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  • Writer's pictureSean Flannery

Lost and Found Values

When conducting individual therapy, one of my favorite approaches is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). While I won’t spend much of this blog discussing the nuts and bolts of ACT, I do want to highlight something that has crossed into my couple’s work from this approach.

One of the main tenets of ACT is to help the client identify their deepest held values (aspects that give life meaning, purpose, and vitality). Once this process is in motion (truly, it should constantly be assessed and reassessed in one’s lifetime), work is done to start aligning the client’s life to be more value-centered. The idea is if one has strayed from living out and embodying their values then mental health suffers, and if it is chronic and significant enough a rigid thinking/behavior style takes the place of flexibility and enlivenment and being able to cope with, engage in, and look forward to life.

When working with couples, I have noticed that a significant amount of distress can come not from what the other partner does or doesn’t do, but how the dynamics of the relationship can pull someone away from or threaten values within that relationship.

For example, if a value of someone in their marriage is FRIENDSHIP they may desire to be a kind, engaging, and lighthearted partner. This was likely easy at the beginning of the relationship, and not only was the attraction magical, but the person also felt in line with their value, that it was effortless with this other person to be friendly. It lifted one up. As time wore on and the “noise of life” (work, kids, responsibilities, expectations, etc.) made it more difficult to connect, this same person now finds themselves being short, demanding, and very much unaligned with FRIENDSHIP. This causes significant distress because the person knows they want to be a friend, but find that they just can’t for some reason. Without good communication and adaptability by the couple, this can lead to distance between the two, and very different narratives developing in each person about why they can’t be the partner they want to.

I won’t get into deep details in this blog so that remains “blog length,” but a process can occur that leads to partners blaming each other for failing to live out their own values. For example, here’s a line of thought our (non)friendly partner may have: “We used to be so nice to each other and really seemed to be in tune with each other’s needs. I could laugh and be warm and feel good about myself. Now it’s all cold. If he would just bring home flowers or smile at me more, I could approach him with some love and affection. Maybe he never really loved me. Maybe he has autism. Maybe he tricked me, acting all lovey-dovey just to marry me, but now his true self is coming out that he doesn’t have to “earn” my love. Well, I’m certainly not going to be all friendly to someone who’s just going to squander it or use it to manipulate me.”

You can imagine the problems this can create in a relationship. This can be intensified by ventures to “test” the other and giving them a little friendliness to see how they respond. This is damaging because 1) the other person doesn’t know it’s a test (i.e., that it’s really important to their partner); and 2) even if it plays out perfectly and gets a warm reception, the friendly partner did not live out the value, they duped themselves and their relationship by donning a mask of friendliness to see if it was okay to, maybe tomorrow, actually be friendly in a genuine and authentic manner.

However, hope rings true in the loving moments and buried desire to connect. Hope that maybe I can become that partner living out my values. It is important to note that living out one’s values is not dependent on someone else, nor is it dependent on how you feel. Living out values is a choice made by a person in each and every moment. Sometimes this is easy, sometimes it seems everything is working against you (e.g., they’re being a jerk and ignoring me and I feel completely invisible and I’ve had a real hard day at work and the kids won’t stop yelling…). Though, in each moment you can choose to either live out your value and inject something like friendship or affection or fun into your relationship, or you can try and protect yourself from feeling worse or getting a bad reaction. The latter is a short-term defense against an emotion, those annoying, fleeting things that constantly change anyways, but choosing to be a certain kind of partner reaps long-term rewards.

Allow yourself to be curious about your own motivations, contributions, and reasons for living unaligned within your relationship. You can much more easily work on your own decision process. Finally, do not cheat yourself (and your partner) and downplay the decision to act with your valued direction, giving a meek attempt with a quick retreat in your back pocket. Your relationship is worth more than that, your partner is worth more than that, and your valued life is worth more than that. Make your choice and take an action in powerful and life-changing ways. Choose intensely.

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