In the right context, rules are very useful. We’d be in trouble if we didn’t have rules about which side of the road to drive on, or how fast we can drive, or how much we can drink before we drive. However, rules can be problematic if we hold them too tightly. We can become rigid or inflexible, and end up leading a restricted or empty life.

There are several ways you can tell when you’ve moved from values to rules. Values are about opening your heart and doing what is truly meaningful, so they give you a sense of lightness, openness, and expansiveness. Rules generally have a sense of heaviness about them, a sense of obligation, duty, or burden. Values tend to include words like “want,” “choose,” “desire,” “value,” “important,” “meaningful,” “matters.” Rules tend to include words like “should,” “must,” “have to,” “ought to,” “need to,” “right,” “wrong,” “good,” or “bad.”

Here are a few examples to clarify the difference:

Rule: I have to take my partner’s needs into account.
Value: I want to take my partner’s needs into account.

Rule: I have to exercise regularly, or I’ll get fat.
Value: It is important to me to exercise regularly; I value maintaining my health and well-being.

Rule: I should spend more quality time with my partner. It’s the right thing to do.ACT with love 64
Value: Spending more quality time with my partner is something that matters to me. It’s an important part of building the sort of relationship I want.

This distinction between rules and values is important for at least three reasons. First, when you live your life by rules, you will feel restricted, burdened, and stressed, whereas living by your values brings lightness, freedom, and openness. Second, there are limitless ways of acting on any value, whereas a rule massively restricts your available options. Thus values give you plenty of flexibility, whereas rules narrow your choices, and if you follow them blindly, you become rigid or inflexible. Third, it is uncommon that couples have conflicting values. Far more common, both partners have the same values, but they have different rules about how to act on them. If you hold on tightly to your rules—and insist that your rules are “right” and your partner’s are “wrong”—this will readily become a source of conflict. When both of you can recognize that at a fundamental level you have very similar values, you will find this helps you to accept and respect each other.

Take the case of Janet and Mitch. Janet’s elderly parents live three hundred miles away, and she would like to visit them every three or four weeks. Mitch feels this is too much; he would like to visit them no more than two or three times a year. A good starting point, in terms of resolving this issue is for Janet and Mitch to recognize that they both have similar values. They both value spending time with family, and they both think it’s important to maintain healthy relationships with their relatives. The conflict arises not because of values, but because they both have different rules about how to act on them.

Knowing they share the same values provides common ground. It creates a safe space where both partners can meet, with no need to attack or defend their position. This will enable a far more fruitful discussion. From here, they can both take a look at their differing rules, consider the costs of holding them too rigidly, and discuss whether they are willing to bend them a little.

Of course, sometimes couples do have very different values. Let’s suppose for one moment that spending time with family does not matter in the least to Mitch. Obviously this would make the situation much stickier. But if both partners tune into their values around caring, kindness, and respect while they are negotiating this issue, then the outcome will be much better.


Excerpt from ACT WITH LOVE: Stop Struggling, Reconcile Differences, and Strengthen Your Relationship with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (New Harbinger Publications)

Author's Bio: 

Russ Harris, MD, is an acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) trainer and the author of The Happiness Trap. He travels around the world training psychologists and other health professionals in ACT, a revolutionary new approach to human happiness.