Relationship Roadblock? Define Your Values

When conversations get stuck it's about going deeper and defining who you are

Posted May 13, 2015

Sam and Jessie had been circling around one particular issue for a while. Jessie thought Sam was drinking too much, Sam didn’t think he was, though he consciously made efforts to cut back especially when Jessie asked him to. So it went back and forth with Jessie never quite getting the behavior change she wanted, Sam feeling that he was trying to be sensitive to her requests but that she was never really going to be happy with whatever he did unless he did exactly what she wanted.

These are sticky situations that could go in several directions. One is that it stays in the seesaw act with Jessie complaining, Sam making attempts to accommodate but never really committing to doing what Jessie wants, and the issue always an issue.

The other is that it turns into an open power struggle that feels like a power struggle – Jessie pushes for Sam to change, Sam feels micro-managed or like he is being treated like a teenager, resents how he is being treated and openly rebels or becomes passive aggressive.

Or it becomes an ongoing argument about whose reality is right, who really has the problem – that Sam thinks Jessie is just too anxious, controlling, or sensitive overall -- right now the flavor-of-the-week happens to be about drinking, but if it wasn’t that it would be about something else – while Jessie sees Sam as too emotionally weak, can't handle stress without some prop, that he really only cares about what he wants and really can’t be honest. On a particularly bad day it can feel like all three of these variations are in play.

There is an underlying and universal process underlying all this of course. Unless you want to live alone, there is always the challenge of how much you are willing to compromise and be sensitive to the needs of the other: How much drinking can Jessie really tolerate, how much is Sam willing to cut back? There's room to negotiate to a point, but for each individual there is usually another point, a bottom line, albeit often vague and unsaid, where the compromise and accommodation cuts too deep; to compromise any more is at some base level a giving up on something of you.

What’s often needed here is a stepping back and a step into self honesty. Not only in terms of speaking openly but something else – being clear about your values. Values are the counterpoint to fear. To build your life forever maneuvering around fears is to live a life of avoidance, of control of you and others, of an often ever-increasing narrow world.

Values, on the other hand, allow you step forward, rather than shrink back, even if those steps seem small. Where fears become the potholes you are constantly walking around, values create a solid foundation that you can build upon. They become your philosophy of life, your "This I believe." The results are that rather than becoming a derivative of everything you fear, you instead become a compilation of everything that is important. Clear values help you determine bottom lines and priorities. As the hub from which other decisions emanate, they help decide when compromise is cutting too deep.

So what are values that drive Jessie and Sam? While she may be all to aware of her fears – of Sam falling into dependency or being unreliable -- by thinking in terms of her values, Jessie may discover that for her  health is a priority, or that it's important to stay mindful and handle life's anxiety head on rather than covering it over, and / or that it's essential to model these behaviors for her children. For Sam the values under drinking are not about avoidance but about seeing life not as a forced march or being on mental duty 24/7, but a way of living that  makes room for enjoyment, of letting go without guilt.

This reflection and clarification makes room for a different conversation between them,  not about drinking or not drinking or who is too sensitive or too controlling. It becomes a conversation about what each considers to be important, about the core issue under the surface issue. A good place to start. A setting for a real and intimate discussion.

So what are you values? Take some time to reflect. Think of those who you admire, about decisions that you felt particularly good about, about the true heart of the issue you both are tackling. If you were to build your life from scratch or if you were to give advice to your children on your deathbed, what would you deem important, what are those beliefs that form the fabric of who you are? Try writing them down – 5-10 ideas – not 50. See if you can get down to that gut baseline.

Then start talking.