Marriage: When Values Collide
My wife and I were checking into a hotel in Disney World in Florida one time. We were in the lobby and I heard a young voice call out “Mommy, Daddy, look at me!”
I knew I wasn’t the daddy but I turned anyway and saw a little boy about seven or eight standing on the back of a couch calling to his parents who were across the lobby in the check-in line. This was the lobby of a sport themed hotel and it was built for kids to abuse. The couch was made of big blocks and was easy for kids to climb.
The parents turned and this is what happened. At about the same time, the man said “Hey Joey, you’re really up high!” and the woman said “Joey, get down immediately! You’ll hurt yourself!”
I’m not sure what really happened next but it let’s imagine a conversation.
Man: “Oh honey, relax!”
Woman: “Relax? How can I relax when he may fall?”
Man: “He won’t fall.”
Woman: “You don’t know that! “She hurries across the lobby and helps Joey down.
Man: “You always baby him.”
Woman: “If it was up to you, he’d break every bone is his body.”
We could follow the conversation further but it is clear at this point that Mom and Dad are on the verge of a fight and they don’t even know why.
They both love Joey. They both want what’s best for him. But they differ greatly on what “best” is. Dad thinks that Joey needs to explore, to test his abilities and he knows that as a child he climbed things higher than that, he even fell sometimes and he didn’t get hurt. Mom thinks that Joey is too young to be up that high, that if he falls he’ll break something or at least cry and embarrass them all and when she was a child she was afraid of heights – and still is.
What happened? Their values collided
This kind of difference is a collision of values. Each believes strongly that they are right. Because their values differ, each sees the same event differently. We might say they are seeing the event through different filters. He sees a big boy on a low platform. She sees a little boy on a very high platform.
At the end of the discussion, argument or fight, they won’t change, they will both feel the same about the question. And, these values will collide again and again – probably throughout their marriage.
Strong feelings about right and wrong, seeing the same event differently and reluctance to change are all characteristics of a values collision.
What are values? Where do they come from? What do we do when our values collide? More importantly, what should we do when our values collide?
What are values?
Values are deep seated beliefs, usually with strong emotional content. They result in the opinion that some things are right and other things are wrong. Values are subconscious and act all the time, though you can think consciously about them.
Where do values come from?
Most of your values originated in childhood. Most came from your parents or caregivers, usually because you admired them and assumed that what they did was “right.” Sometimes your values developed because you decided that your parents or caregivers were “wrong” and you resolved, usually unconsciously, sometimes consciously, that you would behave differently.
Some values come from religious training, some from school, many from specific events. Back in school when you were mistreated in some way you were affected perhaps deeply. Often that event stays with you forever and affects your thoughts and decisions throughout your life. What you think is fair, what you think is manly, how you think mothers should behave – all are values that are mostly shaped by the events of your childhood. When a bully picked on you, whether you ran, fought and lost, fought and won or talked your way out of it will forever affect how you believe others should react to bullies.
And you bring that value to your marriage, and in this case, to your parenting.
What happens when our values collide?
Everyone brings values to a marriage. But each of us had different parents, teachers, and different events in our childhoods. How can our values be the same? Answer – they can’t!
With luck, courtship will reveal that a couple has many common values. We may share the same religion, we may both want to save for our retirement, we may both feel that we should always have the TV off during dinner. Common values are good for a marriage – the more the better.
But no amount of good luck or good planning will bring together two people with all the same values. There are just too many values to have them be identical. Probably you would find a person with identical values very uninteresting. What would you talk about? After all, you already know what you think.
And when our values differ, we know that the other person is wrong. Remember, a value results in a feeling of “rightness” on our part. So, of course, we want to persuade the other of our “rightness”; and if they don’t agree they must not understand so we keep persuading. How we persuade depends on our values.
