Are Relationships Worth the Work?

Tony stood aghast at Marsha’s push back against his proposal to use their vacation time to go kayaking on their favorite lake in the mountains. His wife revealed to him that, while she had been willing in the past to go to the mountains, she had always been partial to spending time at the beach. During courtship and the first year or two of marriage, she had always relinquished her desire to drive to the coast to placate his zeal to camp out in the mountains. This had apparently led him to believe that they were always on the same page about how they spent their free time.

Feeling betrayed (and disillusioned), Tony became uncontrollably angry, declaring that they should just call off their vacation plans altogether. An extremely frustrated Marsha, in turn, confronted him on his selfishness and inflexibility: “As long as you get your way about things, everything is cool; but when I finally express something different, you explode, refusing to even listen to what I have to say.” This conflagration was then followed by cold silence between them, each beginning to wonder if they had made a mistake getting married.

Many issues could be discussed concerning the dynamics of this couple’s interaction pattern, but, suffice it to say, neither was prepared to deal with the surprising conflicts that often rock relationships. Of course, it’s vital to be honest about your desires from the beginning to avoid unnecessary problems down the road. It also, perhaps, goes without saying that a certain level of flexibility is required to properly handle unforeseen events of married life. Nonetheless, such arguments raise a much larger issue about marriage, namely, the often unexpected level of effort it takes to make a relationship work successfully.

Relationships Take Work.

This issue spotlights an even more general question: How hard are you willing to work for something you want? Do you believe that “personal sacrifice” has anything to do with achieving the goals of a relationship? It’s not uncommon for unhappy couples to enter counseling seeking pain relief, but balk at doing the work that is necessary for bringing about that relief. Instead, they want the therapist to “fix” the other spouse so that calm can be restored and they can go on their way.

Many believe that relationships should grow and mature naturally, some might say almost effortlessly, if love is the motivational force. They may be trained to think either that they shouldn’t have to change or that they have no power to make change to start with. In either case, it’s assumed that one another’s love should be strong enough to cover a multitude of sins. That’s a nice thought in theory, but that’s not what happens in most of the couples I see. That’s because, unlike God’s unconditional love, human love is noticeably flawed, being largely dependent on the reinforcement it receives from the other person.

If I asked you why your best friend is your best friend, you would likely tell me that it’s because of his or her loyalty, kindness, accessibility, emotional safety, and willingness to be honest. You may add other attributes as well, but you get the idea. Now, what if that friend, for some unknown reason, stopped displaying those endearing characteristics and, in fact, started to ignore you, maybe even spread vicious rumors about you—would you continue to love them all the same? Probably not. You’re not a masochist.

So, human love has its limits—it cannot be sustained without being consciously nurtured.
Tweet this!

Not so with God’s love: Even if we hated him and actively rebelled against him, he still loves us. What’s natural to God is not natural to us. This was the principal point Jesus was making in the Sermon on the Mount.

Thus, to keep our love for one another alive and well, it takes a lot of work. As the well known psychiatrist and author, Aaron Beck put it, “love is never enough”.  

It’s when the idealism of effortless love confronts the reality of hard work in marriage that disillusionment sometimes sets in.
Tweet this!
Those who feel frustrated usually never anticipated the fact that so much would be expected of them. Typically, they are convinced that “it shouldn’t be that difficult” to live together.

What Work Isn’t:

Some want to completely smother the differences between each other, a case of conflict resolution by denial of any conflict at all. As a result, they slowly become clones of one another, presenting a false front of uniform agreement. The danger here is that their marriage will become boring, since their differences were what provided the interest value in the relationship in the first place. While their similarities were what often attracted them in the beginning, it’s how they are different from each other that sustains that attraction. Once that’s lost (or, rather, covered up), the unity they were seeking goes with it.

Others go on the attack when conflict arises, angry at the surprise opposition of their partners, but determined to “win” the argument. To them, if you don’t press your views, then you’ll become a doormat whose wishes become invisible in the relationship. You fight or you become irrelevant, losing whatever importance you had.

