Most people choose intimate partners, friends and sometimes business associates based on their personal traits, rather than their values. We notice, for example, that a certain person is intelligent, funny, friendly, confident and similar. However, all those traits do not mean that such a person will value what we value – and values are what relationships are built on or broken upon. When I say “values” I mean basic principles that you use as guidance in your life.
Perhaps one person values adventure, and the other safety. One values luxury, the other environmental protection. One values consideration for others, the other “the right of the strongest”. One values spontaneity, the other organization. This can all be somewhat independent of specific desirable personal traits.
Both values and personal traits are developed through a combination of inborn instincts and influence of the environment. Still, there are differences. Personal traits can be described as stable behavioral habits and physical or mental abilities, while values represent what is important to you: what kind of person do you want to be, how do you want to live your life and what kind of world do you want to live in.
Of course, values direct behavior, so they greatly influence development and manifestation of personal traits. On the other hand, cognitive values develop later than key behavioral traits; values follow the development of rational thought, while important behavioral traits are often manifested earlier in one’s childhood. Anyhow, it’s important to recognize that attractive personal traits are not necessarily related to crucial values, those which determine a successful relationship.
Definition and development of values
Values can be defined as basic principles and beliefs we use to direct our lives and our behavior. We can have different values, but only some of them will be important enough to define our lives. Other values might be less important and more open to change and compromise. Crucial values are those which you are not willing to compromise and for which you are willing to sacrifice, because you perceive them as exceptionally important on a global level.
Not everybody has important and stable personal values. A significant number of people don’t seem to follow any particular principles in life, while others might have principles which are flexible and situational. Lack of principles is a similar obstacle to healthy relationships as incompatible principles.
The more emotionally mature people are, the more they choose their values based on their global significance – influence on the level of humanity and the planet. Less mature adult people are guided by values they perceive as significant for their narrow community and groups they belong to – sometimes regardless of other communities and their needs. Children, adolescents and immature adults are mostly guided by principles related to their own personal gain.
The conclusion which follows is that even important values, despite their relative stability, are not unalterable. They can change primarily through significant experiences. Those are experiences which are emotionally intense enough to motivate us to see a very different perspective. Often those are difficult, painful experiences which help us understand how other people in similar situations might feel. (This is why many people after experiencing disease or death in their families start to invest time and money into organizations dedicated to preventing or treating such problems.) Based on such experiences and understanding, we can decide to change our behavior and lifestyles, because we might desire to be a better person.
The more mature people are, the more they are able to change their perspective and improve their values even based on other people’s experiences, specifically through the ability to identify with experiences and perspective of others. The less mature people are, the more intense, direct experiences they have to live through to become willing to change their perspective.
Values and relationships
If the crucial values of two people are compatible, a relationship can be successful regardless of many other differences. This is because such differences do not threaten the principles to which you dedicated your lives. But what if one person values integrity, and the other money; one values equal rights, and the other power and control; one values open communication and the other avoids vulnerability at all costs; one cherishes responsibility and the other short-term fun? These are rather extreme examples, but they make it obvious why, despite all the potentially attractive personal traits, some relationships don’t stand a chance.
Simply put, if somebody spontaneously and continuously hurts a principle which for you is a “guiding light”, your very instincts will revolt, quickly and poverfully.
Even then, most people ignore values and focus on personal traits: “This and that bothers me… but (s)he is so charming, dynamic, original… I wouldn’t like to give all that up!” Yet, if you focus instead on which values you share, and which you do not, you might get a clearer idea if you are wasting your time or not. Values are best assessed based on behavior, not words. Most of the time, it’s not bad intentions but incompatible values that lead to a relationship crisis, although many people will believe such incompatibility to be the result of bad intentions by the other side.
Values are very emotional constructs, and as such are resistant to most rational arguments, especially if we consider the time and energy invested in those values throughout years. Some of our values we learn from our environment (parents, society), in which case the crucial (hidden) value is in fact the connection with those important people, rather than verbalized values. That’s the key reason why some people stubbornly hold on to values that might be damaging for themselves or others, or values that are simply shallow. It’s similar with toxic beliefs which we take over from parents when we are children, and might hold on to them throughout our lives.
Experience combined with willingness to recognize one’s own mistakes might help in changing some of such values. If either is missing, do not expect a person to change. The less people are willing to recognize faults in their own thinking, the more extreme and painful experiences are needed for the values to change. Not all people have a chance to go through such experiences.