Letters From Esther #36: Fighting with your Partner about Values?

Esther Perel and Mary Alice Miller

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Shall We Begin?

Last year, I became enraptured by a social media post that seemed as if it could have come out of one of my couples’ therapy sessions. A middle-aged pilot announced “I’m sad to share that I’m ending my marriage. She’s pushed me too far this time. I won’t let my company force me to get the vaccine, why would I let my wife?” 

Comments flooded in. Everything from “good for you, stand your ground,” to “just get the jab, it’s not worth it to put your kids through this.” Earnestly, he responded to hundreds of comments, each time giving more context. It was full-blown crowd-sourced therapy.

A career pilot, he had been laid off not because he didn’t want a corporation telling him what to do with his body. The more they pushed, the more he dug in. His wife, a career nurse in an emergency room hard-hit by Covid-19, was now threatening to kick him out. 

More comments: “think about how many people she has seen die, only to come home to a stubborn husband who won’t acknowledge her reality.” In his responses, he is sad. He loves her. He tells the story of how they met, why they fell in love; this, too, is part of the story of their end. 

In his twenties, he had let a medical condition go unchecked, landing him in her emergency room. She had been taking care of him ever since. But, when they became polarized over the vaccine, the line between care and control started to blur. He felt that she wasn’t acknowledging his reality. He emphasized the risks he had read online. She focused on safety and the danger of disinformation. “She makes me feel stupid,” he shared. “I’m not stupid, I’m scared.” 

Spoiler alert: this couple wasn’t just fighting about a vaccine. They were debating two different social, political, and psychological worlds. The vaccine debate has died down now, giving us a chance to analyze how it played out among couples. And that’s helpful. Because the polarization has shifted on to other issues. From abortion to climate change to gun control, these issues are real and personal. But they also are vessels for a lot of other emotions. 

Couples polarize around all kinds of values. Should we spend the holidays with your parents or mine? If we share finances, do we need to ask permission for personal spending? I’m used to hearing these stories in my office. But the clashes around social values within couples, families, colleagues, and friends have taken on a fresh pitch. 

Long-standing patterns in our relationships come to a head in these arguments. If you listen closely to a screaming couple, you will hear feelings around respect, recognition, control, trust, care, and power. Too often, clashing couples focus only on the surface. That can leave us feeling that, not only are we living in a world that’s gone mad, we’re living with a person we no longer recognize. 

Modern romance doesn’t pay much attention to “values clarification” until there is “values crisis.” But it doesn’t mean we have to stay in crisis mode. My advice to couples at a crossroads over issues rooted in values is this: step away from the content of the argument for a moment and consider the form. 

  • Communicate respectfully. 
  • Demonstrate curiosity and, dare I say, empathy for their position. 
  • Consider if you are trying to win at home because you feel out of control elsewhere. 

I was so taken with this post online because it was like a fresco of our current reality, in many of our homes and certainly in our society-at-large. It captured the fallout and debris that this era has had on so many peoples’ most intimate relationships. I appreciated how rare it was to see strangers rally together online, trying (somewhat) to put politics aside to help a friend save his marriage. I hadn’t thought about that post and its comments for awhile. Recently, I checked in. Their relationship status is “married.” In pictures, they’re playing together with their kids. One can never tell what’s really going on in someone’s personal life just by looking at social media. But last week, when he posted a throwback to lockdown with a snarky caption, she left an eye-roll emoji on the post. 

Let’s Turn the Lens on You 

Fighting with your partner about values?

  • On a day to day basis, prioritize common ground.
  • In the heat of the moment, take a break. Cool down on your own.
  • When you’re ready to talk, prioritize curiosity and compassion. 
  • Ask questions, such as: how did you come to think this way?
  • Listen for the underlying fears: what is your loved one afraid to lose? Why is this personal for them?
  • Share with them your own fears. Tell them how you came to think this way, what you are afraid to lose, and why this is personal for you.
  • Ask each other: what does a just and safe world look like to you?
  • Ask: can we disagree on this and still respect each other? Or do we need to take space?

More From Esther

“Finding Freedom in What Feels Good” / a recent blog

It’s a common misconception that foreplay is just checking off the boxes and putting parts in motion to get us ready for sex and orgasms. Through this lens, foreplay is just not that interesting—at best—and full of pressure at worst. In this blog, we adjust the lens and embrace foreplay as the freedom to experience what feels good, for no other goal than pure pleasure—from a quick warmup to lasting erotic energy.

“Six Essential Practices to Improve Listening Skills in Relationships”/ a blog

Whether we are sharing a story, a greivance, a need, a want, or even a desire, nothing makes us feel more deeply connected than when we are engaged in a healthy balance of thoughtful speaking and hardcore listening. 

“The 3 Types of Relationship Fights You Keep Having—And What To Do About Them” / a blog

The deeper issues that drive escalation are rarely about the content of our fights—dirty dishes, too much time on our phone, politics, the kids. They’re about the needs, vulnerabilities, and biases that get triggered over and over. 

​​Conversation Starters

A compendium of highly recommended sources of inspiration and information       

I’m Reading & Listening To:

Resources for Ukraine: 

Resources for Safe Abortion: 

Resources for Gun Violence Awareness:

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