If his value is to avoid confrontation, then when values collide he withdraws. If she values winning, then she keeps persuading – pursuing and persuading, perhaps louder and louder. If he values intellectual discussion, he will bring up every fact in sight. If she values a quiet relationship she may “go along to get along”. Whatever style of persuasion you use, you can be sure of one thing – you won’t change your partner’s values. You might “win” the argument but you won’t change the value. And since the value remains unchanged another collision is inevitable.
This is not to say that values can’t change but almost never will they change suddenly during the course of an argument. It takes time and intention to change a value. And only the person holding it can change the value. You are largely helpless to change another’s values.
Where do values collide?
The short answer is that values collide wherever people come together. Marital experts tell us that the most frequent causes of arguments between married couples are: money, sex, in-laws and parenting. These are all areas that are chock full of tightly held values.
A values collision over money
Bob Jones wanted to buy a new mountain bike. When he told Mary, values collided!
Bob: “Honey, I’m going to buy that new mountain bike. It’s marked down to $799.99.”
Mary: “But you already have a bike.”
Bob: “Not like this!” and he enumerated all the ways that it was special.
Mary: “But we need that money in our savings account.”
Bob: “Mary, if it was up to you, we’d never buy anything. We’d live in a cold-water flat and eat beans.”
Mary: “That’s ridiculous! And so is your idea of buying another bike.”
Their values collided and the “persuading” was on.
Mary was raised in “almost poverty.” Her father couldn’t keep a job and money was either tight or absent. Bob was raised in a family that never had money worries. His father was a successful attorney and frequently bought his family expensive gifts. So when the mountain bike came up, Mary saw it as an extravagance that would take money from the savings account where is should be kept for a rainy day or for retirement. Bob saw it as a gift to himself for working hard, and there was still money in the saving account and retirement was years a way.
It is interesting that when Mary and Bob courted, he took her to nice restaurants and bought her gifts. She never had those experiences during her childhood and she loved being treated that way. And, one reason that Bob came to love Mary was that she was so appreciative of his generosity.
The same values can be both the source of pleasure and displeasure depending on when where and how much.
A values collision over sex
The Jenkins’ daughter told her Mom that she was invited to a friend’s for dinner and a sleep-over which was OK with her Mom. When Fred came home and heard that Jennifer would be gone, he thought the privacy would be great for a sexual evening.
Fred: (Nuzzling her neck), “Since Jennifer’s gone, how about doing it tonight?”
Beth: “Oh,” I don’t know…”
Fred: “Come on, you know you like it once you get started.”
Beth: “Oh, OK.”
Fred: “And you could wear that red garter belt…”
Beth: “Fred, you know I can’t wear that.”
Fred: “Of course you can. Wear it for me. I’d love to see you come downstairs wearing just that. Maybe we could do it down here.”
Beth: “Out of the bedroom? What if Jennifer came home? I’ll do it but not down here and not wearing that thing. I’ll wear my nightie.”
Fred: “You never want to try anything new. You never want to dress up for me.”
Beth: “Maybe sometime, but I don’t think it’s nice to dress like that.”
Again a values collision in action. Fred and Beth are in love, they enjoy sex, but they have different values about what is “right” in a sexual experience. And that collision will cost them some enjoyment on this evening and again and again in the future.
Somewhere in his life Fred acquired the values that sex should be frequent, should grow and change and that, for example, sexy dress was part of it. On the other hand, wherever it came from, Beth has a value that sex is occasional, that nice girls don’t wear sexy outfits and nothing happens outside the bedroom.
So when the opportunity came up for a change in their sexual life their values collided. And we can be sure that they will collide again.
A values collision over in-laws.
Gerri and George usually go to Gerri’s home for Thanksgiving.
George: “Honey, I’d like to make reservations for Florida for Thanksgiving. I don’t want to go to your parents’ this year.”
Gerri: “What? We always go to my parents’. If we don’t go they’ll be furious.”
George: “Your brother always tees me off and your parents treat us like children. I can put up with that sometimes but I want to do something different this year.”
