Values in a Relationship

Values in a relationship - how to deal with differing and changing values

On the podcast this time we talked about the importance of being aware of values in a relationship, and how this can be challenging particularly when our values differ, or become more different over time.

Value differences are normal – and challenging

It’s worth being aware that it’s highly unlikely that all our values will be shared in any relationship, and also that relationships – and individual values – will inevitably change over time. So – just like fluctuations and disparities in erotic desire – value differences are a normal part of relationships (of all kinds). Embracing and discussing them – rather than resisting and avoiding them –  can be an exciting, interesting, and useful part of relating.

This is not to say it’s easy though. Coming up against a major value difference can also feel very threatening, especially when it’s something you hold dear or something that makes you fear that you might either have to lose the relationship or compromise yourself in some vital way. This kind of conversation can lead us into trauma responses, and it’s worth being very kind to ourselves and each other through them.

What kinds of value shift might happen in relationships?

On the podcast we referred to things like: having different politics or getting into a new set of ideas; one person becoming vegetarian, vegan, or giving up drinking; and one person coming to a new faith or losing faith.

We might consider that a value shift is a more vital one to examine if it impacts the relationship and/or another person more directly. For example, it might do this if it affects:

  • How we relate to each other (e.g. how much money we have for shared activity, what capacity we have to do tasks that sustain the relationship, whether we can be around each other’s key people, etc.)
  • How much we fancy, like, admire, or love the other person
  • How much we see the other person (e.g. if it necessitates a big move, or spending a lot of time elsewhere)

Many options for dealing with value differences

With any kind of tension or conflict it’s useful to remember that there are many options, especially when we can easily be drawn into a ‘stay together vs. break-up’ binary when tough issues come up. For example, all these options are possible ways forward:

  • Person A consensually moves towards person B in their values following dialogue
  • Person B consensually moves towards person A in their values following dialogue
  • Some compromise position is found between the different values
  • Some compromise position is found where each person retains their values but you find a way of acting/living/relating that represents a compromise
  • You agree to differ and go to other people in your life in relation to that value
  • You recognise it’s an ongoing tension that will inevitably crop up every now and then in your relationship. Now you can recognise it when it happens and agree a way to engage with it at those times
  • You change the relationship in some way to accommodate the value difference (e.g how you define it or how you live it out)
  • You end the relationship because it feels too difficult for one or more people to continue given that difference (if it doesn’t work for everyone it doesn’t work for anyone)

Value differences can be good

Being curious about our values together over time can be a fun and interesting aspect of a relationship. It can give us some great topics to discuss over a meal, or on holiday. We may well learn from each other. For example, we might decide to read each other’s favourite book around a particular theme to discuss, or to each read something setting out two or more positions on something we seem to differ on. Meta-communication can be good first to figure out how we want to have these conversations though (e.g. not everyone loves a heated debate and privilege has a major impact on who knows the ‘rules’ of that kind of conversation).

If we notice we have a lot of arguments about seemingly small stuff then it might be worth figuring out what underlying values are at stake. There are great activities on how to do this in Rowan Bombadil’s Igniting Intimacy and Barbara Carrelas’s Ecstasy is Necessary. Such activities and discussions can increase intimacy over time.

It can be helpful to think of values as potentially more than just something which might get in the way of our relationship and how they might actually be quite grounding. For example: What are the values of our relationship? How do we want to relate? What does it mean to be ethical towards each other? What values do we want to adhere to in conflict? Check out Russ Harris’s ACT with Love, and Sophia’s Love Uncommon posts about values, what they achieve, and how they relate to conflict.

© Meg-John Barker & Justin Hancock, 2019