If I had to distill every breakup I’ve had into a single reason, it’s been a difference of values and a failure to understand those differences. In my experience, you can be totally in sync for a lot of things, but if your values aren’t harmonious or complementary, you’ll quickly start facing more problems than you may know how to deal with. So, let’s talk about what values are, how to understand our own, and how to find common ground with your partner about them.
Before we go any further, please make sure you allot plenty of time for this module. This was the toughest one for me thus far, and years later, this is the one I come back to the most. The conversations you have here may be the hardest you’ll ever have, but they will also be the most crucial. Be prepared to come back to these conversations many times over the years.
Firstly, what are values? I think of them as how we define right and wrong and why those definitions are important. For example, my core value of listening is a belief that talking over someone is wrong, but listening to them and trying to understand their point of view is the right thing to do. I consider listening so important because I’ve found that listening is how I learn best, and it’s also the number one thing I want to be on the receiving end of. To me, listening is how I best connect to the people around me.
Listening ties into my deepest core value of empathy. To me, the most important thing is to put myself in someone else’s shoes, to understand where they’re coming from so I can treat them how they want to be treated. Listening is how I do that. Growing in a family that valued staying quiet when we got angry and waiting to communicate until the emotions settled down, I learned quickly to isolate myself when I felt angry so I could avoid saying something I’d regret later.
By contrast, one of my partner’s core values was honesty at all costs. His family valued laying everything on the table, so to speak, even in the heat of anger. He grew up with the understanding that communicating one’s thoughts and feelings, as they were happening, was the important thing. Everyone knew where they stood with each other; no secrets, very little ruminating and stewing. For him, immediate honesty about what we were thinking and feeling was crucial for him to feel connected to and trusted by me.
See the trouble? While I could agree that honesty was important and he agreed that empathy was important, we prioritized those values very differently, which meant our communication styles couldn’t have been more dissimilar. When I was angry or upset, I tended to withdraw so I could tend to me emotions in private. But my partner wanted to talk it through in the moment, no matter how ugly it got. He wanted a level of frankness I couldn’t give unless I was so drowned in my emotions I couldn’t help myself.
The result? We both felt frustrated, misunderstood, and distant from each other. I felt pushed to talk when I wasn’t ready and afraid of saying needlessly hurtful things. But when I withdrew, my partner felt rejected and hurt that I didn’t trust him. In my head, I was sparing him cruel words, but in his head, I was pushing him away. And in his head, it was better to get everything out in the open so we could work through it together. In mine, I couldn’t work through anything with him before I’d worked it through with myself.
How were we supposed to reconcile these values? It seemed like in our attempts to navigate the choppy waters, we were just drowning each other instead of riding a life raft to shore.
Here’s where curiosity comes in.
Caring curiosity about each other and about ourselves brought us to a better understanding than we had before. As we answered the open-ended questions in this module, we started taking a gentler eye to each other’s values. We assessed ourselves, learned about how we got to our values, why they were so important to us, what past experiences had shaped them. And then we shared them with each other, and something beautiful happened.
We found compassion for each other. We each started to understand why the other wanted to communicate so differently, and we started grasping the virtues of the other person’s approach. I realized that I often spent so much time listening that I forgot to speak my mind. He realized that when I got quiet, it was because I didn’t want to use my words like weapons against him. And together, we found some compromises.
We agreed to take breathers when we needed them, so we could communicate without our emotions getting the best of us. But we also agreed that before parting to do our own self-care, we would say “I love you,” maybe hold hands or hug or kiss. This helped reassure my partner that I still loved and cared about him, that I wasn’t marching out the door never to return. And for me, permission to go off and reflect gave me the space I needed to understand my own heart so I could come back and share it with him.
As you and your partner embark on this module, keep an open mind. My partner and I had values that could hardly have been more different. But because we went in with an open mind, ready to see our differences as opportunities for understanding instead of threats, we found a way together. Stay curious about each other, even and especially if you don’t understand right away.
Remember that your partner – just like you – has had experiences far beyond your relationship together. Try to listen and try to understand why. The why behind a value is just as important as what that value is.
This is an incredible growth opportunity for both of you. Be ready with an open mind and an open heart.