Do you feel stuck in your marriage? Do you feel like you can’t get along with each other? Do you feel like your partner doesn’t respect you?
Normally, when we feel these things in marriage we think what we need is a better CONNECTION to each other. And sometimes that is true. But often times, the root of the problem boils down to a lack of emotional maturity in one or both partners.
And since you can only control YOUR emotional maturity, we’re going to focus on that.
Specifically today we’re going to be talking all about values.
This month on Marriage Laboratory is devoted to developing a clear sense of self. And defining and striving to live in accordance with the good things you value is inherent to developing a clear sense of self.
Now, if you’re thinking, “Values. I already know what I value. Working hard, meaningful relationships, honesty, kindness.”
Those things are great. Those things are awesome. Contemplating the things most important to us is a worthwhile activity we should all undertake from time to time (as well as determining if we are spending our time and energy on the things we actually value).
But equally important is WHY we value what we value. What are our underlying motivations for how we spend our time? How we make decisions? How we treat the people around us?
These questions make up our value system and they have everything to do with emotional maturity.
What is Your Value System?
I’m going to use the word values here in a way we normally wouldn’t think of them.
1. Valuing increased pleasure and decreased pain.
2. Transactional values (what do I get out of this?)
3. Unconditional values (I will do this regardless of what I get out of it)
Stage One: Valuing Increased Pleasure and Decreased Pain
The first stage is very simple developmentally. It is the stage of childhood.
I will act to increase my pleasure and decrease my pain.
I seek out candy because candy tastes good. I avoid fire because fire burns me.
These things make sense, but when we get stuck in this value system (and it is shocking how many adults are), we end up valuing our own pleasure over other more important priorities.
We chase highs, whether those come in the form of food, Instagram likes, feeling morally superior, perfectionism, alcohol, casual sexual relationships, outrage or validation from others.
On the flip side, we will do anything to avoid pain, which can come in the form of facing our own imperfections, difficult relationships, stressful work, being bored, putting ourselves out there, feeling overwhelmed and having hard conversations.
Relationships tend to falter when partners are stuck in this value system because selfishness reigns supreme. We look out for ourselves instead of for each other.
Stage 2: Transactional Values (What Do I Get Out of This?)
As we mature, our decision making becomes more complex. Other factors come into play besides just our own pleasure or pain.
I want candy, but Mom will get mad at me for sneaking it, so I will not eat candy to make Mom happy with me.
Our values in this stage advance beyond mere pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding, but they are still marked by self-interest.
Our interactions with others are marked by transactions- I will do this, so you will give me that.
In a marriage this could look like a husband coming home from work and wanting nothing more than to escape away on his phone for a few hours, but he also wants to be intimate that night and knows that probably won’t happen if he stays in the bathroom for two hours on his phone, so he doesn’t.
It could look like a wife not really wanting to be intimate, but she thinks if she does then her husband will do the dishes and help with the kids, so she does.
We all pass through this phase, but being stuck in it turns all interaction with humans into a transaction, which becomes very problematic.
People stuck in the transactional value system are often very fragile because their sense of self rides on how others transact with them.
It’s easy to think we have advanced out of this phase, but when you factor in the transactions of acceptance, belonging and validation, many of our actions are in some way to achieve those three things.
Acceptance and belonging are so fundamental human needs that we would do almost anything to assure those feelings keep coming.
It is not at all uncommon for entire relationships (and marriages) to be based on reciprocal validation/acceptance transactions.
I will be in this relationship if you provide me feelings of acceptance and belonging.
In fact, most relationships start out this way.
Our quest is to morally develop beyond this transaction.
Stage 3: Unconditional Values (Behavior Not Based on What You Get Out of It)
In stage three your values are no longer based on self-interest alone. Nor are they derived from society’s views or the morals of peers. Rather stage three values are individually forged. This demands a level of self-maturity, empathy and awareness unavailable in the other two stages.
In stage three, a person is able to hold to their own values in the presence of those who have different values. In stages one and two, a person will often conform to the values of those around them.
Meaning if your spouse pressures you to do something, you would probably acquiesce, but do so resentfully. Or you may refuse resentfully. In stage three value system, you would be able to stick to your own values and do so without resentment because of your clear sense of self.
In stage three, a value is maintained whether or not you get anything out of keeping that value.
Let’s take honesty as an example.
A person in stage one would be honest if it meant they would avoid pain. I won’t lie because lying gets me punished.
A person in stage two would be honest depending on what the other person would say or do as a result of their honesty. I won’t lie if you’ll provide me validation for doing so (but I will lie if I receive more validation for doing so).
A person in stage three would be honest merely because its the right thing to do. They will be honest even if they are punished for it. They will be honest even if the person they are honest with doesn’t provide them validation or acceptance for doing so.
