If You Have To "Work" On Your Relationship, You're Doing It Wrong

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When you approach marriage with a “workman” mindset, the result is burnout.

By Brian Haapala

It is a lesson learned for me after too many mistakes. My partner and I have the relationship that many of our friends put on the pedestal as being “ideal”, but a while ago, I found myself asking the question, “If this is as good as it gets, then why is it so damn hard?” 

I mean, I value my relationship and really want it to be successful, but is it always going to take so much work? It wasn’t a lot different than my career, so I naturally (but mistakenly) approached both the same way. Nose to the grindstone.

The underlying message of most advice on relationships is that success requires extraordinary effort, perseverance, and self-sacrifice. The problem for me was there was no respite.

All this work takes its toll over time. When career and relationship are approached with the same mindset, the same tools and the same intensity, there is no space for recapitulation and the result is burnout. Career, relationship, or in the worst case, both.

The ‘ah ha’ moment of how wrong this is came when I began reflecting on the times when I was most connected with my partner. You can take a moment yourself and go there, thinking about what were you doing at the time that you had that feeling of connection.

Every single example for me wasn’t when I was intensely focused on advancing the relationship like I was solving a project at work. To the contrary, I felt the best when I was relaxed and when we were playing together. I can’t think of a single instance where the workman approach to my relationship resulted in more happiness.

Here is a simple solution: Play at your relationship, don’t work at it. 

I know, it seems like fantasyland and we live in the real world. The culture of constant stimulation doesn’t help us relax. Further, the expectations of achievement make everything feel like work. Our social media feeds are inundated with pithy advice of the “3 ways” or “7 secrets” to have it all.

I am choosing to throw out both the quick tips and the conventional “wisdom” to make a choice to relinquish tired philosophies. It’s like the Four Hour Work Week for relationships—there is a different, more satisfying way to live. It may feel radical at first, but trust the process and you’ll be amazed.

I started by challenging that I needed all the ‘guy time’ that I has taking.

For example, I have played golf for the better part of my life and it’s something that I enjoy, but it comes with a hefty sacrifice of 5-6 hours of time per round. My partner prefers not to golf, so I am left with a choice of doing it for myself, or doing something else that we can share together. So we took up sailing together and I haven’t played a round in years. Now I have so many more memories of the times I’ve spent on the sailboat with my partner in the last 5 than all of the 300 yard drives and 60 foot putts I’d made in the prior 25 years of golfing.

I fully own my own power and choice in this decision. I wasn’t forced or cajoled into it, and together, we’ve cultivated habit patterns of seeking refuge with each other and we are mutually committing to be playful. You WORK everywhere else, this is when you get to play. 

Now let me talk to the skepticism lurking back in your brain asking if this is too good to be true.

We all have an idea of the relationship norms, from what we have been explicitly taught or told, to what we implicitly interpret from cultural signals. Relationships are hard. Messy. Fighting is natural, even healthy.

And to that framework, I now call bullshit. My partner wrote a much more eloquent article deconstructing this myth. Together, we have overcome the programming of how relationships are “supposed” to be by reflecting on what is effective—what cultivates the connection we want with each other—and challenging the lazy path of not owning our own choices. “I’d rather be…” is red herring that diverts attention away from your own power and creates a sea of resentment.

One of the easiest ways to generate more play time in your relationship is through date nights.

My partner and I started date nights before our youngest child could walk—he’s now 11–and these dates are not only regular but also frequent. So over time, we’ve gotten really good at them! Ideally, date night is getting away from the house and knowing the kids are taken care of, whether on a sleep over, with a sitter, or with family. But if you can’t get away, your “date” can be quiet time during the evening with some candles on and the TV off.

The first rule of date night is to not talk about the kids or even if you don’t have kids, any family business. Once these topics are off the table, we were free to have fun with each other.

Remember back to when you first met your partner. Were you intensely curious? Approach date nights like every one is your first date, and ask about what they’ve read, about their interests and their point of view.

Know that this takes practice. If your patterns of communication are built only around mundane family business, it may feel like you don’t have anything to talk about. That may even feel scary. The solution is simple: keep a list of things that piqued your interest, or any other random thoughts, and then use that list to get things started. 

Here are some other sure fire date night tips:

Do something new.



Laugh a lot.



Rent a hotel room for a couple of hours.

You and your partner are both evolving, every day. Relax. The journey will be both fun and rewarding. Keep reading and exploring ways to improve together. Share them with your partner. Maintain the mutual philosophy to be more playful, not work-like, in your relationship.

And then go play.

This article was originally published at The Good Men Project. Reprinted with permission from the author.

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