Relationships Take Work (But Not In the Way You Think)

Have you heard of the seven-year itch?  The classic term describes how a marriage declines around the seventh year, largely because the two partners aren’t as satisfied with each other as they once were.

My first serious relationship crashed and burned in a spectacular way around the seven year, so I’ve carried this idea around for quite some time.  Now my second marriage is closing in on the seven years, and for a while, I’ve waited for the other shoe to drop.  When will he become dissatisfied with me?  When will I start daydreaming about getting out of the relationship?  How can we stay on track?

What’s going to go wrong?

Anxiety aside, I’m extremely satisfied with the relationship I have with my husband.  We still hold hands.  We never fail to find topics of conversation, sometimes talking for hours even though we see each other every night.  We have similar interests and pursue them together.  I find that it’s becoming quite silly to wait for an arbitrary year to change our relationship when what we have works so well.

Some of my worry stems from a common theme that crops up when people talk about relationships.  “Relationships take work,” they say, and it’s said in a tone that implies it will not be fun work.  In my mind I conjure up this drudging image.  The kind of work that you hate, but you know you have to do.  The kind of work you try to avoid, but you have to get around to it anyway.  It feels like filing taxes while getting a medical exam and organizing your closet all at once.  So when you apply that image to a relationship, it doesn’t conjure up happy feelings.

But so many people say “relationships take work,” so shouldn’t it be true?

What I’ve come to realize is that “work” isn’t quite the right term for what it takes to maintain a lasting, long-term relationship.  At least, not this negative image of work I’ve envisioned in my head.  Instead I would argue that relationships need:

Time: You need to put in the minutes, hours, and days that make a long-lasting relationship work. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it can get lost with careers, family, and other obligations eating away at your time.

Respect: You’ve got to respect the person on the other side. That doesn’t mean you have to agree on every subject, just that you acknowledge that what your partner values is important, if only because it’s important to them.

Understanding: Whatever benefit of the doubt you give yourself, you should extend to your spouse.  Even if you’re a Type A personality bent on continual improvement, try to cut your partner some slack.  Improvement has its place, but you’re also there to support your partner.

All of these things combined are a kind of “work,” but I’ve found it’s not nearly as overwhelming as I thought it might be.  It does mean finding compromises, letting bad feelings go, and lots of self-introspection.  It doesn’t mean that relationships are meant to be perfect.  In seven years of marriage, I have felt the full brunt of frustration, miscommunication, long-night arguments, and even storming out of the house on occasion to clear my head.  But my husband and I have never wanted to quit during these low moments.  Instead, we’ve come back to time, respect, and understanding as a way to move forward.

In fact, I “worked” much harder at my first serious relationship, the one that failed in the seventh year.  I was always trying to plead, bargain, justify, and modify both of us to make it work.  In the end, after several years of counseling, trying different living situations, and changing our lifestyles, it wasn’t the amount of “work” we put into the marriage that failed.  It was the fact that we could never hit on how to respect and understand each other.

So I take heart that my current marriage is a happy one.  Will it last forever?  I want it to.  He is my better half, the one I miss when we are apart, the one who understands me, the one I want to see happy.  I’m betting those feelings, and the actions they produce, will keep us together.

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