We so often hear people saying, “If you want a successful relationship, you have to work hard at it.” We have friends whose relationships span decades describing their journey as one of having worked hard to keep it going. There are many therapists who counsel couples to keep working on their relationships if they want to stay together. In fact from every corner we are bombarded with statements that being in a committed relationship will not be easy and will involve unpleasant, though potentially manageable experiences.
It may be an issue with words and how one describes things. Nevertheless, since words are important, this would be the place for us to step in and say that our relationship has never felt like work. After more than a decade together, neither of us has the feeling that we are struggling to stay together, or that our relationship involves hard but necessary activity to maintain it.
Why do you have a relationship at all? Because you get something out of it. And so, from the other side, your partner must be getting something from you as well. Some of these things are effortless, like looks and intelligence, while others require effort. All effort could be called work, but here’s the thing: there is pleasure in helping people. Try it out: extend a small act of kindness towards a stranger – it may be as small as the proverbial helping an old person across the street – and notice the good feeling that arises as a result.
Giving like this is natural and effortless – there’s no work involved. The sense of work comes when you feel asked to give more than is natural for you. Practical needs, such as help because the car has broken down, seldom cause these feelings; instead, it is emotional needs that bring out the feeling that something is work. These kinds of needs often arise from a sense of incompleteness. This can come from either person. Maybe you are needy and have little ability to give because you are so focused on getting your needs fulfilled. Or maybe it’s your partner who is needy, and you push yourself to fill their needs. This is being complicit, to play a nurse to their wounds. It’s better that they look at their needs and find a way to fill them from within.
Whether it is you or your partner, the way out is to recognize the need, acknowledge that it is yours and yours alone, and find the place within yourself that will continue to exist whether that need is fulfilled or not. That is the true work of a relationship – working on yourself.
Another area that is often the origin of feelings of disharmony in a relationship is the act of measuring. When one partner starts to measure their contributions in comparison to their partner’s, and feels the scales are not evenly balanced, this frequently creates a feeling of distance that seems to call for hard work to repair. Again the answer to this is not to work on the relationship, but rather to work on yourself. The act of measuring usually indicates that the giving is not being done freely, and in order to find out what is happening and heal it, you need to look inside yourself. We cannot reiterate enough that the true work of a relationship is working on yourself.
This is the reality for many couples, but for us, there is no sense at all of needing to work on the relationship. How have we achieved this and how is this done?
The very way that we see each other and interact with each other is at the heart of the answer. We are strongly aware that we are two unique individuals and that our wonderful fitting together is not based on acting the same or expressing ourselves the same way. Instead, our differences are a source of great joy and an enrichment of our lives through the experience of being together. We can do this because we share deep core values and know that neither of us will do something that would breach these shared values.
We are assured that neither of us will ever do anything to hurt or harm the other. In fact we both take great pleasure in helping each other and offering anything we can that the other may need or want. Most of all, we support each other at all times. We know that we are on the same side, and so when solving problems and making decisions, we seek for mutual solutions that will bring us both joy. It would never feel good to force something on the other or do something that would cause distress to our partner.
By trusting our shared values and respecting each other’s differences and autonomy, we live a relationship where joy, not work, reigns. We firmly believe that this same kind of joyful togetherness is available to anyone who is willing to do the real “work”, which is on themselves. Two people who practice this and come together in a relationship, will experience unlimited possibilities of peace and ease.