“Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.” This is not the first time I’ve mulled over that famous Warren Buffett quote. When I first started grappling with defining my own value and self-worth, I examined Buffett in relation to the Dutch poet Lucebert, who wrote, “All things of value are defenseless.”
The price any person is willing to pay to make themselves truly defensible, whether to themselves or to others, is at the core of their value. Sometimes we do stupid things that tear that down, that devalue us in the eyes of others or in our own mind's eye. Sometimes we do things inadvertently that drive up our value, and perhaps those acts are somewhat less important when we aren't really striving or sacrificing to make them happen.
I think it's the acts and actions we require of ourselves to actively defend ourselves that make us valuable, that make us worthwhile. And when those acts are performed in the face of adversity, especially self-adversity, they can often be those most costly while offering us the most to gain.
Value is a manifestation of worth, which is some mystical, magical ratio of cost to benefit. But for something to even have a cost—or a benefit—it has to have been traded. It has to have been utilized in a market, in an exchange.
It has to have been subject to experience.
Relationships are all about negotiating each partner’s needs and wants. It feels kind of seedy to think of it as a debit-and-credit system, but it is a similar give-and-take. In healthy relationships, both partners do a good job of expressing their own needs, of fulfilling what they can for themselves, and of being able to rely on their significant other to be willing to fill in any gaps that they can. It’s delicately symbiotic. If any partner consistently takes too much or gives too little, it quickly shifts to parasitic, and one or both partners suffer as the relationship dies.
What is exchanged has both a cost and a benefit, which is totally subjective to each party to the exchange. That mystical, magical ratio is evaluated—sometimes over a long period of time, sometimes instantaneously—and out pops the worth for the evaluator.
When writing before about my own relationship goals—in early 2013 just before I met Bounder and again in 2014 just before I met Rango—the things I could articulate as wants and needs were themselves manifestations of more basic qualities of a person. I still agree with most of those desires, but I can see how those laundry lists are driven by providing relief from past experience. I cherry-picked moments from different relationships and looked for someone who could engage me in ways that were reminiscent of my past.
Now, though, I understand that the actions are expressions of traits I value in a romantic partner, and the worth I assign is based on my own lifetime of experiences, of gains and losses, and how I evaluate the costs and benefits of previous relationships. At the heart of each of those listed wishes, are there more basic attributes that I would value, regardless of the man who possesses them?
I value intelligence. Maybe it’s snobbish of me, but I just can’t date a stupid guy. It’s important to me to be able to engage in thoughtful conversation with my partner on a variety of topics both sacred and profane, and I don’t have the patience to have to define my vocabulary mid-conversation. I don’t expect someone else to know everything about the topics I do, nor would I want to know everything they know. But I thrive exchange of ideas, and that necessitates a certain intelligence.
I value patience. I am incredibly impatient. Motherhood has taught me a million ongoing lessons in patience, but I am still prone to jump headfirst into a moment without significant deliberate thought. (That tends to come after the fact, historically with self-recrimination.) It’s important for me to be with a partner who can remind me to slow down, who is willing to wade through my thought process to whatever realization I eventually come to. Sometimes I need the reminder to stay on task, in the moment.
I value expressive affection. In the realm of Love Languages, I have equal needs for quality conversation and physical touch. I both need to touch and to be touched. But there has to be emotion beneath the skin-to-skin contact. Hand-holding and hugs and random kisses are a physical manifestation of care and concern. I need to hear that I matter and why. Acts of service and gifts are nice, but they mean very little to me if they’re incongruous with words. For some people, outward expressions are difficult. For me, they are a necessity.
I value passion. Yes, sexual passion is incredibly important to me, but I also value a general passion for life. I want a partner who is passionate about his beliefs and his work, who combines them into a personal purpose. I love what I do, and it’s saddening when I meet people who don’t enjoy the work that consumes a third or more of their life.
I value compassion. Whether it’s toward me or toward themselves or toward the world at large, I find it valuable when my partner can feel and express empathy.
I value availability. Because I have a lengthy history with emotionally-avoidant men, I have been stood up, ignored, and dismissed more times than I care to remember. There are the logistics of availability, meaning our schedules have to match relatively well to be able to see one another. But emotional availability—a willingness and ability to be emotionally open and vulnerable—seems harder to come by. By this time of middle-aged dating, it’s virtually impossible to meet someone who doesn’t have some kind of damage. But I’m no longer willing to be trapped by someone else’s defenses.
I value bravery. Life is hard. Bad stuff happens. Sometimes it’s enough to make you want to shut down and crawl back under the covers until the world calms down. Everyone is afraid of hurt and failure and rejection. But there is strength in acknowledging the vulnerability that comes with fear and stepping forward anyway. I know the failures and the successes that come from facing your fears, and I cannot stomach another man who refuses to accept his own challenges.
Per our usual, Pandy and I have talked at length about my ideas of value. She asked me to turn the tables and think about what I’d want a partner to value in me.
“I don’t think it matters,” I told her.
I know what I value in myself, and that value comes from having paid a cost to become the person I am today. I also know what I value in someone else because of those same costs. I spent a lot of time getting my garden to grow. I weeded out the thorns, and now I’m culling the dead growth that could threaten to choke out my prize roses.
Someone else will have paid their own costs, had their own experiences before they come into my life. How they assess my worth to them will be based on their perceptions of their own needs and wants, their own successes and failures. Maybe my curiosity and quick smile mean more than my vocabulary. Maybe they place more value on my punctuality and dependability than on my tendency toward effusive, written expressions of emotion.
I’ve come to realize there’s something else that has its own set of values: the relationship itself. And what is valuable in one partner or another may not be at all what’s valuable in a relationship.
I’ll explore that topic in my next post.
This is the second in a three-part series. For the first post, please click here.