You've heard people say, "A good relationship takes work." Well, what does that mean? What kind of "work"? Before giving you my work suggestions for your relationship, let me ask you what is your attitude toward work in general ? Where do your work values fit in to this history of how work attitudes developed over time?
PART 1: A Brief History of Work.* Laboring, working hard, doing a good job, as a positive moral value is a relatively recent development in our society. Those raised in a traditional Judeo-Christian belief system recall that with dawn of creation, Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden "to work it and take care of it" (NIV^, 1973, Genesis 2:15). With the advent of knowledge and sin, Adam and Eve were ejected from their Garden. Their punishment included [Genesis 3:19] : "By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground,..." (NIV, 1973).
The Hebrew belief system also viewed work as God's "curse, punishing" the original couple for their "disobedience and ingratitude." Old Testament scriptures support work only to prevent poverty and destitution (NIV; 1973; e.g. Proverbs 10:14, Proverbs 13:4 ) not because of pleasure or mastery in it.
The Greeks too regarded work as a curse: their word ponos, from the Latin poena, means sorrow. Manual labor, considered "work", was for the slaves. Hard work, was disdained, whether due to economic need or under the master's orders. Plato and Aristotle believed that the majority of men labored "in order that the minority, the élite, might engage in pure exercises of the mind -- art, philosophy, and politics"*
The Romans disdained manual labor as well, and used slaves to build their vast empire. With the Middle Ages, came 13thc. Italian Dominican friar St. Thomas Aquinas who developed a hierarchy of "all things human and divine": the work of the church he ranked first, followed by agriculture, and then commerce. Because life was short, the church discouraged striving for, or attachment to, things. Manual labor, needed to supply the community's needs, was done by lay people.
While work was still perceived as God's punishment for man's original sin, relying on others' charity for one's physical needs was frowned upon. Abundance and wealth became an opportunity to share with those less fortunate. Soon work, which produced wealth, became more acceptable.
The 16th century and the Reformation swept in a period of religious and political upheaval in Western Europe. And with it, a new perspective on work. With his 1517 declaration, Martin Luther questioned the Catholic Church's dogma. He reconceptualized worldly work as a duty benefiting both the individual and society as a whole. Catholics believed that good works showed the faith they received. While Calvinists came to believe that, since it was impossible to learn who was predestined to be saved, you might discern who was so predestined by observing a person's way of life and their worldly work. And this contributed to the idea that diligent work and frugality were a sign of grace, and thus, two important consequences of being one of the elect.
Over time, attitudes and beliefs supporting hard work became more secularized, and an integral part of Western culture. For example, such norms were emphasized by Benjamin Franklin's writings. Later, in 1905, the German economic sociologist Max Weber coined the term the "Protestant Ethic". Key elements are diligence, punctuality, deferring gratification, and the primacy of work: a central theme is that an individual can be the master of his own fate through hard work.
As we've seen, there have been sweeping social and cultural attitude changes toward work over the centuries. And now, the advent of the new Information Age is currently redefining a new capitalism, "knowledge workers", and information as the primary resource. Additionally, upward mobility is potentially unlimited. With all these ingredients, work and its meanings is likely being redefined and refigured once again.
PART 2: Work And You. So where does your concept of "work" fit into the historical contexts I've outlined above? Do you get pleasure? self-definition? a sense of mastery and/or self-esteem? from a job well done/ from working hard? And...do you add a healthy dose of play into the mix? Now apply your concept of work to how you approach your most important intimate relationship.
Work and Your Relationship. So I'm among those who, both personally and professionally, believe that it takes "work" to develop enrich keep a healthy and growing relationship with your partner. And by that I mean, deliberate thoughtful effort on [almost] a daily basis. This "work" will help you reach your relationship goal: a partnership in which you feel safe in the world and secure in a special love where the Relationship Comes First. Stan Tatkin PsyD calls this a "couple bubble". John Gottman PhD calls this building a "Sound Relationship House". Both these well know psychologists/ researchers have helpful books - google them. Below, I've integrated my clinical experience as a couples psychologist with their research.
STEP 1: Know each other. This means making "bids" for connection. A) Be curious about the other - what s/he did, felt, saw each day. Invite the other into your internal world, often by asking open-ended questions. Say the "2nd & 3rd sentence" to elaborate and to enrich your conversation. B) Know how your partner likes to connect [e.g. how much space vs. touching s/he needs]. C) Know how s/he regulates his/her emotions [e.g. slow burn? Or -0- to 100 upset? ].
STEP 2: Prioritize the Positive. When problems arise e.g. when one of you gets upset, or feels rejected or criticized, A) stay positive. B) See him/her as caring, not adversarial. C) Focus on appreciation statements [try not to criticize and/or correct mistakes, or need to have the last word]. D) Make your Launchings [e.g. Bye in the morning; going to bed at night] and Landings [e.g. arriving home each night] deliberate and loving. You should know when and where the other is Coming and Going.
STEP 3: Manage Conflict. A) Soft [not hard] starts work best [e.g. "I'd appreciate if you could move your ....] B) Accept your partner's opinion, voice, influence. C) Repair immediately [e.g. Sorry, I didn't realize you felt that strongly ....]. This de-escalates and helps to avoid a fight. D) Compromise. See his/ her perspective: you don't need to be Right. The Relationship comes first. E) Identify your core issues: about 2/3 of these will likely not change. Decide which those are and work on those where change and compromise are truly possible.
STEP 4: Share dreams, values, and meaning. When you share your time and feelings and innermost thoughts with your partner, you develop a shared narrative and deepen your connection and hope for the future.
These steps do take work. Effort. From you both. Try to keep these objectives on a low simmer in the back of your brain so you can use them as needed and often. Do add some smiles and a sense of humor to the ways you know, and look at, and speak with one another. This "work" can be playful too! It's all a 'labor' of love!
*Text excerpted from History of Work Ethic by Roger B. Hill PhD. 1996 & the Next Society: A survey of the Near Future, Peter Drucker, 2001. Dr. Hill uses the NIV.
^NIV = The New International Version, an English translation of the Protestant Bible.