Working on Your Relationship
September 1, 2012 § 3 Comments
Here and there I’ll ask a married friend “How’s married life?” Nine times out of ten the response is something along the lines of “Marriage is really hard” or “Let’s face it, marriage is a lot of work!”
Sometimes that type of response has been due to the fact that the marriage simply wasn’t working – there were serious problems and divorce was the solution. But in other cases the statement has baffled me – the members of the couple love each other dearly and highly value the relationship. Yet for some reason both the spouse and the relationship are referred to as difficult and/or work.
I think this is a dangerous vocabulary choice. Words are important. If you are a person for whom marriage is hard and/or work, what exactly do you mean? How is it hard? How is it work? Are you sure those words best describe your feelings?
Many years ago my shrink suggested I ban my use of the expression my weight problem from my vocabulary. She said the words I used mattered – that by referring to my desire to lose a few pounds as my weight problem I endowed a simple challenge with importance it shouldn’t have. My weight problem implied a permanent state of affairs – the word choice defined, at least to a small degree, my identity. But if I simply said I would like to lose some weight I could potentially change the whole tone of both the challenge and my relationship with my body. This point resonated powerfully with me and I think it can be applied to many different areas of life.
My friend Rhonda has been happily married for more than 30 years. She believes that if a person describes his or her marriage as work, the marriage should be dissolved immediately. This issue first came up when I was staying with her many years ago. We were having breakfast and watching The Today Show. Donald Trump was on and whoever the anchor was at the time asked him why he was divorcing whichever wife he was splitting up with. The Donald explained that his marriage had become work; he worked hard all day, he said, and didn’t want to go home at the end of the day and work on his relationship.
“Oh dear,” I said. “Doesn’t everyone say how important it is to work on your marriage? How will he ever be happily married if he won’t work on it?”
“Working on a marriage!” Rhonda sneered. “What crap! I have never spent one second working on my marriage! My husband isn’t work!” She punctuated the thought with a scornful snort before adding “Don’t ever marry someone you consider to be work.”
She seemed to be saying that the only marriage worth being part of is a problem-free marriage. But this subject has come up many times over the years and I know that isn’t what she means at all. For Rhonda, it isn’t a question of whether there are problems or not, but the underlying attitude of the people involved in the relationship – she thinks the use of the words hard and work indicate the wrong attitude. Rhonda doesn’t think of resolving conflict with her husband as an onerous chore she needs a vacation from. His happiness is important to her and that sentiment is reciprocated – whatever challenges they face are always secondary to that basic principle.
Rhonda sees this subject in clear-cut, black-and-white terms. She believes if you feel your partner is work he isn’t The One, period. While I think Rhonda makes a compelling argument, I think life is full of grey areas and there is no one-size-fits-all model for a successful relationship. I take her point but am more flexible with it – different people are different, some of us may well be more work than others – does that mean we should be condemned to eternal solitude?
My mother recently pointed out that the idea that marriage is a lot of hard work is the most common point of view. We have been to many weddings during which the minister/rabbi/judge/whoever has talked about what a challenge and struggle marriage will be for the couple during the ceremony. And maybe in many cases that is the truth. Perhaps your marriage is hard work and it’s totally worth it to you – that is something only you can decide.
But I wonder if this mainstream concept is like a curse. I wonder if, like my use of the expression ‘my weight problem,’ the statement ‘marriage is work’ helps create that reality. What would happen to your feelings about your relationship if you changed the language you use to describe it? Perhaps instead of saying I am working on my marriage you say I am working on my communication skills. Perhaps you can eliminate the word work altogether.
This is not an advice column and I wouldn’t dream of telling you what to do. Different people are different and I don’t think there is one right way to be in a relationship. I merely throw this out as food for thought. But I think the next time I find myself working on a relationship, I will ask myself: why am I calling this work? Is this actually work? Or do I simply need to adjust my attitude?
XOXO – Evelyn
What do you think? Do you agree with Rhonda that The One will never be work? Or do you think any relationship will inevitably need to be worked on? Do you think changing the words you use to describe your relationship would change anything? Or do you think that’s malarkey?