Relationships, You & Your Family

Values: Aspirational and inspirational

Conversation about values has featured prominently in my sessions with a couple I have been counselling for almost two years. They came in to try to repair their marriage after the husband’s infidelity—for the second time. Six years earlier, he had cheated on his wife but was given a second chance.

The husband is again asking for another chance, but things are at an impasse. The wife is less hopeful, wondering if things would turn out better this time. She is asking questions like “Is he sincere about changing? Has he learnt his lesson? Is the marriage and family more important to him than his philandering ways?” Meanwhile, he has shown that he is willing to change by getting more involved with the children and being more transparent about his work and relationships. But the questions linger—she wonders if a leopard can change its spots.

This is where the topic of values comes in. The wife feels that the man she married has changed. From a simple, hardworking man, he has become sophisticated, smooth-talking, a worldly “man about town”. She wonders how much of the person she knew before remains and how much she can trust the new person her husband has morphed into.

All of us do change to some degree over time. As we are exposed to new information, experiences and people, some influences do get assimilated, whether consciously or not. Some changes may be positive and represent an improvement, both personally and interpersonally. Other changes are questionable. Some changes are superficial, e.g. in how we choose to look or behave, while others are more in-depth, altering our values and outlook on life.

While counselling the couple, I try to help the husband articulate what his current values are. This, we hope, will help his wife understand how much he has changed and whether she finds the changes agreeable and helpful to their marriage.

But values, though important, may not be easy to identify and articulate. With my client, we struggled to arrive at words like “caring”, “commitment to the marriage”, “honesty”, and “sacrifice”. We may struggle also because, like in this husband’s experience, he has not lived by them. He worries about sounding like a hypocrite in saying he values honesty but was dishonest with his wife about his relationships with some women. But not living true to these values does not mean they are unimportant to him.

The identification of values is aspirational and inspirational in nature and effect. They remind us of what is important and when we fall short, what we should strive towards.  Conversation about values is not about declaring how perfect we are. Indeed, we should guard against trying to portray ourselves better than we actually are. At one time or another, we all fall short of our own ideals.

Moreover, the mere declaration of similar values does not equate to harmony. In a situation where individuals are clearly at odds with each other, a good way is to talk clearly and calmly while listening respectfully to the other. Agreeing to disagree might well be a positive outcome.

What values do you hold as important? Is the person you are today different from who you were 10 years ago? Are you pleased or apologetic about the changes? If you are married, are your partner’s and your values aligned? If you are a parent, how are you nurturing the values you want your children to develop and do they see you living a life consistent with these values?

Remember, it is not about being perfect but being mindful that our values ultimately shape and inspire us to be better.

Benny Bong has been a family and marital therapist for more than 30 years, and is a certified work-life consultant. He was the first recipient of the AWARE Hero Award, received in 2011, and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.