Should a relationship require work?
When we are drawn to a new partner, our brain often releases a range of ‘love hormones’ that lead to feelings of attraction, desire and closeness. However, the effects of these hormones eventually pass and we usually begin to see our partner in a more realistic way, which may involve noticing their less than positive traits.
It is around this time that a couple may begin to resent that their relationship seems to require effort and even worry whether it’s a sign that they are not meant to be together.
This type of belief can be quite damaging to a relationship, potentially leading a couple to end their relationship and look for greener pastures with other partners where things seem easy once again – at least initially.
There are a number of unhelpful assumptions that underlie this limiting belief about relationships.
One is that a partner should innately know what the other needs and be able to provide it, without needing to ask or communicate. But given that the two people in a relationship come from different backgrounds, with different experiences and family customs, is it realistic to expect that one partner will always be able to predict and meet the other’s needs?
Expecting your partner to automatically be your ideal “soul mate” demonstrates a fixed mindset, which basically involves a fairytale version of relationships where you are either meant for each other - or not. And when inevitable challenges arise, these imply that you are not meant to be together.
In contrast, when people have a growth mindset, they believe a long-lasting and fulfilling relationship comes from effort and from working through inevitable differences. They want a partner who recognises their faults, without judgment, and helps them to become a better version of themselves.
Another issue to consider in asking whether relationships should require work is how we define ‘work’. Many people think of work as being onerous and depleting – exhausting monotonous labour. But work can also be engaging and energising. A gardener, for example, can spend hours working hard to create and maintain a beautiful garden. Yet this is work that they are fully engaged in and enjoy, while also taking great pleasure in the outcome - which they obviously view as well worth the effort.
It may be worth thinking about the language we use to describe the deliberate focus and energy required to maintain a fulfilling relationship with our partner. Rather than referring to it as ‘work’, more appropriate language may be ‘nurture’, ‘cultivate’, ‘service’, or obviously my favourite ‘craft’.
Finally, when lamenting that a relationship requires effort, it is also worth remembering that everything we value in life, whether it is our health, home or even our car requires resources like money, time and energy to sustain. The relationship with our partner is no different. If we value our relationship, and all the research suggests we should because it is a significant predictor of our wellbeing, then it makes sense to devote some effort to nurturing it. However, it is also worth reminding ourselves that this effort will be dwarfed by the reward we receive in terms of our lives feeling richer and more meaningful.
In reflecting on this issue, consider the following questions:
Do I have realistic expectations of my partner and our relationship?
Do I have a ‘fixed mindset’ or a ‘growth mindset’ when it comes to our relationship?
What is my understanding of the ‘work’ we need to do to nurture our relationship? Do I view it as draining and laborious, or meaningful and rewarding?
Do I have a different standard for the effort required to maintain a loving relationship, compared to other things I value in life?