My friends finally conceded it is difficult to date me. I’m a little complex, a bit of an overthinker, and not very conventional. I’m an acquired taste. My friends declared I needed to date my equal, and I shouldn’t waste my time with someone who was inferior to me.
We had some interesting conversations about what makes a relationship successful. How important was it to have a lot of common interests? How important was it to have similar maturity levels? How important was it to be from similar social/socio-economic classes? How important was it to come from similar backgrounds?
I used to think those factors didn’t matter very much, that each person should be evaluated on his own merits. But then I noticed I’m 42 and single. I’ve been divorced for nine years. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I should be paying more attention to those factors instead of letting my feelings lead. Maybe I’ve been playing Goldilocks for too long, trying on different dates looking for someone who feels just right. Maybe I discarded people who were a little too hard or a little too soft, a little too hot or a little too cold, when I should have given them a chance if we were of equal standing in maturity and station in life. Maybe the men I felt a connection with should have gone through more scrutiny instead of given allowances for their flaws.
So in typical fashion, I over-thought it all, because why not? Maybe I should stop dating someone who makes me swoon. Maybe I should intellectualize this match-making thing more. Maybe I’ll have better luck building a relationship that lasts. I tried really hard to figure out what increases the likelihood of a relationship working out. I scrutinized what happened in past relationships; who they were, who I was, what ultimately ended the relationships.
And then I realize what the answer is. A few years ago, we attended a lovely party to celebrate the 20th anniversary of a couple I am good friends with. The husband has said many times in the past that he knew she was the one he was going to marry because they shared the same values. He didn’t say he knew she was the one he would marry because she was the smartest or prettiest or funniest woman he’d met. Don’t get me wrong, she’s pretty and smart and funny. But he knew because they share the same values.
The first few times he said that, I remember thinking “Huh.” I sort of understood, but not really. I didn’t know what that looked like. But I’ve had some time to sit with it, and I’ve had some time to date a lot of men who verbalize one thing, and through time, show that their actions aren’t consistent with the verbalized values.
And I get it now. That’s the most important thing that increases the likelihood of a relationship lasting: If you share the same values.
There were multiple reasons I divorced my ex-husband. But all the issues come down to one overarching theme. We did not share the same values. I thought we did when we first met. He said everything I wanted to hear. We dated for years before getting married. And every time his behaviors belied his verbal values, I ignored the red flags. Every time I would confront him with this contradiction, there would be an explanation or apology, or not. And I would give him another chance. Which is the right thing to do. Once. Twice. Three times a fool? For years I did this.
Because I valued the relationship more than I valued myself. I wanted to be in a relationship more than I wanted to be with myself. I valued the relationship more than I valued reliability, accountability, integrity.
Reliability is doing what you say you’re going to do. Accountability is owning your mistakes and making amends. Integrity is living your values instead of just talking about them. These are the things that matter. Will you do the hard work to practice your values?
I realize I need to focus on those shared values. Do you believe in grace and kindness? Do you believe in using your words, even if it disappoints someone? Do you believe in owning your mistakes and showing both remorse and attempts at different behaviors? Do you believe in not judging others? Do you believe in being kind to yourself? Do you believe it’s better to be kind than right? Do you believe we’re on the same team? Do you believe in taking action if you aren’t happy, rather than just complaining? Do you believe in doing hard things?
It’s a continual assessment of seeing if behaviors align with professed values. Just because you say it, doesn’t make it true. Even if you really, really hope. Even if he apologizes and says it won’t happen again. It is the long, slow, continual getting-to-know someone to see if our values align, and if the behaviors match those values.
I remember a moment before we were married. We were engaged, and in that moment, my gut knew it would not last. I remember making a conscious decision to not honor my gut, and instead, tamp down this red flag. I’ve gone back to that moment more than once through the years.
I have an unhealthy love for seahorses, I think they’re magical. The local aquarium had an exhibit for a very short period of time. My ex-husband promised we would go together. He knew how much I loved seahorses. I found out he went without me, and he wasn’t going to tell me. I confronted him with this, and he said he went because he had been mad at me.
There was no empathy or understanding of my hurt. There was no remorse or apology. There was no kindness. There was no clear communication. There was fear, passive-aggressive behavior, lying. There was an intent to hurt me. They were just seahorses, but it was a betrayal. A betrayal that we were on the same team, even when we’re mad. A betrayal that we use our words, even when we’re scared. A betrayal that we are kind, even when it’s hard.
It was a relationship built out of mismatched values, and I chose every day to stay in that space. Until one day I didn’t. Every day I chose to believe what I wanted to believe. I chose to believe what I heard him say. Hope is a powerful thing, and I hoped and hoped and hoped the behaviors would eventually reflect the values.
I’m getting better at recognizing this now. I’m getting better with noticing if someone lives his convictions or if it’s just lip service. I’m getting better with being a little more patient and giving someone chances to demonstrate we have shared values. And I’m getting better with using my words to let someone know if what I’m noticing just isn’t working for me anymore. I’m getting better with accepting I may feel sad about that, and sadness is a better alternative than valuing a relationship over myself.
So should I be dating my equal? I don’t like to think of it in that way. Equality feels like a measurement of judgment. I should be dating someone with similar values. Sure, common interests and engaging conversation and laughter help bring people together as points of connections. But it’s the shared values, and the continued assessment of behaviors reflecting values that make a relationship work. This is my story, and I’m sticking to it. I’ll let you know how this goes.