There are two seemingly conflicting schools of thought –
A relationship requires hard work. You can’t just give up on someone because it requires effort.
A relationship is only hard if it’s with the wrong person. A good relationship shouldn’t take that much effort.
Yet, as with many pat pieces of advice, both contain elements of truth yet fail to address the very real complexity of the situation. A relationship can require no work and be unhealthy (I provide my first marriage as evidence) and there are also certainly times that one or both people in a relationship keep trying harder when perhaps the best solution is to walk away.
So what is “normal” when it comes to hard work within a relationship? And what are the signs that perhaps all of this hard work is wasted energy trying to fix something that contains a major structural flaw?
Periods of Ebb and Flow
Normal: There are days, weeks or months when you feel especially close with your partner and times when you feel a little more disconnected. Sometimes, you can identify a root cause – external stressors, illness, distraction – and sometimes it just comes on for no apparent reason. Maybe you talk about this distance or maybe you just ride it out until one or both of you reach out to reestablish the intimacy. There isn’t too much emotion tied up in these phases since there is mutual trust in the strength of the relationship and the transient nature of the ebb.
Maybe it’s Too Hard: Instead of gentle ebbs and flows, it feels more like the extreme highs and lows of a roller coaster. When it’s good, it’s great and when it’s bad, it’s awful. With each up, you feel elated. Unstoppable. While each down crushes your spirit and the fear and negativity sparked by the potential end of the relationship spread throughout your life. Your relationship status dictates the quality of your day.
During the up times, you’re balancing hope for a better future and fear that another downturn is around the corner. When the relationship is going through another rough patch, you’re both making promises to yourself that things will be different while simultaneously falling back into the same patterns as before.
Normal: You feel irritated or frustrated that your partner never seems to do their share of the housework. You bring it up and there is an improvement, at least in the short term. During periods of additional workload or illness, one person picks up the slack, both people simply doing what needs to be done.
Even with these surface disturbances, there is an understanding that you are a team. That you both are working together towards a common vision. You may not always agree on the path, but you both believe in the destination and put in the effort to get there.
Maybe it’s Too Hard: From the thousands of people I’ve talked with as well as my own experiences, I think this is the ultimate dealbreaker. When your partner isn’t willing to work – to listen, to adapt, to attend counseling, to try something different, to address their own issues – there is only so much you can do.
From Til Death Do You Part?:
I see the vows as like the wheels on a bicycle. Ideally, both are fully functioning and working in concert. If one tire is a little flat, the other can help support the weight for a time until the tire is re-inflated. If one wheel is bent, the ride may not be over as long as the metal is hammered back into shape. Yet if one wheel is removed, the bicycle is useless no matter how hard the remaining wheel works. And it’s time to either find a new wheel or learn how to ride a unicycle.
If you’re the only one working, there’s only so much you can do.
Normal: “How could you be so ignorant?” you think as you hear your partner defend a point. Some arguments are minor, often carried in on the heels of a difficult day. Others are over more major things and these either move towards resolution in time (and this may take years) or become differing points of view to simply accept and live with. There may even be repeated friction over the same recurring issues and fights that follow familiar patterns without seeming to fo anywhere in particular.
During arguments, some harsh words may be spoken. Feelings may be hurt. One or both people may not always respond in the best way and things may get quite heated. But there are known boundaries that are not crossed, whether that is to refrain from physical confrontation or avoid using certain words. And when cooler heads prevail, apologies are offered, responsibility is taken and, most importantly, connection and commonalities are reestablished.
Wondering how to improve conflict in your relationship? Learn more here.
Maybe it’s Too Hard: The fights come fast and furious. One or both of you are always walking on eggshells, uncertain what might spark anger in the other. During the arguments, boundaries are repeatedly crossed as brutal words or even fists rain down. Gottman’s four horsemen: contempt, stonewalling, criticism and defensiveness make a frequent showing at these arguments, ensuring that a productive conversation cannot occur.
The arguments never seem to come to any resolution. Promises are made yet somehow you always seem to end up in the same place. It’s as though you’re trying to coauthor a book only you speak two very different languages.
The disagreements are frequent. Instead of being the raisins sprinkled periodically throughout your relationship, they are the cookie itself. In fact, you often wonder if it wasn’t for the fights, if you would have anything holding you together at all.
Disliking Things About Your Partner
Normal: You can’t stand your partner’s taste in clothes. Or their new haircut. Maybe the way they brush their teeth sets yours on edge. All of that is totally normal. It’s impossible to spend an extended amount of time with someone and not become annoyed with certain traits and since we’re not all clones, there will always be things about another that you don’t like.
Yet underneath that dislike is love and maybe even some lighthearted humor about the things you find objectionable. You are able to separate the person you love from the particular trait that you don’t.
Maybe it’s Too Hard: Dislike has turned into disgust. Something about them actively turns your stomach. Or, there is something about them that you find so objectionable that you carefully tuck it away and try to forget about it.
Maybe you’re embarrassed of them, hesitant to bring them around your friends and family, fearing their reaction. On some level, you don’t think they’re quite up to your level.
And bigger than that is when you find that you’re beginning to dislike yourself. Are there patterns in the relationship that bring out the worst in you? Or are they being emotionally abusive and their words have become your own?
Questioning Your Decision to Be Together
Normal: Sometimes you wonder what your life would be like if you were single. Or with somebody else. It’s not a pressing desire, more a curious daydream that occasionally drifts through your mind. This may be prompted by a passing attraction to another person or from observing somebody else’s life and wondering what it’s like in their shoes.
Other times, this question is more pressing when the relationship is going through a particularly difficult period. You wonder if you made the right choice, your current pain manifesting as confusion. Yet this feeling doesn’t persist as you’re reminded again why this is a person that you want as your teammate in the game of life.
Maybe it’s Too Hard: More days than not, you wonder if you’re doing the right thing. You find yourself continually weighing out the pros and cons. Maybe you ask for the input of others because you feel like you can’t trust your own instincts.
Are you scared to leave and only staying because it’s what you know or because of the time and energy invested? Are your goals in life incompatible with the relationship and you either leave your partner or leave yourself?
Time Spent Apart
Normal: You look forward to the business trip so that you can have time to yourself at the house. You enjoy solo travel or a dinner with your friends. It’s healthy for couples to spend time apart from each other and this is supported and encouraged.
When apart, there are certain expectations around boundaries and communication. As long as those are met, there is not undue anxiety or jealousy about the other’s whereabouts or actions.
Maybe It’s Too Hard: You count down the minutes until your partner leaves for the day and you dread the moment they come back through the door. Or, when they’re away, you’re constantly wondering if they’re cheating and so you find yourself anxious and questioning. Or maybe it’s your partner that is controlling and leaves you feeling guilty for every moment you take for yourself.
I like to tell my students that anything worthwhile takes effort. And when that comes to relationships, I certainly believe that to be true.
Staying together requires a lot more effort than getting together.
Relationships are not stagnant. Just when you finally learn how to talk with your partner about money without falling into a blame/defensive pattern, something changes. And then you have to change in kind. There is no status quo. It takes energy and effort to grow.
Yet sometimes that relationship has become a black hole and that energy may be better spent in a new direction. And only you can can decide if the work is going towards growth or the work is taking energy away from your growth. Only you will know if it’s time to try harder or it’s time to walk away.
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Wondering if you tried hard enough to save your marriage? Hint: If you’re even asking this, it’s a sign you put in the effort. Here’s more to think about.