I spent the first day of my honeymoon glaring at my new husband’s back with seething hatred. Worried we wouldn’t be able to cram enough sights into the day, he strode through London at top speed, not noticing (or caring) that I generally trailed about five feet behind him. He insisted we even ride the tube in silence, out of concern that some total strangers might realize we were American and sneer at us. Sounds romantic, eh?
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That trip has come to encapsulate our doomed, nine-year relationship for me. Not walking fast enough was just one of many things I did incorrectly or inadequately, according to my husband, who we’ll call Dan. Resentments surfaced frequently: He informed me that I looked bad when my hair was pulled back in a ponytail and that I appeared unfriendly when I walked with my arms crossed over my coat on cold, windy days. He’d accuse me of offending waitresses by not responding perkily enough when we went out to eat. During our stint in couples’ counseling, he told our therapist that I was “socially inept.”
Now, years later, putting up with any of this nonsense sounds ludicrous to me. But back then, I was brainwashed by the well-meaning relationship advice I’d read a million times: Relationships are hard work. It sounds reasonable. After all, we’ve all been told that nothing worth having comes easy—so why should relationships be any different?
My parents divorced when I was four, and my mother didn’t live with another partner until I’d grown up and moved away, so I didn’t have much modeling for what a healthy, long-term relationship looked like. The knowledge I had about solid relationships was cobbled together from TV shows, books, movies, and magazine relationship articles, creating a Frankenstein’s monster of dysfunction and inaction.
Once, while complaining to a friend that I wasn’t sure whether I should break up with Dan, she asked, “Well, are you unhappy or happy more of the time?” It seemed like a practical, even adult way of looking at the problem. I thought about it and decided that yes, I was probably content a little more often than I was miserable… so that was good, right? No relationship is perfect, people say. But who wants to spend roughly half of her life unhappy?
I stayed with Dan way longer than was remotely healthy. Getting along with him seemed impossible much of the time, but I thought that his put-downs, frenetic criticism, and anger must be the “work” I kept hearing about. If we just learned to communicate more effectively about our issues, we’d be fine, I thought. But of course, that wasn’t the case. So how much hard work should relationships really be? Where’s the line?
When Working on a Relationship Becomes Unproductive
So here’s a conclusion you might have reached on your own: People reluctant to let any relationship go (even terrible ones) tend to be more willing to work on them. But that means that the degree to which people are willing to work on their relationship can have less to do with whether a relationship is worth saving, and more to do with our own personality types.
“Our tolerance for potential loss defines how easily we attach to another person, and also how hard we’ll work to save a relationship,” says Christine Hyde, Ph.D., a licensed clinical social worker and certified sex therapist. “Some people work and work because that hard work is still easier than the thought of loss, or fear of the unknown. That’s why some people stick with things too long: It’s the devil you know versus the devil you don’t know.”
On an even more basic level, everyone has a different idea of what “hard work” means in a relationship—and we rarely define these terms before getting involved with each other. For some people, “hard work” might mean healthy approaches like couples’ therapy or focusing on listening to each other’s needs. But others might think that “hard work” means something less rational and more invasive, like giving your partner access to everything on your phone or never going to a party without the other person.
But even couples who are willing to work on their relationships and agree on what “work” means won’t necessarily succeed in the endeavor—especially if the work is based on expecting an unwilling partner to grow or evolve, Hyde says.
“Sometimes I hear from clients, ‘No one ever taught him this is how he’s supposed to be, so I’ll teach him,’ but that’s more work than you should ever be willing to do,” Hyde says. “Working to change someone else is a gauge that there’s something wrong—that’s not ‘good’ work.”
The “hard work” approach to relationships appeals to our stereotypical American ideal that we will be rewarded if we refuse to give up, says Ty Tashiro, Ph.D., author of The Science of Happily Ever After and Awkward.
“That advice is the classic Western viewpoint—that if we just try harder and go faster, we can make it work,” he says.
