Conflict Over Values
Agree to Be Different – Let’s Agree on How You Can Change
Author: Lynne Namka, Ed. D.
When two people join their lives to be together in relationship, they bring along their deepest values as to what they hold dear in the world. There are fundamental differences or a conflict in values in people. INDIVIDUALS ARE DIFFERENT DUE TO THEIR UPBRINGINGS, THE NEEDS OF THEIR CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEMS AND HOW THEY SEE THE WORLD. PEOPLE HAVE DIFFERENT NEEDS AND DIFFERENT DESIRES. MEN AND WOMEN ARE DIFFERENT IN SOME WAYS. THAT IS JUST HOW IT IS. Some values are a strong part of the person’s personality make up and are resistant to change. Some couples are even attracted to each other because at first they value their partner’s different ways of looking at the world.
After the honeymoon phase of the relationship, conflict comes up when there are noticeable difference in values of the couple. Part of the problem is often due to unrealistic expectations for the relationship. It is a sad fact that Americans have set up such high standards for their relationships. In our society, some people expect to get all of their emotional needs met within the relationship. The unrealistic expectation that one’s partner meet every need for intimacy is wrecking many marriages. Spiritual people seem to have even higher expectations than others. With rising expectations for the partner lies the danger for lack of personal happiness and longevity of the relationship. High expectations and focus on the partner’s weaknesses rather than their strengths result in personal unhappiness and a threat to the relationship.
Demand for change of the partner comes from what Virginia Satir called The Big Game of Life which is I have the right to tell you what to do. Couples who play The Big Game polarize their demands. Each sits on an opposite pole caught in their own pain and shout at each other demanding change but ending up in locked up positions. They believe that not only the other person can change, but that they should and right away! No wonder relationships in America are in such trouble!
Permanent behavior change doesn’t happen especially if there has been a demand for change. Intolerance in a relationship coupled with angry, coercive behaviors always cause distancing between the two people in the relationship. Human beings do have a need for control in their life. However, when personal needs spill over into demanding changes from the partner, it backfires and prevents intimacy from developing.
The Circular Loop of Criticism and Subsequent Relationship Deterioration
Satir said that what every person wants in to be loved. What we all want is to be loved and love others in return. But some people get caught up in destructive, intrusive behaviors that are used to try to obtain love. Their agenda becomes The quicker I can get you to agree with me and change, the better. Not knowing other ways to get what they want, they continue their demand behaviors for change. Their purpose is to obtain love for themselves but they end up criticizing their partner. They are well intentioned in trying to get change to bring about more happiness for themselves but it doesn’t work. They do what they know how to do and do it louder and longer but it still doesn’t work! Demanding the other person clean up their act is considered a coercion model of change.
A circular loop of anger based on I have the right to tell you what to do keeps the couple caught in countless arguments. The first scenario is when the first person is angry and demands change in the partner. The partner may comply with preserve peace but resents it. The behavior changes but then the partner slides back into old actions. The first person is angry and blames the person for not trying hard enough. He or she spends time justifying how bad the partner is for not meeting his or her needs and tries harder to change the partner. People who demand change from their partners dig themselves in deeper and deeper into an impasse with their partner as they cycle around the loop of destructive communication. The second scenario is when the second partner responds by blaming and insisting on changes that he wants in the first person–tit for tat, but it ends up with constant fault finding.
Attempts to change the other person, even though well intentioned, may become an even bigger problem. For some individuals, the constant trying to change the partner is the biggest problem they run up against, even bigger than the behavior in their partner that they are trying to change! Some people keep themselves angry and upset through their attachment to their belief that they cannot be happy unless the partner changes. The result is poor self esteem, isolation and continual frustration. Blaming, fights that no one wins and distancing characterize the relationship.
Later the behaviors that seemed initially so stabilizing or freeing in their partner seem to wear thin. What they formerly valued in their partner becomes an irritant. The Big Game of Life begins in earnest. Then the war begins to try to make the partner over to be a carbon copy of their own values. Then the Hardening of the Categories begins– Once I believe something bad about your behavior, I look for data to confirm it. Instead of seeing their own need for control and insistence on having things their way, the other person becomes the enemy. Psychologist Neil Jacobson and his colleagues have identified the most common differences between couples that set up most of the fights. These differences stem from basic value differences and world outlook.
