When there are large discrepancies in values in a relationship, it can surprise you. You may not have realized how important religion was to your partner until you had children, or you may not have seen the depth of your political differences until we found ourselves in this tense climate. Can you have a successful marriage or relationship with someone who has different values? It depends on countless factors, but a few strategies can lead you and your partner to success.
Start setting boundaries
When couples realize that they are on different sides of an issue, they may avoid the topic entirely or fight about it continuously. When these conversations need to happen (e.g., to make decisions about your current life or your future), the key is to establish a time and space that has a beginning, a middle, and an end—perhaps even in practice a therapist. It can also be helpful to agree on times or spaces when you won’t have this type of debate. For example, “No discussions about sensitive topics after dinner.” This will help create safe spaces for you to connect.
Be nice to each other
Follow the same rules that apply to any other disagreement: avoid name calling or ridicule, and be kind to your partner throughout. Try your best to adopt positive intentions and be curious as to why your partner feels strongly about the issue, rather than trying to convince them you are right. When you give up the goal of changing your partner’s mind, you’ll get a better understanding of where their beliefs come from, and you may even notice similarities that you weren’t aware of before.
Breathe in before you speak
When we discuss something important, our nervous system can become swamped. Then we do not act rationally, but impulsively or reactively and run the risk of delivering low blows that we cannot take back. Why: When something is central to our value system, getting fired from a partner feels like a rejection of the essence of who we are — and it can be frightening and make us defensive. So monitor yourself: Can’t hear your partner’s side? Feeling out of control? Do you have physical symptoms of excitement (palpitations, facial flushing, muscle tension)? Then it’s time to temporarily withdraw from the conversation to calm your nervous system.
empathize and move on
When you find that you cannot agree, the focus needs to shift to empathy and understanding so that you can put the discussion aside. That means you both need to be able to say, “I disagree, and I understand where you’re coming from and what you intend, and we don’t have to continue this conversation.” It’s more than just agreeing, other Having an opinion is about understanding why You disagree so you can make peace with it. Then look for like-minded people—like volunteering for an organization or starting a book club—who can support and share your values.
Rachel Zar is a relationship and sex therapist at Spark Chicago Therapy and Northwestern Medicine Center for Sexual Medicine & Menopause.