Here’s another Big Theme that often comes up in counseling: values. (I might start a series! First installment here.)
Let’s start with the same example I used last time: the couple is fighting about money. Let’s say the fight looks basically like this: “You spend money like an irresponsible fool!” “No, you never spend money because you’re selfish and cheap!” A couple could have that fight for hours. But if we look at it through the Big Theme of values, it looks like this: one of them is generous, the other thrifty.
Generosity is more than a temperament: it can be a value. You want to give nice gifts to your friends because they are supremely important in your life and you want the meaningful experience of giving them thoughtful and generous gifts. You don’t want to nickel-and-dime your way through life. You believe money is a way to express kindness, or freedom. Or you have a value that your life (and that of your friends and family) should include beautiful things, or delightful experiences. This is a central part of your value system.
But wait! What about the value of thrift? Your partner grew up in modest circumstances (or let’s face it, he grew up poor) and he never, ever wants to be poor again. Or he wasn’t able to provide a necessity for someone he loved because he couldn’t afford it, and he never wants that to happen again. He was taught never to use a credit card, and the teacher was someone he deeply respected. He was taught to live within his means. He was taught that being careful with money is the mark of maturity. This is a central part of his value system.
Can you see how, when we talk about money on the level of values, it stops being a fruitless argument full of accusations and insults? Both people are acting out of their value system, but because they don’t share the same value system, they have trouble seeing that in the other.
Another quick example: how do you two deal with your families of origin? I come from a big family that traditionally has valued lots of social contact, but perhaps not a high level of emotional or physical connection. (I said perhaps! If you’re in my family and reading this, don’t freak out.) My spouse comes from a family with different values, different assumptions and patterns and beliefs. It’s tempting to encounter your partner’s differences and judge them as faulty, but they’re just different. Maybe your partner’s family values privacy more than yours, and yours values openness. Privacy and openness: those are two good things. But they don’t mix well together. So a discussion about them as values helps you understand the other person much better, and see each other in a constructive, positive light.
“Yeah, but my partner is still crappy with money,” you might say. Sigh. Okay, yeah, maybe your partner could stand to tighten things up a bit. But how receptive would you be if someone criticized you and failed to recognize that—for all your faults—you are acting out of your own value system?