LOVE LINGERS HERE: INTIMATE ENDURING RELATIONSHIPS XVI. PLATE THREE: DECIDING WHAT’S IMPORTANT (IDENTIFYING SHARED VALUES)
While the values that individuals hold and that a couple shares tend to be among the most enduring aspects of life span development, there are changes that occur over time. Typically, people rarely change the values they espouse, unless they have experienced some kind of religious or quasi-religious conversion experience. Rather, the values that they already hold dear tend to shift in priority. Specific values (for example, family, career success, sexuality) become less important or more important, in comparison to other values over time. Important values rarely are abandoned or newly adopted. They simply become more or less important. Men and women in their forties and fifties have been found to often shift in terms of the priorities that they assign to certain aspects of their lives—especially family life and alone time as opposed to time at work.
There are also distinctive changes as a function of gender. Men and women tend to change in different ways as they grow older. In general, men tend to become more interpersonally-oriented and more interested in family and spiritual matters as they move into the second half of their lives, whereas women (at least until recently) tend to become more interested – in careers, achieving greater autonomy and moving into relationships outside their family. Whereas the central developmental issue for many men at mid-life is learning how to establish meaningful relationships, the central issue for many women is learning how to establish a separate, individual identity. These shifts in values as a function of age or gender have a major impact on many couples and define some of the most important conflicts and points of growth for many couples over the lifespan.
In a newly-formed couple, one partner is likely to define the values of the couple in a specific domain, while the other partner is responsible for another domain. Frequently, the domain over which each partner reigns is closely linked to traditional sex role stereotyping, though this is becoming less often the case. A classic cartoon shows the harried housewife indicating to her friend that “my husband makes all of the important decisions in our marriage, about war, peace, and crime in the street. I make the less important decisions about where our children go to school, how we spend our money . . . “This cartoon speaks to the nature of values in many 21st Century societies as these values are actually being acted upon (rather than just espoused). One partner may be responsible for the selection of values in domains that have no immediate impact on the couple. The other makes decisions that may seem less important but impact in an immediate way on the actual behavior and priorities of the couple. One partner may be responsible for decisions about expenditures, while the other partner attends to political matters. One partner picks out the living room furniture, the other selects the church they will attend. As a couple matures, the partners will often begin to define and act on values through mutual discussion and consent. At this point, the third plate becomes more visible.