When NASA launches a spacecraft, it uses about 90% of its fuel breaking free of the Earth’s atmosphere. After it clears the pull of this gravitational force, considerably less fuel is required, allowing it to travel great distances while expending far less energy.
This principle also applies to relationships: The early stages (after you pass the delirium of infatuation) are where the real work begins. That work is about committed listening, letting go of control, practicing vulnerability, overcoming resistance to change, being honest, even in the face of fear, and focusing on your own work rather than trying to change your partner. Like mastering any other new skill, it takes a lot to hang in there and muddle through the demanding times. The required effort is often great and the challenge can be daunting, leading many to conclude that it’s not worth it or that they don’t have the stamina and perseverance to work forever at this level.
Relationships, we think, should not have to be this hard. Well, that’s true: They shouldn’t be relentlessly difficult, at least not on a permanent basis, otherwise who, other than a masochist, would consciously choose to live in such a state of perpetual struggle? The bad news is that some degree of effort and agony is inevitable in most relationships. The good news is that it doesn’t have to last forever; it is generally a temporary, not permanent condition.
As we found out in researching our book, Secrets of Great Marriages, while most couples have experienced varying degrees of difficulty in their relationships, after they make it “over the hump,” the downward pull of gravity diminishes greatly and the amount of effort and energy required to sustain and nurture the relationship is greatly reduced. Further, the experience of nurturing the relationship no longer feels like effort or work, but literally becomes a labor of love that feels more like a gift, a joyful opportunity for which we feel grateful and blessed.
This characterization may seem unrealistic or Pollyanna-ish to those still in the more challenging stages of a relationship, but from the perspective of anyone who has successfully transitioned to the more advanced stages of partnership, it is not only realistic, but absolutely attainable. In addition to the willingness to do the aforementioned work, two qualities are needed to hang in there long enough to get to the “gold” that committed partnerships offer—perseverance and trust.
Perseverance has to do with the willingness to make the sustained, necessary effort to confront the challenges inherent in the process, particularly in the face of discouragement, fear, and distress. Trust pertains to the confidence that there is light at the end of the tunnel, whether we can currently see it or not, and the understanding that persevering is worth the effort.
Cultivating any new skill—playing a musical instrument, learning a foreign language, mastering a sport or game—requires knowledge, diligence and practice. Developing the skill of effective relating is no different, even though it’s easy to forget that most of us are, to varying degrees, inexperienced and unschooled in this arena.
Because we may not think of relationships as something that you need to develop skills for, it’s easy to forget that this process is no different than the development of other competencies. We tend to think that if the feeling is there, then the relationship should just “naturally” thrive. But while it may be natural, most of us have developed some pretty unskillful practices in our attempts to fulfill needs that were not getting met in our relationship. Yet while loving another person isn’t enough on its own to ensure a blissful future together, we do have the ability to participate in our relationships in ways that strongly influence the degree to which they will thrive.
The amount of time that we spend in the early stages of this process and the slope of the learning curve has to do with our willingness and ability to learn the lessons that relationships continually provide us with. These lessons are about honesty, letting go, non-judgment, responsibility, commitment, compassion, risk, and openness—for starters. The more dedicated we are to mastering these learning opportunities, the faster we will internalize the skills and competencies that good relationships require.
As we integrate these abilities, replacing old defensive habits with new, more effective practices, the work becomes easier and more natural. We automatically begin doing the things that work and let go of habituated responses that no longer serve us. While this takes time and the process is gradual, if you can stick with it, the result is not only worth the effort, it’s beyond what most of us ever thought possible.