Steven Spotts, PsyD
Abiding Values, One of Sixteen Essential Characteristics of Healthy Relationships
This is the 9th in my series of 16 characteristics describing mental “health” and how they each contribute to developing strong and healthy relationships. Conversely, of course, any lack of these attributes can cause significant relational problems for ourself and others. Sometimes these problems can be subtle and other times quite obvious.
Today, I’m writing about a characteristic of mental (and relational) health we’re calling “abiding values,” a trait that I believe may be one of the most responsible for establishing long term success in an intimate relationship.
Remember, I’m not claiming this list of 16 is the definitive list or that it identifies every aspect of mental or relational health. However, I do think a list like this one can help each of us do a self assessment of what it means to be a healthy partner in our relationships.
It’s always easiest to think it is our mate that is the problem or the reason for relational unhappiness when it occurs. However, I don’t think that is generally true. Most of “our” problems are located within us, rather than in others.
Certainly, how another responds to us or acts toward us can be challenging and even stressful, provoking in us a response that may be less than healthy. Yet, our partner’s behavior is always in some way a response to us, just as our behavior is a response to them. If we believe they are responsible for our bad behaviors (e.g. You made me so mad I couldn’t help but scream at you.”), then we would have to acknowledge we could be just as responsible for their bad behaviors.
This all reminds me of Raul Esparza singing Johathan Larson’s song,“Therapy,” in the musical, Tick, Tick, Boom. Here are some of the lyrics between the characters, Susan and Jonathan:
SUSAN: Are you saying we can't talk?
JONATHAN: Are you saying we are not talking?
SUSAN: What are you saying?
JONATHAN: What are YOU saying? I'm saying I feel bad, that you feel bad About me feeling bad, about you feeling bad About what I said, about what you said About me not being able to share a feeling
SUSAN: If I thought that what you thought Was that I hadn't thought about sharing my thoughts Then my reaction to your reaction to my reaction Would have been more revealing
JONATHAN: I was afraid that you'd be afraid If I told you that I was afraid of intimacy If you don't have a problem with my problem Maybe the problem is simply co-dependency
It continues on in this vein and is a rather hilarious look at the insanity that happens to almost all couples at some point in their relationship. (I’ll add an iTunes link at the bottom of this article for the full song. If you aren’t familiar with it you need to track it down and listen.)
As I have been reflecting on the importance of “abiding values” as a trait essential for health I’m reminded just how important both words are in this description.
Certainly, shared values is one of the things that often bring people together. Never have I heard a man or woman say, “I found someone who is so unlike me in every respect, I just know he/she is the right one for me.
In fact, many times, as a relationship begins to unravel and people end up in my office, they will say, “We are nothing alike. He never wants to do anything that I like to do. Or, “She used to be so agreeable, now she complains about anything I try to do.”
Sometimes it can sound more like the following. “I save, she spends. I’m on time, she’s late. I’m a thinker, she’s a feeler. I want to communicate, he stonewalls. I try so hard to keep the house clean, he seems oblivious to the messes he makes. I’m the one who has to be responsible because even after 20 years of marriage he still acts like one of our teenagers.
Somehow relationships can get to the place described above even though they start more commonly with shared beliefs (naive though they may be), such as, “we are so much alike” and “Isn’t it amazing, we both like the same kind of ice cream and our mother’s have the same birthdays. We must be made for each other."
Obviously, not all values are moral (i.e. good or bad) nor are they all meaningless, like flavors of ice cream.
I recently had reason (a brief stint at jury duty) to think about the shared American value of “freedom” and how deeply it is seated in our psyche’s. It’s right there along with justice, the pursuit of happiness, hard work, healthcare, security, and many others. Some of these are codified or written in our founding documents. Others are collective cultural expressions of our shared experiences as Americans.
We certainly don't question the importance of some values to men and women willing to defend those values against enemies that threaten them, even to the point of death. Or of first responders, who risk their own lives to save the lives of others they don't even know.
Whether significant or subtle in their meanings, values—by their very definition—matter to us. In a relational context, our own values and the values of those we are in relationship with can have great significance.
The Importance of our Attachments
Attachment is a value, in and of itself. There are many solid reasons to believe our attachments are biologically, interpersonally, and intrapsychically derived.
For instance, our relational world and, in particular, the meaning we attach to those relationships has been shown to be absolutely critical in our ability to predict, protect, and ensure the security of those attachments which are necessary for our survival and well being.
If the underlying values that form the foundation of a relationship come into question or start to shift, then the foundation of the relationship and the security it provides begins to evaporate. That can thrust us into an insecurely attached and, therefore, anxious state leading to a variety of defensive and desperate behaviors designed to reduce that anxiety and secure our attachment once again.
Think of it this way. If suddenly, bundles of cash started to drop out of the air over a metropolitan area, an ensuing chaos would likely result from people scrambling to get what they valued (money) at the cost of other things they valued (such as security, service, friendship, rule of law, etc).
This is the kind of thing that can happen in a relationship when one or the other partner starts to shift their values. It's as if the rules for relating suddenly change and all the security each partner once shared comes into question. I often hear people say that they feel as if the ground underneath their feet has actually shifted or is so unsteady they can’t get their balance.
