Great relationships take a lot of work. You’ve got to do your own work if you want your marriage to work. If you don’t do the work, you won’t get the benefits. . .” If you haven’t heard one or more of these sayings within the past month you’ve probably been living under a rock. The idea that we have to work in order to create a worthwhile relationship has been around for quite a while and many of us, particularly relationship ‘experts’ and therapists have been affirming the idea for so long that we rarely question it’s veracity. But what exactly does working on your relationship really mean? And is it really true that the willingness to do “the work” is the critical factor in determining the quality of your relationships? And what exactly IS the work that relationships require anyway? The idea of work is so embedded in our beliefs about relationships that we rarely, if ever question these assumptions when we hear them in conversation or read them in self-help books.
Might there be some benefit to taking a closer look at this notion? Perhaps. As my grandmother used to say, “it couldn’t hoit”. One of the first things that we may notice when we begin to examine our beliefs about work and relationships is that we often aren’t exactly sure what the “work” of relationships really is, and consequently tend to default to our associations with the word “work” in our efforts to better understand the concept. When you think of “work”, if you are like most people the associations that you have with the word are not likely to be especially thrilling or even particularly pleasant. A brief perusal of the dictionary definition of the term reminds us that our mental and emotional associations with it tend to leave us cold, or worse. Case in point: The American Heritage Dictionary defines ‘work’ as “the exertion of physical or mental effort or activity directed toward the production of something.” Synonyms for work include labor, exertion, travail, drudgery, trouble, chore, and toil. “Toil” a word frequently associated with work means “to proceed to make one’s way with difficulty or pain. To labor continuously and strenuously.” Phew! Is it any wonder that most of us have a certain degree of resistance to the notion of embracing work as a path to anything? So if you have any confusion or mixed feelings and thoughts about doing your relationship work, it’s with good reason, and you’re not alone.
Yet the desire for loving relationships and the pain of living without them can be strong enough motivators to provoke efforts on our part to confront our confusion, challenge the odds and overcome our resistance, persistent though it may be. The question however, still remains, what exactly IS this “work” that relationships require? In confronting this question it becomes obvious that paradoxically, doing “the work” often requires us to redirect our attention away from our relationship, and focus instead on ourselves, sometimes even to the extent of running the risk of losing the relationship itself. Barry and Maya found this out the hard way.
Together for over twenty years, Barry and Maya were living in what both of them characterized as a marriage in name only. They paid the bills, took care of their two sons, maintained the home, kept enough food on the table and in the refrigerator, and fulfilled all of the external conditions of family life. The problem was that the heart of their marriage was dying from neglect, that is, until Maya out of desperation, loneliness, and exhaustion did the one thing that made it impossible for either of them to continue to ignore the pain in which they were both living. She had an affair. “I was vulnerable to an affair because I was so hungry for a deep emotional connection. I finally felt fully alive for the first time in years. It was like coming back from the dead. I really didn’t want to end my marriage with Barry, I just wanted to join the living again.” Maya and Barry had always been honest with each other and so she naturally told him about the affair. “I was devastated. And I was totally opposed to breaking up. I couldn’t understand why we couldn’t just work things out. I knew that Maya needed to find her life again but I didn’t see why we couldn’t stay married while she did that. I was willing to do anything to help her retrieve her soul.”
But Maya was convinced that living in a dead marriage was killing her. Despite her reluctance, the two of them got into marriage counseling and continued for a year until the pain of living together became intolerable. She moved into a small apartment while Barry continued to live at home with their boys. Knowing that involvement with Barry or any man before she reconnected to her own inner passion would cause Maya to slip back into her old patterns, “I promised myself that I wouldn’t enter into another relationship until I was confident that I would never lose myself like that again. I kept that promise and it was four years before I was again intimate with a man.” One year into the separation, Barry and Maya’s divorce became final. By this time, their contact with each other had been reduced to occasional conversations regarding the logistics of child visitations. They were however by no means living a life of leisure.
At this point they had each committed themselves to their own recovery from the deadening effects of years of codependent living. No longer preoccupied by efforts to control each other and the relationship, they were both finally able to direct their attention to their needs and longings that had been and buried under years of neglect. Both Maya and Barry became pro-active on their own behalf to get their lives back again. They each renewed friendships that had been put on the back burner for years. Barry got into a mens’ group where he found support and challenge from other men who had experienced similar struggles themselves. Maya also deepened her connection with her friends and joined a womens’ group that encouraged her to recover long-lost dreams and desires with which she had lost touch over the years. They both got into therapy. Very little communication about their personal processes took place between them, yet they were both on the same path: a quest to reclaim their deeper passion that had been lost through years of neglect and preoccupation with other commitments.
Four years into their separation, Barry, now no longer consumed by pain and resentment towards Maya for initiating the divorce, told her that he finally saw his part in the breakdown of their marriage, and acknowledged that “if you hadn’t done what you did, I would never have gone through what I did in order to develop and heal myself. Nothing short of divorce would have rocked my world enough to propel me into the life I have now. And I wouldn’t trade this life for anything. Thank you.” Although neither of them had felt or expressed any inclination towards reunification, they found themselves gradually beginning to make more contact with each other. Tentative at first, they gradually became more bold, experiencing a kind of openness, pleasure and ease with each other that they hadn’t felt in many years.
They moved in together and eight years later got married again. It’s been many years since their second marriage and the benefits of the work that each of them did during the four years in which they lived separately and the work that they have continued to do since then, continues to infuse their individual lives, their relationship, their family, and the increasing numbers of men and women whom they touch through the communities of friends and kindred spirits with whom they have connected along the way. In reclaiming his passion for mythology and history, Barry has written and recently published a widely-acclaimed book entitled Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence (Regent Press, 2010). Maya leads groups on Soul Collage ®, a creative process that promotes self-discovery and intuitive knowledge. She has also had her poetry published in two anthologies. Barry and Maya’s work took them into their own souls and opened their hearts to their deepest longings and unmet needs. Their journeys have been simultaneously unique and universal. The work that they have done and that we all must do in order to qualify for the relationship of our dreams is to claim the life of our dreams.
This probably will require us to grieve the losses we have sustained, celebrate the blessings which we have received, free ourselves from the addictions that have possessed us, heal the broken places that have been in need of our own compassion, and ultimately recover our sense of wholeness that may have been sacrificed in our quest for approval, security, control, or success. In recovering our wholeness, our lives open up to possibilities that had been previously inconceivable. This is the work that is required, and as Stephen Levine reminds us, it is the work of a lifetime. Is it worth the effort? There’s only one way to find out. You can wait until life forces you to take the leap or you can take it now, before you break up or break down. The choice is yours. Barry and Maya’s story has been adapted from chapter 3 of our book, Secrets of great Marriages: Real Truth from Real Couples about Lasting Love.