There are also some key personality traits that have been linked to happy marriages: High conscientiousness, low neuroticism, high agreeableness, and high extraversion. But research shows more and more that relationships are successful when partners simply practice mindfulness and express gratitude. “This has to do with appreciating partners for their positives and to give them the benefit of the doubt about the negatives,” Tashiro says.
For example, let’s say your partner tells you about a conflict with a co-worker that happened earlier in the day, and you ask a question or make a comment that he or she doesn’t quite understand. What you do not want is for your partner to assume the worst about what you meant and instantly blow up at you. You want them to pause and consider why you said what you did, or simply ask you to clarify what you meant—before rushing to judgment.
Consistent thoughtfulness about how to respond to potential conflicts is a key component of harmonious relationships, Tashiro says. No one’s saying you need to be a detective or a mind reader, but it helps if you can authentically give your partner the benefit of the doubt more often than not—and be there for their big wins (as well as their losses). And there’s evidence to back this up: A 2009 study found that positivity and empathy are key components in happy long-term relationships, and another found that feeling your partner is there for you when things go right plays an important role in relationship health.
“Expecting someone to be fair and thoughtful is a really important starting point in relationships that many people overlook,” he says. “Someone who is agreeable is more likely in the long term to give generously to a partner without keeping score.” This trait—and a willingness to put in the work to maintain relationships—has been linked to greater relationship satisfaction overall.
Put another way, if you aren’t willing to consider another person’s needs consistently, you can’t be in a healthy relationship. “The bottom line is that people who are not good sharers aren’t good in relationships,” Hyde says.
So How Much Work Should We Really Be Putting In?
So let’s say you found yourself a good one—he or she is giving, thoughtful, committed, and consistent—and you’re happy together. It’s still going to take some work, right? Like a normal, sane amount of work to keep the relationship strong?
That’s what I’ve been wondering, because since I met my boyfriend, who we’ll call Sam, four years ago, it’s been kind of easy.
I used to roll my eyes at the people who claimed they rarely argue and called each other “babe.” I just assumed that it really wasn’t possible for two human beings to like each other and get along most of the time, and I thought these unicorns-and-rainbows couples must be insufferable Pollyannas—or they were just plain liars. More likely the latter, right?
But now I’m kind of one of these jerks, living with someone who’s thoughtful, considerate, and reasonable—traits that, given my relationship history, still blow me away. Meeting him reminded me that I did see an example of a successful couple growing up: my Uncle Billy and Aunt Donna. They’ve been together since high school, and I couldn’t ever imagine Billy rolling his eyes at something Donna said, or Donna snapping at Billy not to screw up some little task. They didn’t just love each other, they liked each other, and it showed. They had each other’s backs.
This is the simplest way I know how to explain why my current relationship is so strong: Sam has my back. I’ve never felt that anyone else was in my corner like this and would give me the benefit of the doubt that my intentions are good.
But I don’t want to take my relationship for granted or neglect it, of course. I asked Hyde what she thought about my theory of what makes for harmonious unions—which can be boiled down to “don’t be an asshole.” Is it really that easy, if you’re with someone who’s good for you? I care what Sam thinks and how he feels, and want him to be happy, so I act accordingly. But that doesn’t feel like “work,” I told her.
“That’s the thing: You don’t see it as work because it’s something you want to do. Work is only work if you’re miserable,” she says. “You’re good with being giving and thoughtful because you know he’s there and making you feel safe.”
Research backs this up too: The authors of a study published in Communication Monographs concluded that couples are more likely to put some effort into maintaining their relationships when they felt things were equitable overall. Feeling a lack strong support from a partner, on the other hand, tends to break up relationships, another study concluded.
I don’t want to be flippant and imply that it’s easy to meet someone who gets you and supports you completely. I know from experience that it’s not. But I also know that if you feel like you’re not walking side by side with your partner—and especially if you’re trailing five feet behind—you deserve better.
Virginia Pelley is a freelance writer in Tampa, Florida. Follow her on Twitter @VirginiaPelley.