Some observations from watching and working with couples for the past 27 years, not to mention from my own efforts at wanting to participate in couplehood …
When love relationships are thriving, they are a delicious paradox of ease and rigor. Or, as a friend of mine said recently about her man, “I’ve never worked so hard in a relationship, and it’s never been easier.”
When love relationships are thriving, the work rarely feels like work. In fact, the effort and intention a mate brings to the table is largely reflexive, even unconscious. And, even when it feels like work, it is work you want to do! The thing you most want is to revel in the connection, so the work is an inspiration to that end.
When love relationships are moving through a time of the partners’ personal development, or the development of the relationship itself, the work feels more like work. It has less spontaneous inspiration, and much more conscious intention. But still, it’s work you want to do. So you do it, even as you scratch and claw toward the return of ease and spontaneity on the other side.
When love relationships fall into malaise, the temptation is to tell yourself, “I shouldn’t have to work so hard!” Perhaps, without knowing it, you begin to embrace the idea that you are entitled to things coming easier in the growing of great love. You are convinced that intimacy should just float naturally, that dynamic human connections should just hover gladly and constantly before you and between you.
From there it’s a simple reach to the resentment, to which you also feel entitled, over your mate not doing or being what you want them to do or be. The work of great love stops feeling like an inspiration, and starts feeling like another thing you have to do.
Do we have to talk again? Do we have to process that conversation from three days ago? Why should I always have to be willing to examine myself, to always be asking if this is the best of myself in this relationship? Why can’t my mate just accept me the way I am?
And now the union moves into the War Room, where you ponder and strategize about your next move. How can I walk down the hallway, into the bedroom to ask this question, and get out of there with what I want short of a Long Talk and possibly A Conflict? How can you continue to move in the form of a committed relationship, get what you want, defend what needs to be defended, and, on a good day, never have to really engage the needs and struggles of your purported beloved, let alone have to engage some part of yourself that might be thinking out of ego, fear or smallness?
You’re going to hate this, but, when you start thinking this way, it’s waaayyy past time to sit down and talk. The solution is the thing you’re avoiding. Your mate is not your competitor, opponent or antagonist. He/she is your mate. Your erstwhile best friend. The one with whom you’ll walk to the grave.
When love relationships fall into estrangement or crisis, the temptation is to tell yourself you’ve picked the wrong mate. You’re with the wrong person. So, logically, you should seek a different person. Or, at least put this relationship out of its misery. It occurs to you to leave. Or cheat. Or gain weight. Or to live parallel yet mostly separate lives under one roof. Or give up on great love altogether, and forge a lifetime relationship — and relationship with yourself — out of inertia, mild depression, mostly manageable despair, and too many glasses of wine.
And you’ll tell yourself, “Well, some relationships just weren’t meant to be.” Or, “Sometimes things just don’t work out.” You’ll talk about it in the passive voice, as if you were a member of the audience watching the relationship, as opposed to being onstage with your partner in the relationship.
And none of this will be true.
Ask any grieving widow/widower of a terrific 40-plus-year-old marriage. The only way to “terrific” is to show up. Every day. And do the work. Which, if you’ll do that, feels on most days not like work. Rather, like peace. Quiet. Abiding joy, even on the days of mundane, pedestrian normalcy. Rhythm. Pace. Meaningful habit and norm. One-2-3, one-2-3 …
Thriving participants in thriving love affairs thrive like this. Because of this. It’s not rocket science.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling Wellness Center in Las Vegas and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.