Of the many beautiful and endlessly amusing things about a sixteen-year-old daughter, one of my favorite is the stories. And specifically, the relationship drama her friends endure. A week doesn’t seem to go by without hearing of this or that girlfriend starting or ending it with some new boy, and as predictably, the spectacle that follows. It’s way better than any soap opera or afternoon talk show.
Most are part of the natural growing-up experience; one we’ve all been through and most appreciate. But I’ve come to believe that if parents still paid a bit closer attention to their kids’ high school drama, we not only might have better relationships with them, we might learn a few things that could lead to better marriages for ourselves.
At dinner, recently, she began telling us the latest with one of her friends at the gym, a college student who has some genuine relationship troubles with a guy she’s dated for several years and recently moved in with. She naturally asked her friend, ‘why don’t you just leave him?’ at which the girl listed several reasons for not taking this practical advice.
“I can’t really trust him anymore. He’s lied about too many things. But I don’t know what else to do because we share so many of the same values, we both like to eat healthy, enjoy working out, staying in shape, and love to go places together.”
For the more seasoned, her friend is nauseatingly naive. And while there is an equally important lesson here about the downside of living together before marriage – it’s undeniably a big part of this girl’s problem that she can’t afford to leave him – the lecture this particular evening was about something most of us have or will encounter in our romantic relationships – the difference between values and interests and why it matters.
As I have written before, I never received relationship advice from my parents. One would think, a couple married for over two decades might have a few nuggets of wisdom to bequeath to their child. But I entered my teenage and college years completely oblivious of how relationships should work. No one told me how to date, what was important, that beauty fades, how to measure the character of a woman, or why any of that even mattered. I didn’t know that it was important to learn the difference between ‘nice to have’ and ‘have to have’. So I went into that phase of my life as driftwood cast to and fro on the waters of romance. I relied solely on feelings and impulse, setting reason and my brain on a shelf.
I have years of poor relationship choices as a result. I once went out with a girl because we liked the same song. We met at a party and started singing along to Mathew Sweet’s, ‘Girlfriend.’ A guitar heavy, post-grunge hit about the singer’s need for a girlfriend. I’m pretty sure it was part of every Greek initiation ceremony in the 90’s for white college kids. Unsurprisingly, she and I never made it to date two. We realized there have to be better compatibility barometers than a song
If there’s any consolation to all this, I don’t think I’m alone. As our daughter’s stories appear to indicate, parents are passing on the tradition. It seems most moms and dads continue to overlook teaching anything to their kids about love, relationships, and marriage.
The problem we have is that her friend, as I did back then, confuses values with interests. Here’s what I mean, the Queen and I love to travel. From day one we’ve known and expected this from each other, and with our flexible schedules, because there are a few benefits to divorce, we are blessed to take several short and a few long vacations each year. We’ve been able to go and see places most parents with kids our age simply couldn’t, if for no other reason than what to do with them for two-week stretches. But while we both suffer a near debilitating wanderlust, our need to see the world is not, by itself, something that can serve as the basis for bringing us together – because it isn’t strong enough to keep us together. What if that flexibility we take for granted today were to vanish suddenly? What if something happened to our kid’s other parent meaning they would need to live with us full time, or our financial situation changed and we could no longer afford to jet set here and there?
Undoubtedly interests and hobbies are necessary towards building compatibility between two people, but they must not, and cannot, serve as the foundation for starting a relationship, and perhaps more importantly, as in her friend’s situation, staying in a relationship. Interests are much too perishable. They have short shelf lives, yielding to the slightest nudge. I used to love spending entire weekends on the lake. Before that, I’d waste an entire Saturday at the sports bar. Now I’d rather gargle Drano than do either. Interests change with time and age; they lack the strength to keep two people together, especially during those inevitable difficult times. Often these shifts in attitude aren’t voluntarily; they get forced on us. Say I get hurt and could never work out again? What if the Queen or I were to lose our jobs and we couldn’t travel, what might be the impact on our marriage if either were the basis for why we were together? Working out, travel, mountain climbing, underwater basket weaving, or something closer to home like a particular lifestyle, are all as impressionable as clay and can quickly change with health, life stage, the economy, or something shinier.
Values, however, are far more rigid and unyielding. Interests are something we do, values are something we are. Interests are what we’re known for; values are what we’re known by. Value, be it a strong religious faith, a deep respect for commitment and vows, honesty and truthfulness, doesn’t quickly change with a spike in gas prices or an extra scoop of double fudge ice cream. They have the strength to serve as anchors holding two people in a relationship or marriage together when the storms of life rain down. A relationship built on interests is a house built upon the sand. A relationship built upon values is one standing upon the rock.
It’s sadly ironic, but I’ll bet that if asked, her friend would admit that honesty is an important value to her, even as she admits she can’t trust her boyfriend anymore. That must lead us to ask how firm her conviction is if a mutual love of the gym and high protein foods would trump transparency and trust? But we shouldn’t be too arrogant, most have us have been in her same shoes. How many people do you know who stay in unhealthy relationships because of some perceived material benefit? We’ve all sold ourselves short, either because we failed to understand the distinction between interests and values, or those values weren’t rooted deep enough to guide our thinking.
As with Jesus’s parable, healthy relationships and marriages will demand firm foundations. Not those built upon shallow interests, but rooted in mutually shared values so that when the winds of life rage we can be confident those marriages will stand.