Gerri: “But they’ll be so mad. I don’t want to face that. And we always go there.”
George: “You’ve got to grow up sometime.”
Gerri: “But I just can’t disappoint them.”
Gerri’s value of not upsetting her parents is in conflict with George’s value of trying new things. George is sure that Gerri needs to grow up. Gerri is sure that she is right in not wanting to upset her parents. This values collision will probably not end until Gerri’s parents are no longer available.
A values collision over parenting
Dennis and Jackie are soccer parents. They have enjoyed watching their two girls grow up in the game and are getting their son started. On a Saturday morning, while Dennis and Jackie watch, their son, age 7, plays his first game.
Dennis: Shouts to his son, “Davey, don’t play with the flowers, get after the ball!”
Jackie: “Dennis, be quiet. It’s just a game.”
Dennis: “He isn’t playing, he’s looking at the dandelions! He shouts “Davey get back in the game!”
Jackie: “Dennis, stop! It’s all right. He’s just a kid. This is his first game. Now be quiet, you’re embarrassing me.”
Dennis: “You’re embarrassed? You’re embarrassed?? I’m embarrassed by your son.”
A values collision in action, Dennis values the competition of sports, probably he feels this more strongly with his son than he did with his daughters. Jackie probably feels that the exercise and fresh air are the important aspects of the game. We can’t know what will happen between Dennis and Davey in the future, but we can be sure that this values difference will come up again and add to Dennis and Jackie’s parenting difficulties.
Even similarities can collide
Values collisions can occur even when an outsider, looking in, might feel that a couple had similar values. I might look at the Smiths and see what I think are two free spenders, and yet the Smiths may have frequent disagreements over money.
For example, she might feel that, as a professional woman, she needs to spend significantly on clothes. He might feel that this is silly, that her success depends solely on her performance. He might feel that having a new car every two or three years is important, while to her, a new car is an extravagance and they should buy a top quality car and keep it for many years.
One way of looking at value differences is to think of putting them on a scale of 1 to 10. Take money again, let’s say that 1 represents a miser and 10 represents a profligate spender. If he is a 3 and she is a 7, the difference is obvious and the values collisions will be significant and frequent.
But if she is a 3 and he is a 4, both want to save but that doesn’t ensure that they have similar values or that they won’t have values collisions. She may want to put all their savings in CD’s and he may want to invest in the stock market.
What we can say for sure is that values collisions will occur and areas like money, sex, in-laws and parenting where couples invest so much energy will see them frequently.
When values coincide
Before we look at what to do about the inevitable values collisions let’s look at the kind of thing that happens when values really do coincide.
She: “I have a meeting Tuesday, so I can’t take Sarah to her soccer practice.”
He: “But her practice is at 4:00 and I need to work till 5:30 or 6:00. I don’t see how I can take her.”
She: “Maybe we can get her friend to take her, or could you go in early Wednesday and take off early on Tuesday.”
He: “I really need to be there Tuesday afternoon. Maybe she could take a cab.”
“I think her friend is ill, so the cab is a good idea.”
He: “OK, I call to be sure the cab picks her up afterwards, too.”
No problem here. Both value having Sarah make her practice. If there had been a values collision, if he did not really support sports for girls or if she had resented spending the money for the taxi this could have turned into a major argument and Sarah might not have gotten there at all.
He: “Let’s talk about our vacation. I want to go to Yellowstone.”
She: “I thought we were going backpacking in Yosemite. I’d prefer that.”
He: “Well, let’s talk about the possibilities.”
They discuss several National and State Park options, both backpacking and non-backpacking. After the discussion they decide to go backpacking in Yellowstone.
If this seems easy, it is because their values are similar. They both value the open air, exercise, beauty and moderate cost vacations.
Imagine this conversation if she liked hotel vacations and wanted to go to Acapulco while he was the backpacker and hiker and was a 2 on the saver-spender scale.
