‘Sometimes I just feel really lost.’
‘I’m not sure if I’ve changed or he’s changed.’
‘I’m under so much pressure to be something I’m not.’
Let’s imagine that it’s ten years from now, and you and your partner have gathered friends and family together to celebrate the last decade. Your partner is going to give a speech about you and what they love about you – about what you stand for, what you mean to them, and the role that you have played in their life.
For many, this is a scary scenario. What immediately comes up for you? Are you nervous, or even scared, about what might be said? All too often we don’t tell people how we feel about them until it’s too late – they leave the neighbourhood, the country, this mortal coil, and we sing their praises at farewell parties and funerals. With our partner, we may rarely or never tell them how we are truly feeling, or share how important they are to us – it would leave us vulnerable, open. When pressed, it can be hard to say the right thing, or the truthful thing, to someone’s face – but what would you want your partner to say about you?
This is a hypothetical. I’m not asking for the reality of your partner’s speech – I’m asking you to imagine what you would like your partner to say. Imagine them describing your character. Your strengths. The ways in which you have contributed to the relationship.
Now, how close is that speech to the reality you find yourself in right now? Who are you in your relationship? Are you exhibiting those personal qualities, those character strengths? Are you sure of your impact on the workability and safety of your relationship? Do you know what you stand for and how you want to be perceived? It can be very hard to do this if you have not worked out the values that you stand for and the way you can use those values to guide all your actions, but most importantly within the relationship.
Values guide what you want to do. They do not describe how you want to feel. Feelings are ambiguous and prone to external factors, whereas values are an internal fortitude that supports you as you make decisions about how you live your life and how you deal with others. Values may include ideas such as self-care, honesty, family, service, and safety, among many others.
How does this differ from just thinking about what you want? Well, values ask us to take personal responsibility for the way we are perceived and give us a framework for our actions. Russ Harris in ‘ACT with love’ (2009) mentions three fantastic values which can be the base of a whole shift in the relationship paradigm: connection, caring, and contribution. Let’s just think about those three words:
Connection is about being open and sharing. It’s about dropping pretences and being real, bringing your real self to the relationship. It’s about being interested in your partner and desiring intimacy and closeness.
Caring is being there – physically, emotionally, spiritually. It is being supportive and encouraging. It is acting lovingly and kindly, being more accepting and understanding, and less judgmental.
Contribution is the assistance, inspiration and guidance that makes up what is so special about ‘the power of two’. It’s a helping hand, a big hug, an investment of time and energy.
Of course, this sounds like a lot of work. But the myth that love is easy is probably the reason you find yourself in the situation you face with your partner. If nobody’s trying to keep the ‘relation-ship’ afloat, it sure isn’t going to float for very long. And if that ship is going to flounder, surely you want to know that you have done everything in your power beforehand to prevent that.
It takes real effort and desire to act in a way that will improve your situation. It takes reminders, and vigilance, and commitment. My partner and I write messages or keywords to each other on the splashback in our kitchen. At the moment the words are, ‘Care – Nurture – Love – Relate.’ We see them every morning when we start our day. They are there to remind us of how we want to be in the relationship.
Acting on values is intrinsically satisfying. It is a pro-active way to be true to yourself and engage more authentically with your partner. It’s not a magic pill, it doesn’t stop problems from arising, and it doesn’t provide all the answers – but you will feel alive. You will be challenging yourself and growing. You will be the best version of yourself, for yourself and your partner.
Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if the above post resonates for you. I work extensively with gay, lesbian and heterosexual couples; indeed, love does not discriminate.
Harris, R. (2009) ACT With Love. New Harbinger Publications, Inc. Oakland, CA.