If a relationship is right, it will still take a lot of hard work to keep it that way.
Cautionary Tale #1: The couple had been married for many years, and their long relationship had witnessed and supported several geographical moves, the raising of five awesome children and two career changes.
Despite the longevity, dependability (and productivity!) of their relationship, however, both partners no longer felt emotionally connected to each other or believed they had much of anything in common. And, yes (sigh), they both felt they were "growing apart."
They were coming to me in a last ditch effort to try to save their marriage, but neither partner had much hope they would be able to recapture the feelings of love and connection both remembered from their early years.
As I usually do during the assessment interview, I asked this couple a few questions about their beginning — how they got to know each other, what they did for fun then, what times they remember as being especially awesome.
This couple had a lot of good answers here. Among other things, they spoke of weekly dates, pinging each other with texts throughout the day, taking long hikes in the woods near their home on the weekends, and surprising each other with frequent "just because" gifts.
"And which of these things do you continue to do today?" I asked.
"Well ... none of them, actually. We’re just too busy."
Cautionary Tale #2: I had been seeing a couple for several months of pretty intensive marriage therapy and we were meeting again after a bit of a break.
No crises were brewing, but both partners expressed frustration regarding a recent (and, now, repeated) experience of emotional distance, and noted some built-up (built up as in "ready to explode") tensions around some more or less perpetual areas of conflict (yes, there is such a thing, but it’s not a deal-breaker; more about that in other post).
I asked the usual questions about their use of the various strategies and tools introduced and practiced in our previous sessions:
- How are your daily check-ins going?
- Have you been noticing and sharing feelings of fondness and admiration?
- Have you initiated conversations about any perceived tension?
- Have you offered — and responded positively — to bids for connection?
Their response? Crickets. Well then.
Cautionary Tale #3: A husband and wife had just returned from a two-week vacation in the mountains where, without the usual social and professional to-dos to impede them, they were able to reconnect with each other in all the ways couples do when they finally "get away."
This trip came just in time, it turns out. The truth was that this couple had been really missing each other during a summer of unusual busyness — missing as in having trouble connecting in an emotional, intellectual or (euphemism alert) "intimate" way.
Missing each other in the way that leads to one person taking the time and energy to cook an entire (delicious) dinner from scratch, only to find out that the other person wouldn’t be home for dinner that night due to ANOTHER work commitment, one that had been on his calendar for MONTHS but about which the first person had absolutely NO knowledge because they hadn’t sat down to update calendars in FOREVER.
Wait. Um, was that my outside voice?
Okay, you got me. Like that inattentive shoemaker, I might be a teensy bit inconsistent in practicing what I preach.
So the right relationship should be easy? Are you kidding me? The opposite, actually, is true.
Karl Pillemer says it best in this Time article about his research into happily married couples: "Marriage is like a discipline" and "A discipline is not reaching one happy endpoint."
What I think he means here is that there is no pill, app or easy button that will ensure the strength and longevity of our committed partnerships. Also, and more importantly, the goal can’t be to arrive at a "tah dah!" point in a relationship and then coast to the end. If a relationship is right, it will still take a lot of hard work to keep it that way.
The kind of hard work that involves:
1. Staying current on what’s important to our partner
2. Continually noticing and expressing our feelings of fondness and admiration
3. Monitoring our communication so that we maintain a positive perspective and treat each other with respect
4. Connecting at the beginning, middle and end of the day in small, but important ways
5. Taking the time to know what our partner needs to feel loved and giving that to them
6. And (note to self) updating those calendars
By the way, the first five of those tasks are actually all proven by research to be integral to the healthy upkeep of a long-term committed relationship, so it’s not just me saying this. (I’m certain that sixth one is important too, but I don’t have the research to add to my cred here.)
So the hard truth (yeah, I know, I’m forever hawking hard truths) is that relationships take work, work that we — like Dorothy Gale and Luke Skywalker on their respective quests — have always had, will always have, the power to accomplish in our day-to-day-life together.
We don’t need a vacation from the rest of life to make this happen. We just need to create the intention to put this important task on our already-stuffed-to-the-gills to-do lists. And then we need to just DO the thing. Over and over and over again.
But we get lazy, don’t we? Sloppy. We skip out on that daily update or kiss. We forget to acknowledge a kindness. We neglect to update our love maps and our calendars.
And then we find ourselves trying to make up for our ongoing negligence with a quick trip to the mountains, a fancy gift or a couples counseling session.
Or we suddenly (or not so suddenly, it turns out) find we are facing the prospect of divorce.
Frankly, in these days of no-fault, low-cost divorce, breaking up is often easier than doing the hard work of maintaining a strong relationship. And, what’s more, living alone can often feel less personally taxing than making space in your life for another person.
But what is easier is not usually what is most rewarding, right? (With the exception of Kraft Mac-and Cheese. Or a Starbucks Vente Mocha Latte. Or watching an episode of So You Think You Can Dance. Damnit. Well, you know what I mean.)
But truly, the rewards of being a part of a long-term, committed relationship are real and plenty. As I’ve written in a previous post:
- We grow to be our best selves in relationship, not alone.
- A mature relationship can tolerate powerful independence and individuality.
- So many more interesting and fulfilling things are possible in a relationship in which deep trust and connection have been established over time.
Another finding from Pillemer’s study: "Couples who have made it all the way later into life have found it to be a peak experience, a sublime experience to be together ... Everybody — 100% — said at one point that the long marriage was the best thing in their lives."
All of this is worth the work, people. But it is work, indeed.
Happily, it is work you won’t regret because you can be confident that it will lead to the flourishing of the relationship that you knew was right to begin with.
Anne Barker is a writer and psychotherapist in Omaha, NE, specializing in working with couples and individuals on all manner of relationship issues. Visit Anne’s relationship blog at Hitch Fix or her website to find out more about her writing and services.
This article was originally published at Barker Therapy Arts. Reprinted with permission from the author.