The Most Common Basic Differences in People That Cause Fights and Distancing
- I need closeness and intimacy with you/I need my space, don’t bother me.
50% of fights!
- We must act like free spirits and be spontaneous/We must be a logical and rational.
We can spend money and get what we want; let’s put it on plastic/We must save money.
- I must have control over you/Don’t tell me what to do; I must be an independent person.
- We must keep the secrets (strong silent type)/Let’s be open and talk about everything.
- Let’s have sex all the time/Sex is okay once in a while.
- Conflict and anger should be expressed and accepted/Don’t get angry.
- I don’t want to clean the house/We must live in a neat, clean house.
- You must have a successful career/I just want to live a laid back kind of life.
- Children should be raised; strictly/children should be allowed to be free and spontaneous.
- My work over everything/You must be here for the family or you don’t love me.
- I withdraw when we fight to take care of myself/ I’ll go on the offensive and go after you.
- Our marriage must be monogamous/I want to experience different sexual partners.
- My parents, friends or the kids come before you/our partnership comes first.
These differences in values reflect different ways of looking at the world and living one’s life. Some couples see their partner s flaws but have deep commitment to remaining in the relationship. Some marriages last with happiness despite great differences in values. Their commitment is that they learn to accept their differences rather than make them sources of arguments. Talking about the problem as is if it is the enemy not the partner’s behavior and seeking common solutions ends up being the solution to the problem. Some coupes agree to stay together and take on the daily challenges despite widely divergent needs and desires. It is as if each agrees Yes, I love and accept him or her despite those flaws. Yes, there are big value differences between us and we can stay together. No matter what, we can work it out.
How do couples weather out their basic differences to stay together to achieve a happy relationship. Some learn to become more tolerant of their partner’s behavior by giving up the struggle for change on demand. They agree to stop pushing the buttons that set their partner off. They are committed to staying together despite their differences and put the interests of the partnership over fighting about who is right or wrong. They accept that each partner is different and that differences bring variety and challenges to the relationship. With this acceptance comes the desire to accommodate more to their partner’s wishes. True personal change involves openness, non-blaming and non-defensive communication about conflict.
It is a funny thing about human values–they often become stuck when another person demands change; they loosen when there is closeness, acceptance and seeing the partner through sympathetic eyes. When both begin to see the pros and cons of each position and see their partner with compassion, they begin to change naturally as they no longer have to defend their stance. Closeness comes about when they see the problem, not the partner, as the enemy.
How People Make the Decision to Split Up
At times, there are differences between the couple that are hard to reconcile. Some destructive behaviors such as the three A’s (severe, ongoing abuse, adultery, and addictions) are impossible to tolerate or accept. Over time these destructive behavior grow into fundamental differences cannot be tolerated.
The greater number of differences or the intensity of the beliefs between the partners, the more difficult time they will have in achieving stability in their relationship. One or both partners can become highly sensitive to the their partners behaviors and become greatly critical and angry over small issues. Commitment to the partner and the relationship starts to wane. Communication breaks down and depression may set in. One or both partners may start to seek outside people to verify their beliefs about how bad their partner is. They seek interests outside the relationship and begin to invest more energy away from their partner. They may seek out a transitional person as a friend or lover to get them through this critical time. If the transitional people they choose supports them in their belief on how bad the partner is, then they are more likely to consider leaving.
Breaking up happens when one or both members of the couple decided that there are fundamental differences in their partner that they can’t stand. The decision to leave the relationship happens when one or both decide that there is a fatal flaw in their partner that they no longer live with.
Sewing the Hundreds of Threads to Keep Your Relationship Committed
Simone Signoret said, Chains do not hold a marriage together. It is the threads, hundreds of tiny threads which sew people together through the years. A couple’s commitment to living the C Words sews the relationship together: cooperation, connection, compassion, clear conscience and ongoing communication.
The best advice for happiness in a relationship is to keep your expectations of your partner modest and your gratitude’s high. One of the highest level skills that keeps a relationship together is to feel appreciation for the partner’s positive traits. Acceptance of things as they are and stopping the struggle to change the partner is a way to achieve happiness in the relationship. Desirable changes happen when communication strategies are learned and the goal is to become more open, non-critical and non-defensive and listen to accommodate the other. Often one partner’s focusing on the goal of acceptance leads to the other partner starting to make change. The achievement of a good marriage and being loving with your partner in the lean years as well as the good is a fine art to be learned and practiced.
