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When Values Diverge, Is Separation the Best Option?

Personal perspective: Irreconcilable differences are tearing many of us apart.

Key points

  • When people hold irreconcilable differences in values, separation may be a way to solve long-standing conflict.
  • Where we once valued political compromise and different values, we have become more tribal and less willing to respect others.
  • Countries trapped in culture wars may wish to consider breaking up, if only to create more cohesive and resilient communities.
  • Family therapy teaches us that sometimes couples are happier after a separation; nations could be too.

As a trained family therapist, I often encounter couples who hold such different values that maintaining a relationship becomes nothing but a path to endless conflict. These days, I’ve been thinking the same about the 50 states that comprise the United States and the 10 provinces that make up the Canadian federation. Neither nation is looking too united these days.

Can we psychologically grow beyond the irreconcilable differences we experience when those in our community (or family) hold beliefs that threaten our core values? Can we ever find peace when those with competing values infuriate us with their unwillingness to change? The unthinkable tragedy in Uvalde, Texas is just another flashpoint in a battle over values and what people believe creates psychological and physical security. It seems that these days no amount of science or faith is going to sway anyone to jump sides.

In the United States, abortion laws, gun laws, and attitudes towards science, immigrants, health care, and climate change have created competing views on how we should live that are, in some cases, literally tearing apart families and communities. It’s much the same in Canada where views on fossil fuels and pipelines, Indigenous rights, language rights, and identity politics have created fissures in the sense of nationhood that gives citizens a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves. The only plus side to this tribalism is that we still hold to the rule of law, and for the most part we haven’t (yet) descended into anarchy.

My question is: Should we keep these national "families" together, or is it time to admit that with rampant social media creating groupthink our values have become too disparate to maintain a single national identity? Just as couples sometimes grow apart, are great nations finding themselves ready to separate? Can we accept that psychologically we are no longer "one nation" but are instead divided by very different belief systems?

The more I study community resilience, the less certain I am that remaining in heterogeneous nation-states is sustainable or even desirable. Large-scale alliances between states, provinces, and even countries may be becoming antiquated, hailing from a world that was more like television in the 60s, when there was a small number of channels to choose from than the multiplex of hundreds of viewing and streaming options now on our smart TVs.

Like it or not, we are breaking apart and less willing to compromise. The values we hold (the beliefs and practices which are handed down to us or created through interactions with others) have in many ways become a challenge to the emotional security that many of us used to get from feeling like we were part of a single nation, a single ideology, and a single purpose. This is particularly easy to see in the past week, as we watch the finger-pointing over who and what caused 19 children’s deaths in Texas.

Maybe we should accept the truth and stop fighting culture wars that are leaving everyone angry and no one satisfied with the solutions being tried. If a couple arrived for therapy in such a chronic state of conflict, I wouldn’t expect to save their marriage. I’d more likely counsel them to seek happiness in other relationships that reflected their core values much better. Why should we think that nations can resolve their differences when couples can’t?

The signs are everywhere that change is needed. A recent issue of The Atlantic includes an article by Tim Alberta on the tension within evangelical churches between those who see their church as a political weapon and those who want to remain focused on essential truths from the Bible. If fundamentalist Christians can’t unite, is there hope for left-leaning climate activists and anti-science climate change deniers, or anti-vaxxers and advocates for public health?

In Canada, the province of Quebec just passed legislation to further impose restrictions on the use of English to protect the French language which is the official language of the province. Like other large nations, Canada is struggling to tolerate the divisive politics of its regional governments, each espousing different values and beliefs about what makes for an orderly, psychologically and physically supportive place to live. It seems these days that our reference group is becoming smaller and smaller and our willingness to accommodate outsiders is evaporating.

Resilience, whether at a family, community, or national level, depends on embracing the tension between similarities and differences. Too much difference within a community and we won’t agree on even the most simple of social policies. While I am a strong supporter of diversity and the science which shows immigrants, sexual minorities, diversity of faith, and competing ideologies all create a good ol’ fashion dialectic that brings about new ideas and advances society, I’m not sure our theories of community resilience have taken into account fake news and social media algorithms. In other words, finding a middle ground that can accommodate diverse values all under one roof, or one flag, is becoming near impossible as our collective identities fracture, and finding our social reference group is as easy as typing keywords into Reddit.

Every big idea has to begin somewhere. I’m beginning to glimpse a better way to do politics that reflects the emerging science of resilience. I have come to believe, after having traveled to more than 70 countries and having done research on six continents, that we need smaller countries that are more homogeneous. We are failing at compromise. Let’s admit defeat and let the divorces begin.

I argue that we're at a tipping point where a friendly divorce between regions within nations may be a far better solution to political unrest than our efforts to dominate each other with laws that are resisted by a significant number of people. If parts of the U.S. want to live in a country guided by Christian values and the NRA (like Texas) then why shouldn’t that be possible? If there are Canadians who value language rights over human rights, then why shouldn’t they be able to create their own socially cohesive space to live? If others want to live where there is more tolerance for differences and where science is respected (more guns equals more firearm-related deaths; vaccines are safe; multilingualism encourages respect between communities; etc.), then shouldn’t they have the same right to a community that reflects their values? Before social media ripped us apart and politics became fratricidal, unity may have been possible. Sadly, I'm no longer sure we can navigate psychologically uncomfortable alliances when the values we hold are too divergent.

Maybe it’s time to stop trying to make everyone think the same way we do (on the left and right) and accept that we are very different. If we don’t, I fear that we will tumble into civil war instead of focusing our attention where it is needed: on creating the sustainability which will keep us psychologically and physically safe and economically prosperous. Just as families are often happier after a divorce, I wonder if we all might feel a little more content if we said goodbye to the myth of national unity.

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