Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Handling Couple Disagreements: Do You Really Need a ‘Ref’?

Last Thursday, the hour-long premiere of The Marriage Ref aired on national television, suggesting that what every couple needs is a “ref” to settle their disagreements. While most of us love the validation of being “right” and it may be that some couples, as those depicted on the show, really need someone to decide whether it is okay to keep the dining room table set and used only for Thanksgiving or to vote against teeth flossing in bed – I’m not certain all partners need, much less want, a ref.

Perhaps a closer look at why couples disagree may help you decide when and if you need a ref :

The Values Clash

Many couple disagreements actually involve a values clash. Values are emotional rules that guide us in our behavior and decision making in life. Values can include moral codes, ethnic, cultural and national norms, as well individual beliefs of what is important, useful, valuable, beautiful, sacred, good, and the antitheses. It goes without saying that what we personally come to value is an integration of who we are, who are parents were, and a multitude of factors.

While most partners get along because they share a number of core values – remember Bonnie and Clyde? – it is inevitable that partners will  clash on some values. This becomes particularly telling because most values involve expectations. Consider these examples:

  • “How can we go on vacation when the house needs to be painted?”
  • “If you say you believe – why don’t you go to church with me?”
  • “What difference does it make what dishes we use?”
  • “In my family, men bought the cars.”
  • “I don’t think I can live without the possibility of having children.”

The fact that partners go back and forth – sometimes even in heated ways – about such issues is not the problem. In fact, for couples of any age, a values clash is often a necessary step in values clarification, development of shared values,  respect for differences or recognition of incompatible values.

Here are some questions worth asking:

Is there room in the relationship for each other’s values? Making room for the vacations and the paint jobs is in some way symbolic of making room for each other.

Are you imposing your value on your partner in a way that makes his/her personal choice impossible? In matters of religious belief, for example, many partners feel respected when they have the choice to be with their partner and disrespected when made to feel obligated. It is important to note that many partners are proud when their partner espouses values they themselves don’t embrace: “Go to my wife if you need someone to pray.” “He’s the one who is really active in our community.” “She’s the one who finds the pet that needs a home.”

If your partner’s value, custom, or frame of reference gives them pleasure and does not take from you, can you respect this special part of them? Often your partner’s love of the special dishes, the garden, the presentation of food, the holiday ritual, the annual campout brings more to your life than you ever expect.

Is there room for re-evaluating your family’s values and the expectations in the context of the life you now share with your partner? Maybe men and women can buy cars together as well as get massages. Couples can build upon and extract aspects that are valuable to them from their families and cultures of origin.

Is your value clash so incompatible that it will take too much from one or both of you? It can be frightening and painful to develop an awareness that you and your partner have a clash of values that is too central to your core self. (She wants no children; he wants to tour with a music group for a number of years.) This may be the time and place for a “ref” – a professional third party to help illuminate the realities, the possibilities and the feelings attached. Too often, a couple becomes so worried that they will face such a clash that they put off talking or fighting about it and carry it with them unresolved. It is not so much that a professional helper will give you the answer, but a ref can often facilitate the dialogue you are entitled to have.

Functional Fighting

It is often a surprise to onlookers – even family members – to hear a couple arguing vehemently about the pros and cons about getting a boat, only to see them get up from the table and ask what time American Idol is on. As reflected by couples on The Marriage Ref, many couples need and use their disagreements.

In many cases “the fight” really reflects a venting of some real anger, differences and even resentment that one or both partner carries, BUT it is one dimension of many other aspects that work well in their life. So at an unrelated moment of stress, fatigue, disappointment, etc., one of them tips the “Boat Fight” – and they are off. Do they sometimes invite family and friends to take sides, give opinions, become the refs? For sure. Do they have any intention of settling the boat fight? They don’t even live near the water!!

In a few days we will look closer at partner similarities and differences and ask why “birds of a feather don’t always fly the farthest”…