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How do our differences drive conflict between us?

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Two worlds under one roof

Have you ever found yourself in an argument about how to wash and dry dishes or whether to roll-up or simply squeeze the toothpaste tube?  The kind of things that aren’t really important yet spark conflict nevertheless?  I know, I know – these aren’t Earth-shattering issues.  But they highlight something important:  many relationship difficulties can be traced to the different beliefs, values, behavioural strategies, and attitudes that each person brings to the encounter.  Although our differences are what define us and our relationships, they can also generate misunderstanding, mis-communication and conflict – particularly when they’re unspoken and thus hidden, invisible or unknown.  In this article, we’ll see how our personal beliefs, values and behaviours are influenced by the families we’re born into, before exploring some of the pivotal areas where relationship difficulties may arise⁠1 .

The social construction of you and me

Let’s begin with a seemingly simple question:  where did your values and beliefs come from?  Did you just invent them, or did they come from somewhere else?  Although we typically think of ourselves as standalone individuals, we are of course born into a social world with a historical and cultural legacy that’s right here waiting for us.  This social world has been created or constructed by the activity of human beings, and we’ll both influence and be influenced by it during the course of our lives⁠2.  The world we’re born into bestows upon us a shared worldview and a repertoire of practices or ways of behaving in particular situations. 

Take, for example, the handshake:  it’s such an innocuous and everyday practice that we wouldn’t normally think twice about it.  But why do we shake hands? And why did humans begin shaking hands?  Most likely, our ancestors held open their hands when meeting strangers to demonstrate the absence of weapons and clasped hands as a further demonstration of friendly intent.  Of course, there could’ve been many other ways of signalling the same thing – maybe putting hands on head and touching foreheads or crossing arms and touching elbows⁠3 – but out of the possible alternatives, handshakes have stuck.  So, an everyday practice we perform today – shaking hands – most likely has it’s origins in a practice that signalled peaceful sociability and was repeated over and over and over again until it became seemingly natural, rather than a socially constructed practice⁠4 .  

We can get a clearer look at how human lives are socially constructed if we look back across the sweep of history or out across the myriad living cultures in the world today and compare our own lives with how other peoples have lived, in different places and in different eras.

Living here and now, living there and then

If we look to the past, medieval serfs lived in a dark world where apples could be possessed by satanic forces, the dead could rise and walk among the living⁠5 , and the rigid social hierarchy of Royalty, Aristocracy and Peasantry was beyond question⁠6 .  A serf living in this world would have no conception of meritocracy, no impulse to travel and explore the world, and no desire to question authority.  The aspirations of a medieval serf were thus completely different to those of someone living in post-industrial twenty-first century Britain, precisely because the worldviews of each era give rise to completely different beliefs, values and ways of living.  If we look at other cultures, say the world of the Yanomami people living in the Amazon rainforest, everyday life is shaped by belief in a spirit world and the power of magic, and this also gives rise to a completely different worldview to the one that frames the experience characteristic of people living in Britain today⁠7 .  Perhaps even more profound, we used to think that reason and cognition were universally the same across cultures; yet we’re now discovering that people in western cultures employ reason and make sense of the world in very different ways to people in Asia (Westerners think in terms of objects and straight lines, Asians think in terms of relationships and circles⁠8) .  Although we’re living on the same planet at the same point in time, we’re also living in very different worlds.

By comparing our own situation with other social worlds, we come to recognise the contingency of our worldviews – that is, things could have been very different as there’s no fixed or firm reason things have turned out the way they have.

Living in the same world

So, how about you and me?  Because we live in the same society with a shared heritage and shared worldview, we might imagine there’ll be few points of difference between us.  But, of course, that’s not the case.  Our culture is rich and diverse with myriad sub-cultures that interweave with the more dominant mainstream culture:  those of us who have migrated here from other countries bring our culture with us; we’re differentiated by our religious and political beliefs; we’re positioned by our ethical and moral stances and our social attitudes; our textual preferences in the realms of music, literature and film define us; and our families’ historical experiences, values and expectations also shape present generations.

All of this is perhaps fairly obvious, and I’m sure there are many more examples you can think of.

So, we can say there are many lived variants of a more general cultural worldview, shaped by the families we’re born into and by our interactions with people in the wider world.