Couples who commit to stay together do make changes in their values across time. In an atmosphere of openness and trust, the need to hold dogmatically to one’s own position and make the other partner wrong decreases. Values differences start to soften and fade when there is mutual agreement to see things from the other partner’s point of view. The couple takes mutual responsibility for their problems. They know each must change themself for the betterment of the relationship. As they put their commitment to being a couple above their individual needs, they begin to grow more like each other in their values. Couples who want to stay together develop the ability to accept the unresolvability of some of the problems and enjoy each other anyway. They learn to turn their differences into a source of strength and enrichment of the relationship. As the French say, Viva la difference!
This article is based on the research and theories of Neil Jacobson and his colleagues and is drawn from their work in Integrative Behavioral Couples Therapy.
References: Christensen, A., Jacobson, N., Babcoc, J. (1995). Integrative behavioral couple therapy. In Jacobson and Gurman (Eds.) Clinical Handbook of Couples Therapy (pp. 31-64) New York: Guilford Publications, Inc.
Jacobson, N. S. (1992) Behavioral couple therapy: A new beginning. Behavior Therapy, 23, 493-506.
Acceptance of My Partner’s Differences
Identify one major difference in values between you and your partner.
My value is__________________________________________
My partner believes that ___________________________________
On a scale of one to ten with ten being terrible, how big an issue is this for you? ______________
How big of an issue is this for your partner? _________________________________________
What have I done to try to make changes in my partner in this area? Check all that apply.
____ Secretly wished for change and dwelled on how bad it was.
____ Brought it to my partner’s attention.
____ Got angry with my partner.
____ Got upset and demanded change more than once.
____ Tried to use logic and reason with partner.
____ Harangued my partner with the issue.
____ Withdrew into cold silence.
____ Tried to get others to convince my partner he or she is wrong.
____ Threatened to break up the relationship over this issue.
____ Became depressed, stayed constantly angry or suicidal over this.
What words do I typically use with my partner to convince him or her that they must change? _________________________________________________________________
How has my mental health and happiness been affected by my insistence on changing my partner?_______________________________________
In spite of all that I’ve done to try to change my partner, has it worked?
_____ My partner will change for a short time, then reverts back to old behavior.
_____ My partner refuses to change.
_____ My insistence on my partner’s change has caused the relationship to deteriorate.
Describe how you feel now after completing this exercise. _______________________________
Would you keep taking bitter tasting medicine if it did not make you well? ___________________
Be truthful now. Can you really make changes in another person? _________________________
Who is the only person you can make changes in? _____________________________________
What do you need to do to make yourself happy, given your situation?________________________________________________________
Do You and Your Partner Have a Communication Gap?
On a scale of 0 to 4 with 0 seldom and 4 often, do you:
Give in to your partner to keep the peace? 0 1 2 3 4
Withdraw/refuse to talk? 0 1 2 3 4
Discuss but leave problems unresolved? 0 1 2 3 4
Distract or joke about the problem? 0 1 2 3 4
Order, warn or threaten your partner? 0 1 2 3 4
Press your point repeatedly to get own way? 0 1 2 3 4
Tell your partner how to solve their problems? 0 1 2 3 4
Judge, criticize or blame during arguments? 0 1 2 3 4
Become highly aroused/turn cold during arguments? 0 1 2 3 4
Bring up old issues during an argument. 0 1 2 3 4
Deny and minimize your partner’s point of view? 0 1 2 3 4
Below the Belt Fighting Total points _______ times 4 _________
Share your feelings about the issue? 0 1 2 3 4
Send clear straight forward messages? 0 1 2 3 4
Talk only about the issue being discussed? 0 1 2 3 4
Acknowledge/validate what your partner says? 0 1 2 3 4
Try to see it from your partner’s point of view? 0 1 2 3 4
Take time out to cool down & return to talk? 0 1 2 3 4
Keep the focus on finding a solution? 0 1 2 3 4
Fair Fighting Total points ______ times 2 ________
Fair Fighting minus Below the Belt Fighting Total Score __________