A little over a year ago my client, Jen, fell in love—hard—with Paul. Paul was exciting, smart, handsome, confident, and he adored her. Paul’s work was demanding, and on weekends he loved to be outside, taking adventures with Jen. They would fly out to Wyoming to ski, they’d hike through the Great Smokies for a long weekend, or even find a stream near their home in Columbia, TN to fly fish. At first Jen was caught up in all the adventure and the excitement of being with him, his attention, and the solicitous way he’d take care of her or teach her some of his favorite pastimes.
Jen’s three children are grown. One is 20 and in her junior year of college at Vanderbilt. The older two—sons—live within 100 miles of Jen and have jobs and girlfriends. Jen was in the habit of having big family dinners at least one Saturday a month, and her kids loved to come home for weekends and hang out, with or without their significant others. Theirs was a close family. Paul was very clear about what he thought: Jen’s focus on family was over-the-top, even somehow “unhealthy.” If and when she insisted on a weekend home with one or more of her kids, Paul was suddenly unavailable, sick, or—worst of all—unreachable.
Eight months went by before he even met one of her children. This dynamic/pattern bothered Jen immensely. But when they were together, she and Paul were so in love, and had tons of fun. Gradually, Jen’s kids began to question what was going on, and expressed their concern and, frankly, hurt, to be excluded from her life more and more. She couldn’t take it. They meant so much to her and she’d always envisioned a man coming into her life who would love them too, where they’d have fun getting to know one another and forging relationships. That seemed to be very much off the table with Paul.
Jen realized, eventually, that she and Paul had very different core values. Her value of family connection was not shared. And worse—his values seemed to trump hers, so that he needed to “win” by getting Jen to leave her plans behind and do what he valued instead. They split. Jen was devastated. But she also realized that all the warning signs had been there from the get-go.
I elaborate on Jen’s story so that you can see that even when there is so much else that is good—divergent core values will derail a relationship.
Let me give you an idea of what I mean by core values. For example, I’m not talking about what church you go to, but do you go to church and is religion important to you? You’ll be fine even if you worship in different ways and in different places as long as you share that essential value. I’m also not talking about who you vote for, what car you drive, how much money you have, or what restaurants you like. Core values are not what you do, they are who you are.
Your values, whether conscious or unconscious, are deeply rooted and determine many of the choices you make. You have values for all aspects of your life— family, health, career, and relationships. When you live your life aligned with your core values you will be living your truth. If you can live your truth in a relationship without guilt, apology, anxiety, or doubt—you will be fine. Otherwise… well, look what happened to Jen and Paul.
Believe it or not, many people look straight at a discrepancy in core values and yet can’t—or don’t—see it. Early love (aka infatuation) is like a drug and can really mess with clear thinking or even the ability to “feel” your strong gut-level warning system. (Is it Love or Infatuation?) Desmond heard his girlfriend casually lie to the waiter in a restaurant, her best friend, her colleague, and then was shocked and hurt when he realized she had lied to him too. Repeatedly. One of his core values is about scrupulous honesty, but he managed to excuse her lies over and over again until they slapped him upside the head. Hard.
So don’t take the process lightly—the process of figuring out if your relationship aligns with your values. Slow down and give it some thought….
It is our choice to align our core values with our actions. Every day, we either live by our values or we don’t. When we do so, it also means we do not sacrifice our best interests for the sake of others. Any relationship that requires us to do so is not a healthy one.
In forging and maintaining a relationship, if you are asking yourself—or if your partner is requiring you—to go against your grain, that is a big problem. The kind of problem that will, eventually if not right away, derail you. When we have to ignore our core values to be in a relationship, we will ultimately feel uneasy, resentful, even kinda sick, knowing we are not being true to ourselves
Core values are not ALWAYS obvious things like honesty, fidelity, kindness. Sometimes they have to do with what you value on a day to day basis (as with Jen—she valued home time with family) or what you aspire to on a personal level (professional pursuits for example).
How do you identify your core values? Core values can be extracted from life events. When do you feel your best? Think about times in your life when you have felt rock solid within yourself, contented, well-prepared, joyful, or that you were making wise choices, or living authentically. For Jen, those times often occurred when she was being a mom, spending quality time with her kids. For Paul, her values held no sway over him. He felt most alive when living life free and unfettered.
Another client, Dan, realized that his desire for security and stability trumped a lot of other things. His partner, Lawrence, chafed at the stable life Dan wanted them to live together. Lawrence was all about pushing the envelope and taking risks. He changed jobs every two years, took months off at a time to travel, and lived close to the edge financially. The anxiety of that lifestyle ended up causing Dan to call it quits on their relationship. Their core values did not mesh, though in other ways they loved each other.
Another way to think about your core values is through a negative experience—when do you feel disappointed, frustrated, uneasy, or upset. As with Dan, that uneasiness of feeling insecure and unstable was something he knew about himself all along, and he realized that being in love was not enough. In fact, love can’t change your core values. Nor can you impose your core values on someone else.
If you witness someone stealing, lying, or cheating, you can probably identify what value that behavior bumps up against. But also consider other behaviors. Does it bug you when you see someone racking up lots of debt? Don’t hook up with a spendthrift or a gambler. Do you love traveling abroad for weeks at a time? Don’t align with a homebody. Is your happy place surrounded by friends, family, and people of all kind in a sort of continuous semi-party? Don’t get serious with a loner or mistanthrope. You get the idea!
Once you have examined your life, where your contentment and happiness, excitement and authenticity come into play, choose your top five most important personal values. Try to prioritize them. Prioritizing values in order of importance will help you see the value itself beyond the words you use to name it. Below each value write how you are honoring these values. Or how you wish to honor them. What behaviors or lifestyles might be in conflict with them?
Knowing your core values and living in alignment with them will ensure a life brimming with fulfilled hopes and dreams. Making sure your relationship also aligns with those values is how you stack the love deck in your favor so that true love will really last.