Families, the crucible of development

So what part does the family play in our personal development?  Our families are perhaps the most influential force in our lives.  As a sub-system of the wider social system, our families translate social values and beliefs into rules of acceptable personal conduct.  Where children should be seen and not heard, exuberance and assertiveness would be frowned upon, and perhaps punished.  Where family members are encouraged to forgive and forget, real injustices could be overlooked as the injunction to forgive overshadows the need for justice and the punishment of transgressors.

So, the beliefs that shape family life also moderate or regulate the family members’ behaviour.  In the examples above, the child in the first family may learn to remain docile to gain approval and avoid punishment, while the child in the second family may learn that her own needs are unworthy, overshadowed by the instruction to forgive and forget.  Other behavioural strategies we learn or adopt might revolve around: 

  •  dealing with conflict:  one strategy might be to shout down opponents, another might be to withdraw
  •  responding to emotions:  we might learn that it’s okay to express all and every emotion, or we might have been taught that ‘difficult’ emotions like sadness, anger, fear are unwelcome and should be suppressed.
  •  celebrating success:  perhaps it’s good to celebrate achievements, but perhaps celebration has been associated with bragging, in which case celebrating achievements is bad or unsavoury.
  •  Communication:  we might learn that we can speak freely or openly, without fear of reprisal, but alternatively we might have learned not to express ideas and beliefs that are out-of-step with the ‘family values’, for fear of punishment.

There are of course many more behavioural strategies that we could adopt, and around many more issues.

Now, this all assumes we accept the rules and values our families socialize us into, but there are, broadly speaking, two other responses:  

  1. 1. A reactive response, to do the exact opposite of what we’ve been told to do (“My father was authoritarian, so I will be libertarian”, “My mother didn’t show her love for me when I was a child, so I will make a point of showing my children I love them 
  2. 2. A responsive acceptance of the values and codes of conduct that fit our own unique belief systems and a rejection of the elements that don’t fit.
When a couple comes together and a new family forms

Just as all individuals are unique, so too all families are unique.  Each new family forms when two people come together, establishing rules of conduct based upon the myriad beliefs and values that each partner has brought from their respective families of origin, creating a new synthesis from sometimes conflicting and disparate elements.

And this is where conflict can arise – where two people enter into relationship, each bringing their own inherited worldview and value system that is not explicit and therefore not obvious to the other.  I might assume my partner has the same attitude to gender roles as I do, but points of conflict will likely emerge if she does not.  My partner may assume responsibility for our family’s finances, as her mother did before her, but this could leave me feeling a loss of financial independence.  I may not express my emotions because I was told as a child that boys don’t cry and that I should ‘man up’ and be quiet; my partner may perceive my emotional reticence as indifference or a lack of interest, in light of her experience of men freely expressing their emotions.  My partner might have a belief about what I should be as a father, as I have a belief about what it is to be a mother – and our beliefs may not match-up.  And together, we may have different strategies for dealing with disagreements, finance management, socialising, personal boundaries, sharing, decision-making (and much more besides).

So, much – although by no means all – misunderstanding and miscommunication between couples arises from the different assumptions and expectations each person brings with them.  Because couples rarely vet each other before beginning a relationship⁠9 , and because the values we hold are implicit in who we are rather than explicit and visible, we often find ourselves in conflict without fully understanding how or why.  To resolve conflict, the first step is to elicit the differences between us so we can then reconcile ourselves to the unique values and qualities that brought us together in the first place.

Below is a brief list of areas to get you thinking where differences may arise in your relationship.

Where things might get derailed

1.  Disagreements

Is this a case of right and wrong, or just difference of opinion?  How do you reach agreement when things go wrong?  Can you agree to disagree, and under what circumstances would that constitute an inappropriate compromise (compare agreeing to disagree over ‘the relative merits of jam and Marmite’ with ‘the plausibility of holocaust denial’)?

2.  Behavioural strategies

Do you seek support or retreat when under pressure?  Do you both respond to stress (or any other phenomena) in the same way?  If not, is it okay that your partner does things differently?  Does your partner accept your way of doing things, say leaving washed plates to dry naturally rather than drying with a tea towel, or are you criticized for ‘doing things in the wrong way’?

3.  Money

Do you have an expectation of who should be earning?  Should the man be the sole breadwinner?  Do you pool your resources and share money, or are you both financially independent?  Is anyone financially dependent, and what’s that like for you both? Who decides on how money is spent?  Do you spend or save?  How do you prioritise purchases?  What happens if you don’t get what you want?

