Last week I had a fascinating session with a couple who’ve been together ever since high school. They came to me because their marriage has become increasingly stressful. They found themselves fighting frequently, feeling misunderstood, unsafe, and generally pretty miserable (although flashes of happiness still remained). It was only my second session with them, and I was operating under the assumption that they must know each other very well after having been together from such an early age. So I was quite surprised when, twenty minutes into the session, Barbara (not her real name, of course) and Hank (nor his) agreed that they had very different values. I asked if that had always been the case and they replied “no,” that in fact early in their relationship they had virtually identical values, but that these had diverged over time.
I found this curious – in my experience people’s values tend to remain fairly constant. So I questioned them about some key areas of their lives. How important was family? Money? Did they want children? What were their religious views? Their politics? Their interest in making a contribution to society?
It turned out that in nine out of ten areas their values were virtually identical. Their families of origin were extremely important to them. They both wanted sex to play a prominent role in their relationship (although it had been absent for quite a while in the marriage, to their mutual regret). Money was important, but not exceptionally so, and primarily a vehicle to support the realization of other values (having children, changing the world for the better). Learning and knowledge were to be pursued avidly. Both believed in the importance of their (shared) religion, etc.
Where the problem lay was not in a divergence of values, but in the way each of them translated those values into their daily lives. A prime example: although both are avid learners and have a thirst for knowledge, Hank assumed that Barbara had lost much of this interest because when he tried to engage her in discussions of current events she would “clam up”. As we explored this topic, Barbara expressed amazement that Hank could think that. “Don’t you remember the discussion we had about Tunisia over the weekend?” she asked. “That wasn’t much of a discussion,” Hank replied, “you made it clear after just a minute or so that you weren’t interested”. Hank mistook the defensive reaction Barbara exhibited when she felt she was being cross-examined for a disinclination to have the discussion at all. Had he handled the discussion more as a dialogue and less as a debate, he would have seen that Barbara would have loved to have talked about the subject for much longer. Another example: although both of them wanted children, Hank worried about their ability to handle the financial responsibilities that children entailed, and, reluctant to admit his concerns for fear it would paint him as a “loser”, would tend to change the subject when the topic came up. Barbara interpreted this as a change in Hank’s view of the desirability of children and, because of the hiatus in their sex lives, was reluctant to press the subject. So neither felt heard or understood.
Not surprisingly, shared values are not only exceptionally common in successful relationships, but they serve to bind the couple together when the passion of physical attraction starts to wane. In couples session after couples session I have observed how foundational values can be to a relationship, and how drawing the couple’s attention to those shared values is invariably healing. At the same time, I see so many couples erroneously concluding that a difference in the way those values are translated into the elements of day-to-day living (lively or stilted conversation, carrying out or avoiding responsibilities, making or fudging commitments) suggests that the values are no longer shared. If attention can be turned to the underlying values, rather than to how they may seem to be played out, greater harmony almost always ensue.