We have two sets of German friends. Each couple is in a marriage spanning the former East-West Germany divide.
I’m sure many dramatic stories of love affairs between east and west arose during the years Germany was divided in two. I knew that Germany only from books, study and movies. But through these two sets of friends, I’ve come to know more.
We developed a hardy relationship with Elyse and Johan during their stay here. Elyse, hailing from the East, is a military M.D. Johan, a soldier, is trained in systems. These careers fit them well. Meeting them, you wouldn’t mistake them for anything but German.
Yes, they fit the image: efficient, strong-minded, disciplined. They keep their lives as parents with (now) three young children going like clockwork. Sleeping in might mean 7 a.m.
Both are fit and athletic, Elyse especially so. While living in the U.S., Elyse logged in thousands of miles training for and competing in several running events. She was part of a running group in our area.
And that was in the midst of bearing child #2 and then becoming pregnant, shortly before departure, with child #3.
And yet, as we became closer, Elyse admitted to me the challenges she has faced being from the East. “We always felt as if we were somewhat ‘lesser’ than those from the West. I don’t know why, but it’s deeply ingrained in our psyche. I know it’s not true. But it lingers, hidden in deep parts of who we are.”
I know Elyse loves running. She doesn’t do it to prove her worth. But she gains worth out of it, no doubt.
Another Couple’s Story
The reverse arrangement is true with Berit and her husband, Eduard. She, too, is a doctor, he a soldier. Coming from the West, Berit has shared about some of the challenges of marriage to someone who hails from the East. They met via an online dating service.
“I cannot put my finger on it, exactly. But we see the world in a vastly different way. And I don’t think it’s just because he’s a man and I’m a woman. I think this whole 'wall' thing has shaped us a lot. Even though the wall came down when I was just 8 years old, I know it shaped who I am.”
Eduard agreed. He is, by all signs, a deeply committed husband and father, and man who desires the very best for his wife and small family of two young children. He is bright and articulate.
“Even though I too was quite young when the wall came down, I agree – it’s very presence, the concept of being divided, the mystery of the people on the other side – not just in Germany, but the whole of the West – captivated me. We were always wanting to be like them, in spite of our government trying to convince us we were better. It didn’t work.”
Berit chimes in, “I think what it comes down to is the contrast in mindset. One side operates from a mindset of abundance – material things, yes. But also freedom. For the other, a mindset of scarcity reigns. This does affect our marriage.” Eduard shakes his head in agreement.
How Do You Bridge the Gap?
We see both the inferior/superior and the abundance/scarcity mindsets a lot, no matter where we go. But when it shows up in the intimate relationship of marriage, especially against the backdrop of political events, it takes on a new hue.
“I guess what’s interesting about all this,” Elyse reflected, “Is we [all] were pretty young when the Berlin Wall fell. So, you might think its impact would not be so great. But, it was. And it even comes up today, as we continue to build our family. In quite unexpected ways.”
“So, if that’s true, what are ways to bridge those different mindsets and make the challenges work for you?” I inquired.
I gleaned these ideas from my conversations with all four:
(1) You must be honest that the challenges exist. Ignoring the differences and potential points of conflict is a sure-fire way to nurture further eventual conflict, maybe an explosion or breakdown.
(2) You must try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Why do they view life the way they do? Get specific about events from your earliest childhood memories. Take the time to explore.
(3) You must look for the positive points, the value, in the other person’s perspective. What are the best takeaways from an abundance mindset? Conversely, what are its dangers or pitfalls? How can you find a balance between optimism and realism?
(4) You must be committed. You must see that what you have to gain by pushing through the differences exceeds what you would gain by giving in and quitting. Both of you must choose that. On this point – being committed and going the distance – Elyse concedes that running distance races helped her a lot.
(5) You must recognize how your mindset and your spouse’s mindset – and the difference – impact your children. Take time to reflect on that, and be purposeful as you parent. This is not always easy, but, as Berit admitted, she can already see the character traits it is producing in her older child.
We can allow divides to do what they’re intended to do: divide. Or, we can choose to allow them to motivate us to move to higher levels, to transcend and overcome, to unify. When we do that – whether in marriage or in politics and governance – more win.
How do you deal with the divides – or potential divides – in your own marriage?