You and your significant other may have the same favorite band, finish each other’s sentences, and order each other’s drinks. But in my work as a marriage and family therapist, I’ve learned that whether you are dating someone from across the street or the world, every person brings to a relationship the values, traditions, ways of communicating, and beliefs of his or her family of origin. And regardless of how similar you and your partner may appear, each family is its own culture.
This means that every relationship is in some ways a melding of two cultures. Even if you and your partner share similar beliefs and values, your families of origin may be different in surprising ways. It’s important to discuss these differences, especially while you’re dating because they can affect lifestyle, parenting, spousal roles, and more down the road.
Finding the differences in your values in unexpected places
Differences in values can be obvious, but they can also be subtle. Maybe you have several siblings, while your partner only has one, or he’s an only child. This may not appear like a difference in values—and it may not be one. But something as simple as a difference in family size can reflect a value; specifically, how big you hope your own family will be someday. It might sound odd to call family size a “value." If asked about your “personal values,” you probably wouldn’t say that having a certain number of children is a value of yours. However, when looking at your extended family maybe you notice a common family size—your parents, grandparents, and many of your aunts and uncles had large or small families. Your desires or expectations about a “normal” family size might be informed by that background.
In a dating relationship, it might seem awkward to discuss how many children you hope to have. But, it’s a good question to ask if you’re considering a more serious commitment. Even if you’re not contemplating engagement, you and your partner can discuss more casually what it was like growing up in your respective family sizes, what you liked about it and what you didn’t, and what your hopes are for your own family one day.
Another important issue that might not at first appear as a difference in values is your beliefs about gender roles—what tasks man and woman in a relationship generally take on. Often we don’t even realize our own values or expectations when it comes to gender roles, as our beliefs about them are usually influenced by our family of origin as well as society. For example, maybe your mom was a stay-at-home mom, and you hope to do the same once you have kids. If your partner’s mother worked outside the home, he might have an unspoken expectation that both parents will be providers. Or, you may have every intent and desire to continue with your career once you have children, while your partner comes from a family with a stay-at-home mom and thinks that his future wife will stay home as well. A conversation about gender roles and expectations can help each of you shed light on your values in this area.
The big questions: faith traditions and family values
A more obvious difference between partners may be dissimilar faith traditions or religious beliefs (or lack thereof). While inter-religious relationships happen often, the couple should be aware of how differences in their faith inform differences in their values. Differences in religious and spiritual beliefs can affect everything from how you spend your mornings to how you plan to raise any children you might have. Even if you share a common faith and practice, if you come from families with disparate beliefs—or even different ways of practicing the same faith tradition or religion—it’s helpful to discuss each family’s beliefs and expectations.
As a marriage and family therapist, I worked with one couple—neither of whom had a religious affiliation—but they spent a large portion of their sessions discussing the religious practices of the woman’s family. While this couple did not have spiritual or religious practices, they recognized the devout practices of the woman’s family and how she grew up. This conversation led her to verbalize that she liked the weekly tradition of doing something together as a family like her family did by going to church. The couple also discussed ways they could be respectful of her family’s religious beliefs and practices while still maintaining their own. From this conversation, the topic of how they would navigate religion and spirituality with children surfaced something they had not discussed before. This couple’s experience made clear the importance of discussing differences in family background and values, even if the partners themselves share the same values and beliefs.
A conversation like this can begin with discussing what each of you believes (or doesn’t) and why it is important to you. Another telling question is to ask your partner how his faith (or lack thereof) shows up in or informs his daily life (and share your answer, too).
A discussion about each of your families of origin is wise in any relationship, especially as it gets serious. But if you and your partner have differences in family structure (for instance, say your partner’s parents are divorced but yours are not), it’s particularly important to discuss this. Simply discussing what both of your experiences were like growing up in homes with one versus two parents is a great place to start. This may include what each of you learned explicitly or implicitly about marriage, conflict management, and co-parenting. Learning what each other’s hopes and expectations are for marriage is also important, as these are informed by your own experiences.
Maybe it’s not your partner but one of his siblings whose values are clearly different from yours. For example, maybe waiting to live together until marriage is important to you, but your boyfriend’s brother lives with his girlfriend. While this isn’t your relationship, it would be worth having a conversation with your boyfriend about his intentions and expectations when it comes to cohabiting.
Of course, siblings can vary drastically in their individual values and lifestyles regardless of being raised in the same home and by the same parents. At the same time, differences you may have with a partner’s family—whatever they are—can be representative of differences in core values. While your partner may share your values, it’s still worth a conversation if his family’s values conflict with yours. This family could become your in-laws, so it’s important to consider how you or your future children may be influenced by their values—those you share and those you don’t. A good way to start is to simply ask your partner about his opinion: for example, what he thinks of his brother living with his girlfriend.
Questions to start with
If you’re ready to have one of these conversations, here are a few good questions to start with, asking both your partner and yourself:
How would you describe your family’s values and beliefs?
Which of your family’s values are most important to you? Which are not?
What aspects of your family’s life growing up were most special or important to you?
What was it like being raised in a (Christian/Jewish/Agnostic/Atheist/Hindu/Islamic/Buddhist . . . ) family?
What was it like being raised in a family with (married/divorced/separated parents or a single parent)?
What aspects of your family life and traditions do you want to emulate when you’re married?
How do you picture your family down the road? How many children? What role would you have, ideally; what role would your spouse have, ideally?
How does your faith influence your daily life, and how do you see it influencing you in the future?
What do you think of my traditions, beliefs, values, and family (and what do I think of yours)?
Reflecting on your answers to these questions can help you better articulate your values—maybe even those you didn’t realize were values. Thinking about your partner’s answers to these questions can help you understand where you align as a couple and areas where it might take more work or intentionality in the future.
Regardless of your similarities with or differences from your partner, it’s almost certain that you won’t share the exact same values. And that’s OK. Your family background and your experiences in your family of origin are unique to you, and not every difference need be a dealbreaker. But verbalizing the values you hold on to—whether you realized it before or not—can help you understand what is important to you in a spouse, and if your partner shares those values, too.