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James L Creighton Ph.D.
James L Creighton Ph.D.

When the Fight Is Over Values

How to resolve differences over values choices

Some of the hardest disputes to resolve are disputes over values. Values are the decision rules we apply to decide what is good/bad, right/wrong, fair/unfair, rational/irrational. Values choices are not always conscious choices. But they do drive most of the decisions we make.

Values are often implied in speech or behavior rather than explicitly stated. While they play a strong role in shaping our lives, when they are stated explicitly, they sound vaguely like "motherhood" or "apple pie" and are difficult to defend except as an act of faith. (For example, the writer of the Declaration of Independence fell back on the phrase "we hold these truths to be self‑evident" to justify values as fundamental as Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.)

The reason that conflicts over values are hard to resolve is that they can’t really be traded or given away. If a dispute is over dollars, or acres, or even technology, it is possible to resolve a dispute by adding more–more dollars, more acres, more technology, etc. But how can you trade a value like “freedom” with “security?” They aren’t tradeable.

Most difficult decisions are choices about the relative weight or value that should be given to one value versus another. Put another way, things we think of as “good” are often in tension with other things we think are good. We want our children to be creative, but we also want them to have discipline. Complete freedom can endanger safety. Complete safety usually rules our complete freedom.

Values choices are essentially choices between two or more positive goods. For example, if the issue is the use of seat belts one must find a position that balances "comfort" with "safety." If the issue is the mandatory use of seat belts, one must find the balance point between "individual freedom" and "'public safety," All of these values are good, desirable, positive. No one is against any of these values. The issue is which values should prevail in this instance. The act of "valuing" is one of finding the proper balance point between the two values in a given situation at a particular point in time.

Many of the conflicts between couples involve exactly this kind of decision making. Many fights over spending money, raising children, or sex are really arguments over values.

When we confront someone with an emotional reality based on values that are substantially different than ours, the rules by which we judge reality are contradicted. We usually cope with this threat to our definition of reality by judging others to be ill‑informed or badly‑motivated. When couples argue about what action to take, they frequently see each other as opponents, someone who is against what they believe to be right. Your partner may oppose an action you think is important because it doesn’t support what she/he thinks is good.

You may both seem to be opponents, opposing preferred courses of action. But if you are in a loving relationship it is hard on the relationship if you think of your partners as an opponent every time you disagree on values. You are both defending what you view as a positive good. Your partner’s opposition is based on his/her positive support for some value which she/he thinks is even more important.

One of the characteristics of values arguments is that your “opponent” will usually appear "over-emotional and irrational," committed to premises that s/he cannot justify rationally. The difficulty is that both sides see the other as locked into preconceptions that can’t be justified.

How to Deal with Values Conflicts

Your job as a couple is to identify the values for which each of you is arguing. Even when your partner opposes what you think is important, look for the positive good that your partner supports. You both support a positive value.

Particularly when you become opponents emotionally, you may emphasize the value you believe in so completely that your partner feels that what s/he values is being wiped out. Values choices are not black/white choices. They are a matter of finding the right balance, honoring both values to an extent, but giving greater weight to one of the values in particular circumstances. Public safety is good, but so is freedom of action. Which is more important in this situation?

It’s possible that when you each recognize what the other person stands for, you may find you are not so far apart. Even when you think your value — say “safety” — is more important in a particular situation, you may still think “comfort” is important too. It’s just how much weight each value is given. Instead of either/or you are looking for both/and. You are working together to find ways that both values are given their due.

Here are some steps that may be helpful:

Identify the Values Each of You Supports

Think of identifying values as a puzzle you can solve together. Here are three indicators of values:

Use of Values‑Laden Language ‑ This includes terms such as "throwing away our money," "coddling the kids," "letting the family run our lives," etc. In these phrases, values are implied rather than directly stated. The values might be thrift, discipline/structure, and freedom/independence.

Predicting a Dire Consequence ‑ People will predict that an action will result in some dire outcome. The kind of consequence they fear will reflect their values. For example: “You are spoiling the children by giving them everything they want.” The fear is that the kids will turn out bad, unable to exercise self-discipline. Or they might fear that you will end up bankrupt. Or they fear that they’ll never make friends.

It doesn’t really matter that the other person’s fear makes no sense to you. I have a friend whose husband was deeply influenced by his parent’s experiences during the depression, and food shortages during World War II. No amount of money will help him feel secure. That is one of his “realities.” His wife has had to make peace with this. She also remembers that what drives him is a desire for financial security, something she also supports.

Referring to a Venerable Source ‑ People may quote the Bible, the President, the latest self-help book, or someone they talked to at work. The strategy is to quote a source so venerable that people won't dare question the individual's position for fear of appearing to attack the venerated source. The difficulty is that sources that are venerated by one person may appear downright disreputable to another (e.g. my financial advisor program on TV says…”). However, which sources they consider venerable may tell something about the values that are important, e.g. if they quote a minister, priest, or rabbi, they probably support many of the values that person supports.

Discuss Why this Value Is Important to You

Strongly held values are usually rooted in our own experience, particularly childhood experience. Charlene lived in a family in constant financial chaos. As a result, “financial stability” is extremely important to her. She wants to avoid the kind of chaos she suffered early on. Charles felt like almost all his creative impulses were suppressed. He swore that as a parent he was going to encourage and support his children’s’ spontaneity and creativity. To fail to do this would be like betraying the little boy who felt so suppressed.

Discussing why values have importance to you can lead to possible resolutions of the conflict. But even if it doesn’t, it will increase your understanding of each other.

Discuss Why You Think the Value You Support is of Particular Importance in this Situation

Don’t expect to find a balance between values that holds in every circumstance. There are times in life, for example, when safety is of overriding importance. In those situations, other values may be of lesser importance. What is it about your present situation that makes a value seem most important to you? Once again, the worst that can happen from discussing this is that you’ll learn more about each other.

Look for Actions That Would Support Both Values

Our goal is to find answers that both people can support. Often when you really share what’s important to you, you’ll find you are not as far apart as you thought at first. But even if you do not give values the same weight, is there some way you can respect both values?

About the Author
James L Creighton Ph.D.

James Creighton, Ph.D., is a psychologist and relationship consultant who has worked with couples and conducted communications training for nearly 50 years.

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