4.  Drugs and alcohol

Acceptable or not?  Where is the boundary between recreational and problematic use?  Is alcohol okay while illegal drugs are, by definition, bad?

5.  Privacy and a life outside the relationship

Is it okay to have time to yourself and to have friends outside the relationship?  Is it okay for your partner to do the same? If not, what does it mean for you when your partner spends time with friends and not you?  If your partner’s going out, do you want to know when they’ll be back?  If you do, how does your partner perceive this?

6.  Gender roles

Who has responsibility for which tasks in the home?  Do men do practical tasks while women do domestic tasks?  Is there an equitable sharing of responsibility?  Who does the shopping and cooking, and why have tasks been distributed in this way?  If you have children, do you both share in play and the regulation of your child’s behaviour?

7.  Emotions and needs

How do you express love? Are public displays of affection okay, or best left to the privacy of your home? Are you able to express your emotional needs?  What happens when you feel there’s a problem – can you share your concerns or not?  If not, what do you expect would happen if you did?   

8.  Decision-making

Who makes the decisions in the relationship?  Is this about everything or specific things only?  If the latter, which specific things?  Do you collaborate in decision-making?  If not, what is like for the person left out?

9.  Home

Is your home a refuge from the world, closed to outsiders?  Or is your house open for all?  If you had a description for your home, what would it be (“Our Castle of Dreams”, A dreary prison”)?

10.  Achievements and failures

Do you celebrate success or does celebrating an achievement feel like showing off?  If you don’t celebrate success yourself, how do you acknowledge your partner’s achievements?  What happens when things go wrong?  Is it okay to make mistakes, or does that lead to criticism or punishment?

11.  Communication

Are you able to listen when your partner speaks or do you filter what’s going on, perhaps comparing, arguing, rehearsing, or sparring?  Does your partner filter when you speak?  What emotional tone underpins your communication style?  Do you seek consensus or strive to win the argument?  Do you feel heard when you both speak?  Do you hear what your partner says? 

This list isn’t exhaustive, but instead points to some of the areas where misunderstanding can arise.  By exploring these areas – and whatever else is relevant to our unique situations – we can discover where our differences lie before going on to seek resolution.

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1 Attachment theory, which shows how we connect with and relate to other people, is another crucial element of human growth and development.

2 Complexity theory is beginning to explain how the social world, a networked open-system, both influences and is influenced by individual social actors in unpredictable ways.  This complements the work of social theorist Pierre Bourdieu, post-structuralist philosopher Michel Foucault, and social constructionist theorists including Kenneth Gergen and Vivienne Burr (their views are divergent, but not incommensurable).

3 And of course, kissing cheeks is quite normal in France and beyond.

4 Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality. A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge.  Penguin Books:  London (1967)

5 Darren Oldridge, Strange Histories. The trial of the pig, the walking dead, and other matters of fact from the medieval and Renaissance worlds.  Routledge: Abingdon (2005)

6 Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being. A Study of the History of an Idea.  Harvard University Press:  London (1936).  The great chain of being was a taxonomy developed by Aristotle, which imposed a hierarchical classification upon every existing thing in the world.  The Christian appropriation of the Great Chain of Being placed God at the top of the chain, followed by Angels, Royalty (‘God’s representatives on Earth’), Aristocracy, Peasantry, domesticated animals, wild animals, fish, trees, flowers, rocks and minerals.  The Great Chain of Being thus served to legitimate social hierarchy and framed the worldview of people living during it’s period of influence.  The Great Chain of Being’s influence has been steadily eroded since the emergence of Darwin’s theory of evolution (an alternative paradigmatic classificatory system), although its foundational ideas still seem to function implicitly in contemporary society, for example in deference to authority.

7 Peter Watson, The Great Divide.  Nature and human nature in the old world and the new. Weidenfeld & Nicolson:  London (2012).  I’m aware that I’m collapsing the entire discipline of anthropology into a single pithy sentence – things are of course far more complex for the Yanomami and others than I can express here.

8 Richard Nisbett, The Geography of Thought. How Asians and Westerners Think Differently . . . and Why.  The Free Press:  London (2003).

9 This isn’t something I advocate.

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