A person in stage three is able to successfully confront and deal with increasingly complex moral dilemmas.
Hm, moral dilemmas, where do we have to deal with those? (ummmm . . . marriage!)
And lest you’re thinking “Phew! I sure am glad I’m in stage three and not stuck in those first two!”
Not so fast my friend.
In Kohlberg’s book, The Measurement of Moral Judgment, he found that ONLY about 13% of adults make it to stage three by age 36.
Now, it should be said that these stages aren’t concrete levels, where once you level up, you never act from the stage below you again.
Rather, we make decisions based on the values of the lower two stages ALL. THE. TIME.
Stage three doesn’t mean we are immune to the pull of acting in pursuit of our pleasures (I’m eating a popsicle while I type this because . . . it pleases me) or that we’re immune to the pull of peer pressured values.
The trick is to be self-aware enough to know what we’re doing when we’re doing it and to make stage three values our goal.
Stage three value system means we can tell the difference from when we are acting out of the best in ourselves and when we are not, and we’re striving to act in accordance with our values.
Speaking of which . . .
How Do You Achieve Unconditional Values?
Here are three ideas:
1. Pain and failure
2. Self confrontation and honesty
3. Intentionality and mindset
Pain and Failure
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If we are going to level up our values, we first have to recognize that our current value system is, in fact broken. Only then can we fix it.
Unfortunately a lot of the time, instead of blaming our value system when things go wrong, we blame OURSELVES. Which creates all sorts of shame-based problems and generally makes things more complicated than they need to be.
For example, if we are living in stage two values and our transactions with others aren’t bringing the acceptance and validation we are seeking, instead of blaming the fact that we are looking for acceptance and validation outside ourselves as the problem, we blame ourselves, thinking we’re the problem and if we only improve our end of the transaction, then things will go our way.
Often we have to go through something very painful in order to break ourselves out of our current system.
The alcoholic often has to reach rock bottom before they realize that seeking only to increase pleasure and decrease pain is no longer serving them.
Someone addicted to seeking acceptance by being the center of attention all the time has to have enough negative experiences there for them to start to seek acceptance elsewhere (hopefully inwardly).
This process will be painful, but it will be useful.
Self-Confrontation and Honesty
The more we can look at and evaluate our behaviors unbiasedly without breaking out into shame, the more honest we’ll be able to be with ourselves and the more we can improve.
Leveling our value systems up is going to require a great amount of self honesty. Not to mention courage.
Unfortunately most of us are so scared of the pain that may come from honestly looking into the negative parts of ourselves, that we will go to great lengths to avoid doing so.
If you care enough about values to have made it this far into this essay however, I have great hopes for you. 🙂
If you feel you are ready to self-confront and put in some work to level up your values, I would recommend the following books: David Schnarch’s Intimacy and Desire, Robert Kegan’s The Evolving Self, Michael Singer’s The Untethered Soul or Brene Brown’s Rising Strong.
Intentionality and Mindset
A rather unfortunate truth about all of this leveling up business is that our brains often don’t seem to want us to level up. Research shows that it is easier to focus on something negative than something positive. Our brains have developed over time to avert danger and so our decision making process is often inherently self-interested.
For these reasons, self-improvement can feel like swimming upstream. It takes MORE effort to exercise empathy and act in accordance with good values than it does to act in self-interest.
If we are going to improve our value systems, it won’t be done by just reading this essay. It will take intentionality. It will take frequently recognizing and then assessing why you are doing what you are doing and how you can improve.
I have found a really helpful way to keep myself in check is to listen to podcasts or audiobooks that remind me of the mindsets I want to have (because my mindset is oh-so forgetful and likes to think about popsicles and praise).
Also, the Calm meditation app is AWESOME and has lots of great instruction included in their 10 minute meditations (Apple awarded it app of the year in 2017).
I thought a lot about what to write in the “How To Achieve Unconditional Values” section, and I so wish I could provide you with a simple, “Do these 5 steps and you’ll have a great value system and finally be happy!”
But the truth is, this is the work of a life time.
It takes years and years of self-growth to define our values and stick to them. It is worth it and it is the key to lasting, healthy and happy relationships, but it certainly doesn’t come over night or as a result of a Pinterest-friendly check list.
For me, though I so often act immaturely, I can feel myself getting clearer and more secure in my sense of self with each passing year. As a result, I feel less fearful, more able to totally be myself around others and less affected by the disagreements, bad moods and tough times that every marriage has.
I can feel my personal integrity growing, and I really believe that reading good books and listening to good podcasts in an attempt to keep my mindset in check (the mind is so prone to convincing itself of stories that aren’t helpful or true) has done WONDERS.
So, those are the clearest calls to action I can provide you with.
Stick with us for the rest of this month and year as we talk more about developing emotional maturity and integrity in order to improve not just your marriage, but every relationship you have.