Can you be in a relationship with someone whose values are different?


relationships-logoRecently, I had the privilege of meeting with a group of young adults. When I was invited to speak, I asked their pastor to have them send me some of the questions they had about relationships. Over the two evenings I was with them, I was blessed with a list of wonderful, honest questions — and tried to be honest with them in return.

It was impossible to say all that could have been said in the short space of time we had together. Beginning this month, therefore, I will post a relationship question each Thursday until they are gone. Readers, please feel free to respond with your own questions and/or comments!

Meanwhile, here’s the first question:

Can you be in a relationship with someone whose values are different from yours?

Let’s start with this: with rare exceptions, the two people in any relationship will have value differences. The question is whether you know those differences are there, which ones are the real deal-breakers, and how you handle the ones that aren’t.

There may be thousands of couples across America, for example, that voted for opposing candidates in the recent presidential election. They may even fight about it from time to time, loudly. But they stay married and raise their kids.

Next door to them is the couple whose values seemed to line up in every way when they met: political views, religious and family background, etc. But it was not until after they started their household together that they discovered what was really important to them. She needs a neat house and can’t stand his messiness; he can’t bear to be nagged. They go around and around in circles arguing about it, and are just about ready to split up.

There are “values,” and there are values. On the one hand, there are many things we might check off as “very important” to us on some survey, things we would consider to be our “values.” But if someone were to examine our lives more closely, they’d see that these so-called values make zero difference in how we live and the decisions we make.

On the other hand, there are assumptions, beliefs, and expectations behind how we feel and act, and these might actually function as core values even if we don’t recognize their existence. Indeed, sometimes we don’t even discover we have them until we have to figure out how to live with someone else.

When getting serious about a relationship, it’s wise to know if there are any conscious “deal-breakers” — if she wants to have kids, for example, and he’s adamantly opposed to it, they’re asking for serious trouble if they get married. But we also need to recognize that some of the values we might think are deal-breakers up front really aren’t, while we have yet to stub our emotional toes on the ones that are.

What matters, therefore, is how you handle the value differences you do stumble over. Whether in dating or in marriage, you don’t have to agree on everything. But you do have to respect one another, and be able to create a space in which differences can be explored together without fear of being belittled or rejected.

Bottom line: if you want to make a checklist of deal-breakers to help you decide whether it’s okay to proceed in a relationship, be my guest. But be respectful and compassionate. Don’t treat people as if they were coming for a job interview. And don’t expect to find someone with whom you will never have any disagreements on matters of value (heck, you don’t always agree with yourself, do you?). Instead, learn to be someone who can handle disagreements well.

3 thoughts on “Can you be in a relationship with someone whose values are different?

  1. Thank you for the very helpful distinction between “values” and values.

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