You workout 4 times a week and think rock climbing is the best weekend activity ever, but you’re dating someone who can quote every Lord of the Rings movie because they spend all their free time watching DVDs. You are active politically and feel passionately about the causes you support, but you just started seeing a guy who prefers not to rock the boat and has difficulty taking a stand about what restaurant to go to for dinner. You are a successful woman with a career you love, but your partner is a high school dropout who complains constantly about how lame her retail job is.
On a scale of 1-10, how judgmental do you feel just thinking about how problematic these differences are? If you rated anything over a 1, you are likely putting critical personal values on the shelf in the interest of not being a bitch, and your romantic life is suffering for it. When it comes to dating deal breakers, women are taught that we must bend and mold ourselves to fit any partner that doesn’t seem like a serial killer. If a prospect is employed, mildly attractive, and legitimately single (i.e., no wedding band tan lines), we feel we must either mold ourselves or mold our partners to make any other potential non-compatible aspects fit as best we can. This is scarcity mentality at its most intrusive, and it makes dating suck majorly. We end up wasting time on people that were never going to work out due to fear that whatever we see in front of us is as good as it gets.
I get that dating feels like an episode of Survivor—the pool of partner options can seem incredibly limited. A direct consequence of this perceived scarcity is to start to compromise on what we want. Add to that equation a society that encourages women to view their value in terms of what they are willing to sacrifice, and you have a formula for self-denial and settling in relationships that inevitably leads to dissatisfaction and potentially to a break up.
If we are going to build meaningful, lasting relationships, we must be willing to show up to potential partners with our values on full display, not hidden away for fear that being true to ourselves means we will end up alone. This means acknowledging that what we want goes deeper and is more complex than just wanting someone who is unmarried and breathing.
So, what matters to you? What kind of person do you want to be in your family relationships, your community? How do you want to show up to your career, your spiritual growth, and your free time? Think about people you admire and ask yourself how you would describe them. Are they ambitious, respectful, curious, laid back, committed to family? The qualities we admire in others point directly to our own values and provide guidance around how we want to show up to our own lives. Once we know what is important to us, we can more effectively seek a partner who will share our values.
The great thing about values is that they don’t lock us into rigid expectations of others. My husband loves camping. It’s safe to say that I loathe camping. But, I love the outdoors, and a deeply held value of mine and my husband’s is spending time in nature. Even though the ways we act on this value don’t always match up, the shared value is there, making it possible to find common ground in how we spend our free time that we both find satisfying. If you’re worried that setting an expectation around shared recreational values will limit you to one guy who also loves extreme knitting that you’ll likely never meet, know that we can manifest values in a variety of ways and still be on the same page.
It is not shallow to require a partner share your values. I have heard countless clients say that they felt bad for judging a new romantic interest for not being employed, or not having as much education as they have, which I promptly tell them is completely unjustified guilt. The negative judgment we feel when we encounter differences in employment, relationship goals, educational attainment, etc., is pointing to a value that we likely need to have in common with a partner. I have a doctorate because I deeply value learning, my husband doesn’t have a doctorate, but devours books on topics he’s interest in. Again, same value, different manifestation. We do not have to buy into the belief that we should offer ourselves equally to any potentially partner who meets a few basic criteria in the interest of being nice. You know what’s really not nice? Pursuing a relationship with someone who doesn’t share your values and allowing the resentment you will inevitably become filled with to turn you into a hypercritical harpy.
If you’re sick of dating, and sick of settling, then make a list right now of the 5 values you most want to have in common with a partner—they could be related to money, to learning, to activism, to charity, to anything! Start thinking about what you want more than dwelling on what you don’t want or what you imagine you will have to settle for, and your dating life will take a turn for the satisfying.
Dr. Candice Creasman
Therapist, author, and counselor educator. Articles with tips and tools for living your most authentic and joyful life.