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Forty years ago I wish someone would have explained to me that the core of my in law problems were about their values of what was proper. I remember my brother in law observing “You guys are like oil & water.” This did not offer me any understanding. Being a therapist gives me a terrible thirst for understanding.

Understanding that proper was a big deal for them would have reduced the amount of conflict immensely. My parents didn’t socialize enough to inspire any notion of proper when I was growing up. So I really had a lack of any experience in this point of view.

Many, many years later I could joke with my mother in law that I had ironed the tablecloth just for her. She’d laugh with appreciation because she knew I’d gone out of my way, as I am famous for my 1950’s wrinkled tablecloths.

It took me, way too many decades of feeling baffled, confused & angry to recognize we simply had a values conflict. It’s a shame I wasted so much time by not understanding, which contributed to my defensiveness. “Shoulds” were never really on my radar. I always thought there’s only 10 commandments for a reason, it’s enough. Instead of feeling so crowded, I would have recognized “Oh, theres that proper thing again.”

Recently two professor friends at different schools talked about problems with students. One had so many plagiarizing their papers (even though they know plagiarizing filters are used) he is discouraged about continuing to teach. Another friend has developed a reputation as a tough professor and people weren’t signing up for her classes. “They don’t want to do the hard work to learn.” Both felt a distance begin to creep into their relationships with students because of values collisions.

Values conflicts happen between generations, marrying into families, living with roommates, or friends. This is particularly true, in a world where time is not available for the amount of talking required to acheive real understanding.

Values collisions mean different things are important to different people. While I appreciate both my children have a healthy drive to be physical, it’s depressing to me that they don’t read books. They in turn often encourage me to be more physical. When there’s room to respectfully chuckle about the differences, then there’s room for everyone to breath.

The problem is that in so many relationships there is a determination that only one way of looking at something is right. So somebody has to win & somebody has to lose. This is too simplistic, it’s why nothing is being achieved in D.C. because there is too much polarization.

When there is a problem, either in D.C. or in relationships, there is a values conflict. The truth is there is value to both points of view. It’s not an either/or situation.

So let’s say one partner wants the kids in bed on time, the other partner worked late & keeps the kids up. Incorporating two points of view would mean the 1st partner says “I know you felt cheated today, not having enough time with the kids. Can we compromise so they’re not up so late that they’re hard to get up for school tomorrow?” Truth is complicated and there is always merit to both sides. That’s what makes working with couples a pleasure.

Respect requires dialogue, because there are often two different ideas of what’s important. If I could have dialogued with my in laws; I could readily admit that ironed tablecloths make a far lovelier setting with which to welcome people. Maybe they could have accepted that I had no energy left with which to iron after working and chasing two kids around.

I believe that living together makes it easier for couples to break up over the differences. One reason marital rights matter for gay people is because the marriage bond makes it tougher to bail, it buys time for every couple to learn to do the work of solving differences. Marginalizing certain groups of people to support the culture at large is simply another way not to respect the differences.

Recognizing values collisions and acknowledging the differences can lead to more authentic and interesting relationships.

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About the Rhoda Mills Sommer

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