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Values not vows: our approach to relationship commitments

Viv and I were walking through the winter markets in Central Park when it happened. Viv turned to me and asked if I wanted to get married. I actually thought it was a hypothetical discussion at first - the kind we'd had a few times before about marriage and relationships. Viv quickly clarified that this wasn’t hypothetical, it was a proposal.

To say I was caught off guard is an understatement. Flabbergasted? Floored? Stunned? Whatever the right word, I definitely wasn’t expecting a proposal.

I kissed Viv for about two minutes, mostly to buy myself time to think.

I'd never been sure about marriage as an institution - at least for me personally. It comes with a whole bundle of assumptions and expectations that didn’t always make sense to me. How many couples actually sit down and discuss what marriage means to them? How many just accept the traditional "package" without examining if it truly works for them?

A traditional marriage with standard vows feels like a very imperfect one-size-fits-all approach to something as complex and unique as a relationship. I also didn’t love how the institution had been used to enforce gender norms and historically exclude queer relationships from a societal ‘stamp of approval’ with all of its associated benefits.

Viv and I didn't have a conventional start. We first met volunteering and working at an anti-poverty nonprofit in 2007, and were friends for a couple of years before we started dating in 2009. Early on in our relationship, it seemed like it wasn't going to work out - we had differences in faith that felt pretty significant. But we couldn’t stop spending time together, and as time went on it became clear we were fundamentally aligned in our values, and aligned in wanting to grow and deepen our relationship.

So when Viv proposed, after I got over my shock, I knew my answer. But I also knew I wanted to do it intentionally - so the answer was "yes, but only if we co-create what it means to us." Of course that’s exactly what Viv wanted to do anyway.


Neither of us had a starting theory for how we could co-create what marriage meant to us. 

So we started thinking through what our vows to each other might be - and it struck us both that traditional vows were both more narrowly defined and fixed than we’d like, while also not providing a huge amount of guidance for how we would go about building and navigating our partnership.

Both Viv and I have been professional facilitators and CEOs at different points in our careers. We’d seen the combination of clear identity and flexible adaptation that came from having an explicitly defined set of organizational values. We’d both facilitated processes and led teams through defining values and making them live within teams or organizations. Perhaps something similar could work for our relationship?

I still remember what one former boss, Jen Dulski, said about what made for a good process to design values: “Values are uncovered, not decided upon”. So we began by asking “what implicit values already exist in this relationship?”. The idea was not to make some abstract list of things that appealed to us, instead we tried to uncover what already made the relationship great, then simplify and distill the themes we wanted to particularly preserve, aspire to, and live by over the long term.

We started with a long walk along the Brooklyn waterfront. What is it that we loved about our relationship? What made it special? When were we at our best together? When we navigated hard times together, how did we do that? What do we want to protect and preserve in our relationship? Where do we want to aspire to growth and improvement?

Talking all these through over the course of a day gave us a lot to work with. But it was during a 9-day hike in Yosemite that we really refined them further. We printed out every internet list of “conversations you should have before you get married” we could find, and worked through all of them. We covered everything from kids (turns out neither of us were biologically inclined), to money (not super important to either of us, but giving at least 10-20% of our income was) to monogamy and exclusivity (we were both open to forming connections beyond our relationship) and lifelong partnership (impossible to guarantee, but worth intentionally working towards). We even threw in the New York Times' 36 questions to fall in love, just for good measure.

Many topics we had no idea what the other person thought before the conversation. Some topics that were scary to raise, turned out to be joyful discoveries of complete alignment. Other topics were harder as we contemplated all the different scenarios that life might throw at us.

The goal of covering all this ground was not to find agreement on everything. It was to make sure we could discuss anything, and decide on the shared values we were both enthusiastic about committing to in our partnership.


What came out of this process were seven values to guide our relationship. Here’s what we read out together at our wedding in place of our vows:

  • Purpose driven. Our love is not just about looking inwardly at each other, but standing together to look outward to the world. In our life’s work, our giving, our community and relationships, we strengthen one another to pursue justice and equality in the world. We are driven by purpose. 

  • Community building. Together we make a home where many may find a friend, and a place to belong. We will be there for people. Individually and together, we will build intentional communities of friendship, fellowship and family. Ours will be an open house of welcome, generosity and hospitality. We build community. 

  • Content but striving. We will find contentment, gratitude and inner peace no matter the circumstances, while also striving to always do better and be better. We remain content whether in poverty or in plenty; but in purpose we remain hungry to grow. We are contented yet striving. 

  • Joyful affection. Our love and our lives are full of boundless affection and full-bellied laughter. We hug long and often. We laugh loud and often. Our hearts and our arms will always be wide open and ready to love. We hug and we laugh. 

  • Open and honest. We make quality time to connect, listen and communicate with courage and trust. There is nothing we can’t talk about. Our love is curious, kind and keen to understand. We are open and honest. 

  • Independent and interdependent. We are not two halves but a partnership of two whole persons, united by love. We enable and encourage each other to have full lives both within and beyond the relationship. We are independent and interdependent. 

  • Adaptable and resilient. We are flexible to adapt to anything we need in life. Our relationship is adaptable, in sickness and in health, in crisis and in change. We will forgive, evolve, work through whatever life throws at us. Come what may, our love is resilient. 

It’s hard to overstate how right it felt to say these out loud, because they were just so us. They represented things that already existed, but distilled down and articulated in a way that honored what was while also being aspirational. 

Importantly, in line with the last value, we agreed these weren’t set in stone. In fact, we wanted them to be living values that could evolve with us as we did both individually and together.


We got married in early 2018 (and have been together since 2009). On our anniversary every year we go on a multi-day hike somewhere beautiful, and use the values to check in on our partnership and relationship. 

We'll go through them one by one, and talk about how we've lived (or not!) that value over the last year. What were the highlights and lowlights of that value for us individually and together? Sometimes we're covering familiar territory, sometimes we're learning new things about each other's experiences or discussing how our views on relationships and connections have evolved. These conversations often touch on aspects we hadn't otherwise found time to explore.

Importantly we edit the values in real time based on how we’re changing individually and together, and how we want the values to reflect and support that. We haven’t changed the headline seven values, but we have made more than a dozen edits to what those values mean and how we apply them. Sometimes that has meant clarifying something that was unclear, sometimes adding or subtracting language as we discover new or different things that should be reflected in there - and it’s all in a google doc with tracked changes so we can see how they’ve evolved over time! 

A lot of friends have asked for the details on how we created our relationship values over the years, and I’ve been meaning to write it down for a while. Our approach is just one of many that can work; and I’m so confident that this approach isn’t for everyone. But I was prompted to write this now after a new friend asked the incredible question “tell me a true story about you that helps me understand who you are” and this is the one that came to mind. For me, the combination of a) being unwilling to accept norms just because they’re expected, b) highly valuing thoughtful intentionality in relationships, and c) the specific values themselves and the way we iterate them over time, all capture many things that are important to who I am, and I hope our reflections and lessons can be helpful to others as well.


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