It’s Work vs. It Works

The idea that relationships take work is a common concept. Sometimes when I am seeing couples one partner will express the idea that if the relationship is really the right one that it wouldn’t take so much work. This idea has validity. When a relationship “isn’t working”, when there is alienation, hostility, conflict or pain that seems unrelenting, it can feel like work – plodding through the days hoping for some relief from the unpleasant feelings.

If we look at this in the context of getting dressed in the morning or any of the other ventures that populate our day like driving a car, as work – then yes it takes work. Sometimes what’s effective and necessary can be seen as work – especially when there are challenges and skills that are needed that aren’t coming naturally.

Michaels and johnson, in “Partners in Passion”, make the point that effort and work are not synonymous and that relationships are not jobs and should not be drudgery. Is driving a car work? Sometimes it is – under certain conditions. Sometimes it’s pleasurable. But it’s necessary to put some effort into it if we want to keep it going in the right direction. One of the more common cognitive distortions – CBT jargon (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) for automatic thoughts that are limiting and not necessarily accurate – is “generalizing.” If we are aware of how these automatic thoughts are effecting us we can substitute a more appropriate thought that can result in a positive feeling instead of a negative feeling. Putting relationships in the category of work is a generalization that i’m not so sure is helpful. Seeing it that way can bring up feelings of disagreeableness and lack of pleasure. Changing the way we speak about something actually changes the way we think about it.

The effort required of relationships is paying attention. Like getting dressed or driving on automatic pilot, without paying attention – it might result in uncomfortable feelings and being in a place that is not what you intended. Not paying attention to what is important to your partner or how some situations are affecting the relationship in a negative way will almost always have a negative impact.

The practice of mindfulness is, in essence, paying attention, without judging – filtering out the ever present tendency to sort experiences into binary piles of good/ bad, fair/unfair, work/play. In mindfulness practice we don’t make judgments about wheat we are experiencing – we practice “acceptance,” by simply noting our thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. One’s attitude is characterized by openness, curiosity and flexibility. This is not a passive stance – it keeps us from falling into typical thought distortions such as all or nothing, all good or all bad.

The point here is that it’s much easier to make the effort of being present with mindfulness so problems don’t accumulate – that the work of the relationship is just really being present in a mindful way and it may just start working, without a large amount of effort. Brief check ins to see how your partner feels are much more effective than big discussions. I encourage partners to ask more questions – be curious about why your partner is reacting, without judgement, if you notice their mood is not what you are expecting. In the next post I’ll address 3 simple systems that can easily help your relationship stay on track – new possibilities.

Do you think of your relationship as work? What does relationship “work” mean to you?

Merry Frons