We have seen how frequently values collisions occur. We have seen that no couples come together with identical values and that even similar values may contain the seeds of values collisions.
When there are no value collisions, problems seem to be settled easily. So, it may be that all couple problems stem from values collisions. Then what are we to do?
Here are some ideas; things that you can do now to prepare for the inevitable values collisions in your relationship.
Recognize values collisions when they occur
Values collisions should be easily recognizable. After all they are the cause of most of our arguments and fights. But values collisions come disguised. Here are a few of the favorite disguises: I’m right (and therefore you are wrong); everybody knows that…; my partner doesn’t respect me; my partner is just doing that to bug me.
If an argument looms, assume it is a values collision, and:
- your partner will think they are right too;
- not everybody would agree with your point of view;
- your partner does respect you;
- your partner isn’t starting an argument just to bug you;
and try to be tolerant.
A clue to recognizing a values collision is rising emotions. Your values usually have strong emotional content. If you feel your emotions rising or see it in your partner it is likely that values are involved.
Listen to understand your partner’s viewpoint
Often under the pressure of emotions and our feelings of rightness (and righteousness), we don’t listen to our partner. We just try to persuade. When the other is talking we are planning our rebuttal or our next argument.
Listen and really understand what your partner is saying and what the underlying value is. Understanding does not mean that you agree.
Assume that the other is seeing the facts differently; that they are using a different filter than you are. Listen to see the facts as they see them. That doesn’t mean their view is correct, just try to understand fully.
When you listen to each other and don’t judge; when you try to understand and don’t try to change; when you see the facts through the other’s eyes you are 90% of the way to a solution.
Assume a good motivation
Often an argument brings on feelings such as, my partner: doesn’t respect me; thinks I’m dumb; never listens to me; is putting me down, etc.
While that is sometimes the case, usually it is not. Couples don’t stop loving or respecting each other just because of an argument – they just act that way. Assume that your partner loves you, respects you and is simply trying to see that their values are respected.
Recognize that value differences are healthy
As hard as it is to believe in the heat of an argument, values differences actually make your marriage better.
Not just better because arguments are exciting but because value differences help ensure that as a couple, you look at both sides of a situation – that you consider both spending and saving, both staying home and going out, both football and ballet. In short that your relationship is more effective than either of you can be alone.
What do BEFORE values collide
Talk about your values
You may know, or think you know, how your partner feels about spending but do you know how they feel about siblings fighting? You may know how your partner feels about going to parties but do you know why they feel that way? Have you ever told your partner why you want to have dinner on time? Have you ever asked if there was some childhood event that led to a particular value?
Plan ahead to have that kind of discussion. Have it sometime when things are calm. The objectives are to explore, to understand, to have some “I didn’t know you felt that way” moments.
Be respectful of your partner’s opinions. Keep right and wrong out of the discussion. Don’t try to sell your viewpoint. Don’t have a hidden agenda where you subtly try to change your partner.
Make some rules for your next values collision
In the heat of an argument it is hard to remember your good intentions. So, have a discussion with your partner now about what to say and do when it happens. Here are a few ideas.
- Saying something like, “Oh gee, I guess we are in a values collision,” will trigger your good intentions.
- Taking a time out when you see that emotions are rising will allow you to plan how you want to act when you resume. By the way, if you call a time out, you must set a time in the next 48 hours to resume – within the next 2 hours is preferable.
- Stick to the point. Each time you vary from the point you will find other values on which you can collide.
When you discuss these rules for your next values collision, look for other ideas that fit the two of you.
It may be that every marital conflict has its origin in a values collision; if not every conflict, the vast majority.
- When values coincide, problems are easily settled.
- When values collide problems are hard to resolve and reoccur time after time.
- Every couple has values differences. The success of the relationship lies in how you handle them. Plan now and act now to handle your value differences constructively.