Differing values in relationships? Ignore at your peril

Couple of hard-boiled eggs with sad faces close to each other
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Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

We’re often surprised others hold different values to us. Differing values in relationships can be a warning sign of conflict. And if you ignore these early signs, it’s at your own peril.

A couple in conflict

What about this couple’s dilemma?

Jack and Mary can’t agree on whether to buy a house.

Jack values intimacy, family relationships and a quiet lifestyle. He wants a modest house with a yard large enough for kids, pets and a vegetable garden. He’s looking forward to being a hands-on dad, with links to the local community. His low tolerance of uncertainty means he values routine and financial security.

Mary, on the other hand, values exploration, adventure and excitement. As a young adult she travelled widely overseas, working in villages and on farms. She’ll endure discomfort so she can experience life in different cultures. She hasn’t thought of settling down long-term or having kids.

As Mary and Jack lived for years in the same town, you’d think they’d have similar views on life.

But they’re worlds apart in their thinking. And this is a warning sign of conflict to come.

Families of origin

Both Mary and Jack assume their families are similar in outlook. Of course, they were aware of obvious differences between them. But these didn’t seem to be a problem at first.

Now they’re realising the different values held by their families. And by extension, the differing values regarding their relationship that Jack and Mary hold.

1 Jack’s family

For instance, Jack’s family hasn’t moved in 40 years. They have strong links to the community, and enjoy routine.

Jack’s mother is traditional, and his father is a respected lawyer in town. He’s also conservative, with strong views about right and wrong.

Neither likes inconvenience or adjusts well to change.

2 Mary’s family

In contrast, Mary’s family only came to town about 15 years ago. They made sure to join local sports groups to socialise and fit in.

Prior to this, they’d lived in various developing countries. Both parents worked on community projects for aid organisations. They still spend several months a year volunteering overseas.

Superficial similarities

The casual observer will spot some similarities in these families – for example, their friendliness, respect for others and beliefs in working hard.

It’s only when you dig deeper that you realise they’re very different. The family cultures are as different as two families from different countries.

Neither Mary nor Jack has spent much time with their partner’s family.  So neither has realised just how contrasting they are. Or how they have such different values to each other.

No wonder their relationship is teetering on the brink of collapse.

Challenges ahead

Mary and Jack are catching a glimmer of challenges they face. Such an immense gulf in values will take a lot of negotiation.

Unfortunately the glow of early romance blinded them both to reality. Such differing values in a relationship are a warning sign of later conflict.

Romantic illusions

Initially, Jack offered stability and calm to Mary. She’d met him during a break from years of constant travel. 

His calm, unhurried and unemotional personality attracted her. He seemed to offer a safe haven from whirlwind years of travel.

Jack in turn was dazzled by Mary’s fierce confidence and energy. He was amazed at her exploits, but had no desire to copy them.

Brewing conflict

A year down the track, they’re at loggerheads. They can’t agree about the lifestyle to adopt as a couple. So the differing values in the relationship are now coming to the fore. 

Both secretly wish the other would come round to their way of thinking. Neither wants to drop their own values, or the associated lifestyle and goals. 

However, both need to feel they’re getting their needs met. Otherwise one will resent giving in to the other. They’ll begin to feel they’re not important or valued. And that they’ve sacrificed their own fulfilment for the other person.

Mary and Jack need plenty of goodwill and empathy to imagine possible solutions.

But what if neither can change?

The crunch will come if one or both can’t or won’t change. Or if they do change, they feel they’ve lost what they hold most valuable in life.

In that case, compromise will be very difficult. If it proves to be impossible, they may decide it’s more sensible to part friends.

That would be sad. But it’s rational and mature to part before the situation turns nasty.

With luck, they’ll go to counselling to help sort out their issues. And if they do decide to part, the counsellor can help reduce conflict.

Warning tale

Folk wisdom says that “opposites attract.” But does it lead to happiness?

Often we pick someone who has different values and a contrasting personality to our own. We hope they’ll make up for what we’re not happy about in ourselves.

And perhaps that was part of why Mary and Jack got together. Both were looking for a temporary escape from their own approach to life.

But often, these differing values and qualities are the very things that lead to later disagreements.

Most of us probably don’t have such widely contrasting values with our partners as Mary and Jack. However, the differences can still be enough to provoke conflict.

Just think of arguments triggered by values around money, religion or politics.

Imagine scenarios when two people have conflicting values, such as:

spending big versus saving

socialising versus quiet time together

education versus getting the first low-paid job you can find

Over time, you can see how such differing values will trigger conflict. Even if compromises are made, resentment can still linger.

Far better to ensure early on that you have similar values in important areas.

1 Check out your partner’s values

So have discussions about the things that matter to you both.

Broad agreement in practical areas is important. For instance, regarding finances, family, education, leisure time and friendships.

But also look at abstract areas like fairness, ethical behaviour and happiness too.

Obviously you’ll never agree on everything. But note major differences in values most important to you. See how well you both agree on what matters.

And even more importantly, see if the person’s behaviour matches the values they claim to hold.

2 Face reality

If you do see evidence of very different values to yours, don’t ignore it. 

For instance, if you see abusive, derogatory or mean behaviour. Or actions that put others down or violate their rights in some way.

Saying, “It’ll all be OK once we’re together,” is living in fantasy land. Denying a problem won’t make it go away. If anything, it’ll get worse unless you are both willing to be flexible to some degree.

So don’t trust to your feelings. Look at reality, and especially look at behaviours. Actions speak louder than words.

Smaller differences

But take notice of smaller differences too.

As shown in the above examples, these can also lead to friction. Be prepared to deal with differing goals you both have. Open discussion, long before you make any big decisions, is the way to go. 

3 Look for evidence of real change

Someone may change superficially to please you. And they’ll seem to be different when things are going well.

But values are hard to shift.

People don’t just change overnight. It often takes a radical experience to change a person’s values. And they’ll often return to old beliefs and habits when under stress.

That’s why it’s important to look at how people behave over a long period of time. Don’t believe they’ve changed just because they say they’ve changed. Look for real evidence that they are behaving differently and in a consistent way.

4 Stresses add up over time

Unfortunately, the longer a relationship, the more the stresses add up.

So Jack above may agree to go overseas to make Mary happy. Initially he may enjoy the new experiences. But over time he may regret his decision.

His lack of flexibility and love of routine may make it hard for him to adjust to new cultures. And moving around or changing jobs will increase stress. So the longer they’re overseas, the more difficulties he’ll have.

And the more conflict will probably occur within the relationship.

Be aware of your values

So differing values can lead to conflict with significant people in your life.

To reduce problems, firstly identify your own values. And secondly, those of your prospective partner. Don’t brush aside differing values in relationships. They may be a warning sign of conflict to come.

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