To Abide is to Endure
The other part of the characteristic we are focusing on now is the word “abiding.” In this case, “abiding” is an adjective modifying “values” and it means
“continuing without change, enduring, and steadfast."
On the surface this seems simple enough. You may have heard the phrase, “an abiding faith.” This simply means a faith that endures. Abiding values are similar. Faith can be one of those values but so can trust, honesty, integrity, faithfulness, hard work, playfulness, generosity, etc.
In a relational context, abiding values have to do with having a commitment to be who I am in terms of my values as opposed to being who you or others want or need me to be.
In terms of our development, abiding values are the result, in part, of an “achieved” or mature identity. In human development identity always precedes intimacy. In other words, we can’t effectively give ourself to another person until we have personally locked on to the truth about ourselves and made some form of commitment to who we really are.
I mean, we can lie or pretend, but we aren't really able to give our true self to another unless or until we know who or what that true self is.
So, when we have developed a set of “values,” (i.e. a set of ideas or concepts that are important to us) and we are committed to them, we can honestly tell the truth about ourselves to others. We can offer them to someone else as something stable and true about us.
Identity is not something that develops overnight. It’s an ongoing process that begins in earnest during our early adolescence and continues on until early adulthood or until we develop that mature identity described above.
It usually develops through a series of crises that occur in our life where we ask ourself questions like, “What do I believe, think, feel or desire in this situation?” “What do I truly want for myself or for another?” “What is the truth about me?”
If we never really ask ourself the hard questions or commit ourself to any answers, we are said to have a “diffuse” identity (i.e. lacking clarity or conciseness). If we decide things too early—before we are forced by life to ask the questions and without being sufficiently confused about the answers (i.e. an identity crisis)—we are said to have “foreclosed” on our identity. Finally, if we are asking the right questions but never seem to quite settle on an answer, we can be said to be in “moratorium” which is a period of exploration without commitment.
Commitment to Both Self and Other
Abiding values has to do with coming to know our truest self and being committed to it without excessive ambivalence, equivocation, or indecision. It doesn’t change with the wind or situation. it’s a self that is not casually tossed aside when the it faces opposition from others or one that goes into hiding when the relational cost might be high.
A person with abiding values has a quiet confidence in who they are, and a courage about revealing that self and remaining in it no matter how difficult the course of life might become.
You might imagine how this kind of stance can impact an important relationship. What you see is what you get. Trust is placed in you by your partner because you do not change from moment to moment. You create a sense of safety for your partner where she too can feel free to be vulnerable with you. Remember, vulnerability is the prerequisite for intimacy, but trust is the prerequisite for vulnerability.
Finally, abiding values point to a commitment to both self and other. It is this type of commitment that sustains relationships through all the inevitable storms and vicissitudes of life.
It was with this idea in mind that I wrote the following poem, “It’s No Small Thing” in 2013 for my son and daughter-in-law and read it to them at their wedding. It contrasts the relative brevity of life-long marriage with the need for a deep and abiding commitment to one another in spite of the obstacles ahead.
This thing you begin today, this momentary marriage
It’s a meteor’s life, spanned against a black sky
We call it forever love
but it’s only a passing shadow
a glance through a darkened window
a mysterious and subtle symbol
revealed to those with eyes to see.
But it’s no small thing, these promises taken up today.
If you already knew what you will soon come to know
If you could know now, If you were that wise,
You might never cross the threshold of
both joy and sorrow
that’s sure to follow
in the blink of your seeing eyes.
This precarious impermanence, this temporary tempest
It’s no small thing, what is offered on this altar.
More fun than one is two and less work is two than one
But neither pleasure nor economy is what we measure.
For it is here, in this flicker of life,
in this delicious but brief and fleeting moment
you will both taste and portray your Creator's covenant.
Yes, it is no small thing that you now commence,
here, today, with family and friends,
yet it pales, and fades to insignificance
against the incomprehensible glory this fleeting form expresses.
You two stand here today in your glory
Magnifying what many will miss,
another wedding, another supper, another story.
It’s no small thing that which is represented by your ring,
a King, faithful and true, who comes for His bride
having paid her price with His holy life.
An unchanging and loyal love, steadfast, without end
His bride adorned in white, and right, made ready for her eternal love.
Yes, it is no small thing, that which happens here,
If anyone has ears to hear.
Your momentary marriage proclaims a permanent promise
That's no small thing, this good news, now offered and displayed.
So may your momentary marriage linger long, ‘till you’re old ‘n gray.
May you make the most of each passing day.
May its fullness be yours from this moment until life departs
May your reflection of His glory be pure and our glimpse of that glory, sure.
And may your marriage be honored among all we pray. Amen and amen.
If you are following along with this series I hope these short summaries are useful to you as you continue to self evaluate. In any case, it helps me to play with the ideas as I write down my thoughts. There is always so much more that could be said but I also know it is also a lot to take in.
Next on the list offered by Dr. Nancy McWilliams is “affect toleration and regulation.” A simpler way to think of that is to consider your ability to effectively manage your different feeling states about your attachments to significant others. Of course we will dig much deeper into this next time. Please come back and join me.
Link to the song “Therapy” from the musical, Tick Tick Boom: