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Q: What should I do if my partner and I no longer share the same values?

A: The hallmark of healthy relationships is that they are strong enough to incorporate challenges and changes to the status quo.  But sometimes the "rules" of some relationships are so rigid that you come to a fork in the road. One way loops you back to your existing inflexible and unacceptable relationship. But at the end of the other fork is a new you-slightly scared of your uncharted journey but relieved and happy to have pursued a self that makes you proud. 

Here are my clients' most common dilemmas that have tested their values and decisions. See if you can find the common denominator and solution to the problem.

1. Group sex. Even before Mary and Miguel married they participated in group sex. At first Mary went along with it, and hoped that once they were married Miguel would stop. She admitted that the experience was fun in the beginning, but ever since the death of her twin sister from cancer, she no longer wants to do it. She agreed to group sex for twelve years.  Miguel accused her of betraying him.

2. Living together. Zoe and Zack have lived together for eight years. Ever since 9/11, Zoe has slowly increased her participation in her church.  In the past few years, especially after the Christmas tsunami and the earthquake in Haiti, she has become even more active in her church. She now strongly believes that living together is unhealthy and counter to her belief in the sanctity of love, marriage, sex, and commitment. Her live in boyfriend said that he has no interest in marriage at all.  He reminded Zoe that he told her his marital views from the beginning and that she has no right to change the rules.

3. Addictions. Rachel and Ron have been married for almost twenty years. Now that the children have left home for college and the armed services Ron can no longer tolerate Rachel's drinking. The empty house has intensified his loneliness, but Rachel refuses to get help.  She even resisted a family intervention. Ron went to counseling to learn about his own behavior, but Rachel is getting worse.

4. Illegal behavior. Lucy's husband Larry just got indicted for participating in a Ponzi scheme and inside trading. Over the course of their nine-year marriage, she squashed her suspicions about her husband's monetary behavior. Now it's out in the open, and he is angry that she won't stand by him. He told her a good wife and mother would never break up the family. 

5. Child abuse. Tina caught her husband Tom fondling their teen-aged daughter.  She had always felt he was "too close" to their daughter, but she dismissed her feelings.  Now there is no turning away from the truth. Tom denied it, but when the school counselor called Tina to discuss her daughter's failing grades, Tina told the counselor what she saw.  The counselor called Social Services, and the courts removed Tom from the home.

What are your thoughts?  If you guessed that these relationships have hit the wall, you guessed right.  And if you read in between the lines, you saw that there was an event that pushed these relationships over the edge.  In the scenario about group sex, the death of Mary's twin sister made her reassess her life. In the second story about co-habitation, Zoe's evolving values coalesced into a strong belief in the union of sex, commitment and marriage. Ron's empty nest and relationship loneliness in the third example made it impossible to accept Rachel's alcoholism. The indictment of Lucy's husband for his illegal financial activities prevented her from turning a blind eye to his behavior. Finally, Tina had no choice but to go along with the removal of Tom when he was found guilty of child abuse.

You may not know exactly what made you reach your emotional and value tipping point, but you certainly know the anguish of "having had enough." You realize that to continue with the old rules of your relationship erodes your self-worth and values.

Of course, some relationships can manage changes. In my previous articles, I've urged you to:

  • Get counseling
  • Take your time
  • Put aside your anger
  • Explain your position and listen to your partner's explanations
  • Build a new team with your partner
  • Focus on solutions.

But what do you do if none of these things has produced effective change? Like the unhappy partners in the above examples, you, too, might have reached a permanent impasse. It would seem that leaving would be the obvious thing to do-and it most often is, yet it's not so easy emotionally. Here is a quick guide to help you move on to whatever steps you need to take.

1. Take personal responsibility. Not only do you have the right and freedom to alter your values, you have the responsibility to yourself to examine your beliefs and values throughout your life and then to communicate them to those most affected by your results. Only you can reconcile the combination of life experiences and your emotional, spiritual, and intellectual development. 

Few things in life stay the same. Not doing anything about your dilemma is a decision. If you want to avoid your inner torment, you must, as the character Polonius says in Shakespeare's play Hamlet, "to thine own self be true." Examine why and how you changed.

2. Ignore accusations of betrayal. Your partner probably doesn't want you to make any changes. You know that your relationship cannot survive, however, if he or she does not face and fix his or her problem.

Yet, you still feel guilty. Those feelings are remnants of the old rules of your relationship where you were not "allowed" to doubt or challenge your partner's decisions and behaviors. Guilt is also an ineffective way to punish yourself for "going along" with your partner. Don't let yourself get stuck in guilt. It is a trap whose purpose is to prevent you from making responsible and caring changes in yourself and your life. 

It does not matter if someone accuses you of betrayal. Those words are last ditch efforts that play upon your feelings of guilt. A loving and mature response from your partner is to accept responsibility for his or her unhealthy actions and get help.  

3. Continue your personal growth. Listen to your inner voices, adhere to your values, and move on. As I've said many times, all important changes are accompanied by anxiety. Your job is not to let your fears prevent you from living a life of value.

Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, ED.D., MSS is a noted psychologist and licensed clinical social worker, specializing in relationships.  For her book about women and love, she welcomes women to take her 17-20 minute online research survey at www.lovevictory.com. Also on her website, if you donate $5 to Habitat for Humanity-Sarasota, Florida, you can receive a download of her relationship advice cartoon book for women, "The Love Adventures of Almost Smart Cookie."