There’s making your relationship work, and there’s making your relationship work. Blame our Puritan past, the ingrained work ethic, and the experts who benefit from your problems, but whatever the reason, the persistent idea that you must make a full-time effort of ‘working on’ your relationship doesn’t guarantee a better relationship; it just means sucking the life out of it.
When you’re putting too much work into a relationship, it usually means you’re not getting enough of a reward out of it. You feel exhausted by the mere idea of the two of you, or worse, you think if you keep talking, analyzing, and fixing, that you’ll recover what you think you had to start with. (Pro tip: no, you won’t!)
Real worker bees may seem virtuous in their efforts (“I’m doing this for us!”), but they have a secret, says couples counselor and psychotherapist Cynthia Pizzulli, Ph.D.: They’re avoiding the truth about their relationship.
In fact, Dr. Pizzulli hates the term “work,” period. “We’re always working, and sometimes so much so that we are overworked,” she says. “The whole point of a relationship is to feel like you are home. That person should make all the other work worthwhile.”
How to Know You’re Working Too Hard
So how do you know if you’re putting too much work into your relationship? Here’s Pizzulli’s checklist:
• You have fights with your partner more than once per week. (One is to be expected, but two bad days is a lot.)
• You avoid being alone with your partner because you loathe the discussion. (Why be with someone you don’t like talking to?)
• Entire days pass without your feeling a single positive emotion towards your partner. (If you love someone you should always find it.)
• The list of things you hate about your partner could fill a book. (Everyone has some, but more than 10 is reason for concern.)
• You’re not getting what you need from your partner more than 20 percent of the time. (What makes you think you’ll ever get more? You aren’t going to change that person.)
Why You’re Working So Hard
There are two issues driving you to work this hard, says Pizzulli. The first is that we avoid negative feelings. “As children we’re taught that bad feelings are abnormal, and that you should fear them, and make them go away,” she says.
In so doing, we lose the ability to feel both positive and negative feelings in a symbiotic way—which is key to preserving a relationship, even when you disagree. “When you forget that you love someone while you are fighting, you get overwhelmed and overworked,” she says.
If something feels bad, it doesn’t necessarily need repair. This compulsion to fix is an outgrowth of negativity avoidance, and you fear that if you don’t fix it, you’ll fail. “Even therapists will automatically ‘pathologize’ an issue, just because you came into the office,” says Pizzulli. “I think it would be great if therapists would just start by saying ‘Congratulations! You are perfectly normal.’”
It’s easy to see how you could think of your relationship as a job: You’re either accepting applications for potential long-term partners, or applying for one (and online dating and job seeking only blurs that line further). Dates can feel like interviews (“So, tell me about your last…err…thing”). You wonder if this is a good fit, or if you’re even in the running.
But to believe your relationship is a job (at a startup, no less, which essentially they all are), is to think that all your energy should go toward propping it up, even when it’s a slog. It also makes you likely to shrug and say, “Meh. This is what all relationships are. Hard work. Guess I better get back to it.”
Wrong. This love-as-work philosophy feeds the assumption (and fear) that this is the best you can do and you might as well stay, even if it’s not working. Second, it can turn what could be a really wonderful relationship into the subject of ceaseless mental and emotional surgery. Both are uninspiring.
“Even the best relationships have conflicts”, says Pizzulli, “but managing them should feel more like adjusting the steering on a vehicle in motion than dragging a dead car down the street.”
Conflict is a given; endless hard labor to get your relationship to “tolerable” is not. You don’t need to fix everything that’s wrong, but you do need to be able to tolerate and manage conflict. A sign of a strong relationship, says Pizzulli, is one in which you say to yourself, “I love this person so much I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have a conflict with.”
Which makes that old saying true once again: If you love what you do, you never have to work again.
Image via Flickr