The other day, I saw a couple in my office. They've been having a hard time and came to couples' therapy to try to help their marriage survive. Two kids, two jobs, five years of marriage -- and they both feel they're not getting what they want out of the relationship. He needs his alone time, she wants constant togetherness; she hates cooking, he says home cooked meals make him feel loved. Over weeks and months they've been working hard at it, venturing far from their comfort zones to try to understand what the other one wants and needs. And it's paying off -- they are happier and more hopeful about their relationship than they have been in years. But as they were getting their stuff together to leave the session, she stopped, looked at me, and said, "I just want ask you something. This is taking a lot of work. I'm working at it, he's working at it. Are we always going to have to work this hard?"
I had to laugh. I felt like Dr. Phil getting a question from a "plant" in the audience. This is the question I always want people to ask - the one that holds the key. The simple answer is: YES!
Good relationships take hard work. Sustaining a relationship over years is not for the faint of heart. You can't be lazy about it or dial it in. That doesn't mean that it can't be joyful, life affirming, sexually satisfying, and fun - but the tradeoff is that it takes work. Doing well at your career takes work. So does staying in shape. Why shouldn't having a good relationship take work, too?
After the session, I looked online, sure that I'd find a book called "Good relationships take hard work." Not a one. There were a few blog entries, but many said that it mostly takes work at the beginning. Maybe it's just not what people want to hear. They want to believe that good relationships are frictionless, easy, and drive themselves. That you can completely be yourself in them. That you should be able to ask for anything and get it. That they are effortless. Once upon a time, many (but not all) of us had a relationship like that in which someone was perfectly attuned to us and gratified all of our needs. But that ended when we were about two. Since then we've had to put something back into our relationships in order to make them go. And that takes constant work.
And it's not just at the beginning. Sure getting to know each other takes work -- you have to find out what your partner wants and needs -- but you have to sustain that for years, even decades. It also won't work if there's one worker and one slacker -- that makes for a lop-sided relationship in which one person gets a lot and the other person suffers.
So, since there's surprisingly little out there about this kind of work, here are my top five "Hard Work" suggestions for making your relationships mutually satisfying for life:
1. Think about the other person first: Had a bad day? Just got yelled at by your boss? Think you're coming down with a cold? That's too bad - but how was your partner's day? What happened to him or her? It's hard work to think about the other person first, but it pays off. It doesn't mean that you can't take care of each other, but even if you feel bad call up those reserves and try to think about the other person first.
2. Edit what you say: You and your partner are on an airplane. The flight attendant walks by. You think, "Wow! He/she is hot!" Do you say this to your partner? Of course not. So don't say all of those other things that you shouldn't say either. Bite your tongue rather than say, "You really need to lose ten pounds," or "Your friend Marsha is such a jerk." It takes hard work to edit, and it feels counterintuitive to many people, but thinking about whether what we're about to say might hurt our partner is a relationship saver.
3. Interpret up: Whenever someone says or does something, you can interpret down (meaning that you ascribe a more nefarious intent) or interpret up (meaning that you ascribe a more benign intent). For example, if your partner forgets to buy the milk you asked him/her to pick up on the way home from work, it could be that he/she is deliberately ignoring you (interpreting down) or that he/she had a long, distracting day at work (interpreting up). It takes work to always interpret up, particularly if you tend to be pessimistic or suspicious. It's essentially giving someone the benefit of the doubt. It takes effort, but the good will it will engender makes it worth the elbow grease.
4. Swim upstream: We all think that we should be able to be ourselves in relationships. While we want to express ourselves, sometimes we have to behave in ways that are difficult for us in order to try to help our partner. That could mean being less irritable, giving more compliments, communicating less anxiety, or listening to something you find boring. This takes work- just ask a salmon.
5. Be nice: It's easy to be grumpy, critical, demanding, and selfish. It's being nice that takes work. That means on good days and on not so good days. It takes effort to be nice. No, this is not treacle -- it's the secret to getting along with another person day-in-day-out for life.
Of course, all bets are off if you are really being mistreated in a relationship. Then you have to look out for yourself. But short of that, make sure you feel the sweat as you work hard to understand and support the person you love.