Still others simply withdraw into a passive cocoon, preferring to engage only in benign conversation, carefully avoiding the minefield of their differences. If their spouses try to re-visit a conflicted issue, they’re likely either to use diversionary tactics or, if that’s not possible, to merely placate their aggrieved spouse (“Do whatever you want, it’s OK with me”). Anything to put a quick end to the upsetting conversation. This strategy is, of course, maddening to a spouse who actually wants to talk through their differences.

Arguments, obviously, have their own toxic effect on relationships. They usually arise when one or the other partner in a relationship starts feeling threatened in some way, which, in turn, demands a posture of defensiveness. People feel threatened when they think their point of view is considered foolish or is dismissed as unimportant. The result is an immediate strain on their interaction, which leads to a variety of distortions and misunderstandings.

For some highly sensitized individuals, just encountering a different opinion on anything at all can trigger a response of circling the wagons. Expressed differences are interpreted as showing disrespect, maybe even rejection. The implicit message is: “If you love me, you would never disagree with me”. This sort of emotional blackmail, of course, bodes ill for the relationship. Intimacy cannot long tolerate such a straight jacket.

Since so much is emotionally at stake, marriage invites a whole host of conditions which highlight festering struggles from the spouses’ homes of origin. This is the reason Jesus taught that marriage partners must first emotionally emancipate from the rules of engagement learned in their homes before they can fully bond with each other (Matt. 19:6).

It’s interesting to note that, while married women have a higher incidence of depression than unmarried women, just the opposite appears to be true for men. When marriage is unhappy, the wife is, statistically speaking, three times more likely to be depressed than her husband. However, since men are less open than women about their feelings, such statistics may not tell the whole story. In any case, the situation may only get worse when she becomes the mother of young children and feels she’s left alone to handle all the added stress on her own. It’s often one more disappointment over her husband’s failure to be a true help-mate.

Meanwhile, things can quickly get out of hand if hubby becomes convinced that his wife is withholding herself from him, both emotionally and physically. Then, on top of everything else, he’s likely to become agitated toward her. Perhaps he may downplay her exhaustion from assuming so many more responsibilities than she had before children came along. He may also turn a blind eye to the fact that he has failed to step up his efforts to help her. He may contend that, since he goes to work every day, he’s tired when he gets home and shouldn’t be expected to pitch in that much around the house. Unfortunately, this view entirely misses the point about the importance of team work in making the marriage (and the family) the best it can be, even if that means some personal sacrifice.

In any event, he may begin to sulk, falsely believing that his wife is telling him that he can’t do anything right, which feeds directly into his adequacy issues. In his mind, her complaints of exhaustion are merely a cover for denying him pleasure. His persistent anger (and their incessant arguments) only fuels his wife’s depression and anxiety as she gradually loses any sense of emotional safety in the relationship.

Your Spouse is Your Ally.

What spouses need to do is to begin viewing each other in these circumstances, not as retaliating adversaries, but as wounded allies seeking emotional healing in a mutually loving relationship. There are no perfect homes of origin; so, spouses are not going to emerge from them completely unscathed by the mistakes (and, possibly, dysfunction) of their parents. Neither are the stressful present circumstances going to disappear simply because we don’t want to address them.

That’s why marriage is a call to be a healing presence with one another, not in the sense that one spouse is responsible for the happiness of the other, but in the sense of providing a fertile environment for personal growth. That takes significant effort, but it’s work that is well worth it.

God has called us to be agents of change. What better place to start than in the context of our own homes!


Dr. Gary Lovejoy has, for over 34 years, conducted his private counseling practice where he has extensive experience serving individuals, couples, and families. He continues an active private practice with Valley View Counseling Services, LLC in Portland, Oregon, of which he is the founder. Dr. Lovejoy was a professor of both psychology and religion at Mt. Hood Community College for 32 years. He earned a master’s degree in religious education from Fuller Theological Seminary as well as a master’s in psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and completed his doctorate in psychology while attending the United States International University. Dr. Lovejoy has conducted numerous seminars on depression and been the keynote speaker at many family camps, couple’s retreats and college conferences. Dr. Lovejoy and his wife, Sue, have two adult children. He is co-author of Light on the Fringe: Finding Hope in the Darkness of Depression.

Copyright © 2014 Start Marriage Right. Disclaimer