What exactly does it mean to “work” on a relationship?

Many of my clients understand that relationships take work.  What is often less clear is what exactly is meant by “work” in a relationship.  Sometimes people stay in bad relationships for a long time, believing that they just need to keep “working” at it, when no amount of work is going to salvage the relationship and the smart thing to do is move on.  But what does “work” really mean?

Let’s clarify what “work” means in healthy relationships…

“Work” mean daily acts of connection.  This type of work can look like doing something special for your partner, considering both you and your partner’s needs instead of just your own, being intentional about how you communicate with your partner, expressing your own needs, showing the other that you care about them and love them.  The 5 Love Languages are a great place to start for finding ways to increase affection in your relationship.

“Work” also means the way we approach conflict, or tension, with our partners.   This means active listening to our partners, taking their thoughts and feelings into consideration, looking within yourself to be honest about what we are bringing to the conflict, deciding what you are willing to adjust to meet your partner, and actually making the adjustments as needed.

“Work” means being committed and willing to do these things, which is probably the most important foundation for a healthy relationship.  If one or both partners are not willing to acknowledge/respond to the other’s needs, or commit to doing the internal work that is required to be a true partner and support to another person, then no matter how much “work” goes into the relationship, it is likely to deteriorate.  It takes two to tango and both partners need to be committed to going outside their own comfort zones for a relationship to work.

Relationships are important not only because they provide us with companionship, fun, support, etc but because they provide a space for us individually to expand and grow instead of moving through life hard and rigid. The work of looking inside ourselves, understanding our own experience, and then opening to another’s is a process that takes time and courage, because it can be very difficult to break the sense of self that feels threatened in conflict or is out of our comfort zone.

What are some examples of the work you do in your relationships?

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