most importantly, and this is a tool I take with me into every session and with every couple in my office, I learned to see the other person’s inner child. My partner’s tendency to minimize is something he learned at a very young age, and when I become compulsive about making him talk, it does not get me closer to what I want. I do not create a safe space for either of us.
The goal is for each person, whether minimizer or maximizer, to make a concerted effort toward meeting in the middle. In doing so, the minimizer can step up as the partner they want to be, and the maximizer can step back, no longer overcompensating to progress a relationship’s growth. While this process is not always easy, there is peace within it when we learn to soothe our own inner children.