There was a time in my life when I lived in the South and I dated a military man, a decorated Special Operations soldier, a guy with tons of what I still consider “the right stuff.”

Joe was super-smart, responsible, kind, scrupulously honest, family-oriented, conscientious, and like me, more focused on doing valuable work than on making tons of money.

The relationship itself, however, was stupefyingly difficult, for reasons Joe and I struggled to figure out.

I was especially miffed by Joe’s insistence on volunteering for duty on every single holiday: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day. I’d rant about how undervalued I felt, how hurtful it was to never be his top priority.

Joe would stare at me blankly and say little, though sometimes he’d shake his worn-out head and ask Are we having the same conversation? It was an apt question; our discussions had a Tower of Babel quality to them despite our both speaking English.

For years we struggled gamely on, trying to understand one another, before finally giving up. I moved back to the Northeast, where, arguably, I belong, and that odd disconnect between me and Joe remained an unsolved mystery I’ve carried around in the back of my mind, until a few weeks ago.

I enjoy writing book reviews for PsychCentral; I always tell our manager to Surprise Me!, to just send me whatever book is next on the needs-reviewing list.

And so this arrived in my mailbox: Handbook of Counseling Military Couples.

And look what I found almost immediately (on page 9):

…we use Army Special Operations as an example…these units develop their own cultural norms, not the least of which is pride in being willing to volunteer more times than the average service member.

Aha! In Joe’s world, volunteering to work on every holiday is a way of demonstrating responsibility and character. Joe wasn’t avoiding relationship commitment, or re-enacting some deep childhood attachment trauma; he was being a good soldier, and he couldn’t fathom why I had a problem with that. In fact, he couldn’t even understand my questions!

Meanwhile, I was viewing Joe’s behavior through my own particular “relationship-first” lens, as if no other “right” or “healthy” lens existed.

My East Coast, feminist, educator-counselor, child-and-relationship-centric self didn’t know what to do with Joe’s world view. In fact, I didn’t even realize it was a worldview, nor that I had a particular value system myself.

I simply thought that my priorities were “normal” and that Joe was “messed up.”

And I was equally inscrutable to Joe.

I went on to read that the Army has a well-articulated set of seven core values, with the acronym LDRSHIP:

  • Loyalty
  • Duty
  • Respect
  • Selfless service
  • Honor
  • Integrity
  • Personal courage

Joe was a walking embodiment of these values. The “right stuff,” for sure!

So why didn’t he ever just tell me all this?…because, surely, Joe is so immersed in these values, he’s not really aware of them. Like the air he breathes, Joe takes his world view for granted. As do we all!

Which made me think, What are MY values? Can I make a nice, neat list of seven or so core values that define me and make me tick?

It turns out that Martin Seligman has a number of questionnaires on his Authentic Happiness website to help you identify your own values and character strengths.

As I move forward into a new relationship, I’ll make sure and have some candid discussions about our differing values, world views, and character strengths and the potential challenges these might create.