Me, WORK at a Relationship? Pfffft.

I got an email in this morning from a woman feeling guilty about having divorced her husband. She wanted to know if I thought she should feel guilty for having divorced her husband.

I hesitate to write this, because I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from people telling me how marriage is a sacred bond that one should never break except if one of the partners has taken to beating the other, or something truly awful like that. I pretty much agree with that; I’ve been married since fashion was taking its cues from “Miami Vice”—and my parents got divorced–and then my mom remarried and got divorced again. So I’m not exactly what you’d call keen on divorce.

But here’s the way I feel, generally speaking, about relationships: I don’t work at them. To me, a relationship that needs work is like a car that needs wheels: pretty useless for really going anywhere. If I’m in a relationship with someone, or a group, or whatever, and I lose what amounts to my excitement about being in that relationship, I stop being in that relationship. Life’s too short to have to work at relationships. Life is work. If I want work, I’ll go into my kitchen.

You have to behave honorably, of course. You can’t just ditch people. But if in my relationship with another I feel like I’ve made my needs known, and been clear about what I want or expect out of the relationship, and have been respectful of the other person’s needs and desires, and still whatever we once seemed to have going on has basically dissipated, I’m outta there like a rat at a cat show.

I blame them, is the thing. Or just … life generally.  I know that sounds obnoxious, but … there it is. I figure I tried. I showed up. I went in assuming our relationship was going to work. If it didn’t, and I’ve been honest the whole time, then … from whence my guilt?

Plus, you know how relationships are. If I’m not feeling it anymore, they’re probably not either. No use two people sitting around staring at the remains of a meal neither of them want to eat anymore. Might as well clear the table.

I guess I just want to say: If you’re in a relationship that you can just feel isn’t going to work out for you, get out. Move on. Explain yourself, say your good-byes (or don’t: the conditions of exiting a relationship are too varied for a One Size Fits All good-bye: sometimes the silent slow fade is best), and look to the horizon. But don’t feel guilty about moving on. Life is very short, and there are a whole bunch of relationships out there waiting for you that are exciting, that do matter, that won’t grow stale or weird or difficult.

Good relationships don’t take work. Good relationships are fun. They feed on, and are sustained by, their own beautifully organic energy. Life gives us enough relationships that we do have to work at because we’re simply stuck in them (with co-workers, family members, next door neighbors, etc), for us to spend more than we need to in unfulfilling relationships we can end whenever, and however, we want to.

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  • Sean Patrick Brennan

    John, your article has come at a crucial time for me in my 10-year relationship with my partner. We love each other and are best friends, but the intimacy and attraction just aren’t there for him any more. I asked him if he wasn’t with me, could he be intimate and emotional with someone else, and he couldn’t answer, mostly because he knew he could not be emotionally supportive and loving to a healthy degree with anyone. So I know it’s not JUST me. I don’t know what to do. He’s my life, my everything. He’s just not caring much about me any more. And it sucks.

    Your lines struck a chord with me, especially: “No use two people sitting around staring at the remains of a meal neither of them want to eat anymore. Might as well clear the table.” What if it’s always the other person who’s not eating anything and you still want more? I know, I know–to add another metaphor–it takes two to tango, and when one just watches the other try to dance with them, it’s just sad. That’s me, the lone dancer trying to get my partner to dance when he clearly doesn’t want to any more. Blah.

  • Christine McQueen via Facebook

    For the most part, I agree with the premise of the article, but I have disagree that there is no amount of work required to keep a relationship working correctly. For one thing, it depends on what one considers ‘work’. I never considered it ‘work’ to remind my late husband daily that I loved him. But, because of the way he was raised and some of the things that happened to him before we met, it was very hard for him to understand that I also needed to hear that every day. For me, our marriage was a ‘natural thing’; for him it was hard work. But it was work that he found worth doing because of my love for him.

  • Sean Patrick Brennan

    “I never considered it ‘work’ to remind my late husband daily that I loved him. But, because of the way he was raised and some of the things that happened to him before we met, it was very hard for him to understand that I also needed to hear that every day.”

    Christine, this sounds too familiar. And I’m glad that you guys figured things out. I just don’t like that loving and being supportive should be work for anyone. But if it is, if there is an emotional deficit that has nothing to do with the other person, surely there’s still a level that a partner, wife or husband should be expected to meet in order to sustain and support the relationship.

  • Lymis

    I’d see that distinction as the difference between “work” and “effort.” Depending on how we use the terms, I’d agree that a good relationship requires attention, focus, and sometimes, effort, adaptation, and doing things we don’t necessarily enjoy in and of themselves because we love the results (not to be flippant, but I feel that way about brushing my teeth. I do it because I want clean teeth, not because I enjoy the process.)

    But when it becomes “work” – a chore, drudgery, something to be done so that it gets done rather than because we love it, that’s a different issue.

  • Lymis

    I read once, in a discussion of a similar nature, the point that the writer considered divorce to be a “good” in much the same way that heart surgery is a “good.”

    That ideally, neither would be necessary, and that people shouldn’t take the existence of the remedy as an excuse to behave in unhealthy or stupid ways – just as “Oh, I can always have bypass surgery” would be a really inappropriate excuse for eating wrong, being sedentary, and living a deeply unhealthy lifestyle, “Oh, we can always get a divorce” isn’t an appropriate reason to choose to marry knowing that the relationship isn’t serious, is unhealthy, or is otherwise unwise or lacks integrity.

    But rather, having the safety net at the other end allows us to be open, to be vulnerable, and to take the risks that allow us to freely enter into healthy and sacred relationships with far less fear that we are trapping ourselves into something we can never get out of if things change.

    That divorce isn’t “a good thing” in the sense that it isn’t serious, isn’t wrenching, and is something that is a good, fun thing for all and is something to be actively sought for it’s own sake, but rather that it’s a “good thing” in the sense that when it is needed, it can be a far healthier, far more life-affirming, and far more charitable thing to do than the alternative of staying in a mutually toxic situation for life.

    I’d say that, especially for Christians, it’s certainly important to be very serious about marriage, and very serious about the need for divorce, but that there’s a very real danger in unilaterally declaring divorce to be bad or Unchristian .

    When you declare something entirely anathema, you essentially lump it all into the “bad” category. And it it’s all equally bad, then there’s no need to look any closer at it, and no reason to discuss how to go about it.

    But some of the most vile, most hateful, most hurtful, and most unchristian things people get up to happen during divorces – jockeying for financial supremacy, manipulating and harming children to play them off each other, trashing people’s reputation and forcing all your friends to “choose sides” , and tirelessly working to hurt the other person and destroy their self-esteem.

    If, on the other hand, Christians would collectively acknowledge that, at least sometimes, divorce is the best answer, then people undergoing the process would have the support of their community to do it in the most loving, most Christian, most compassionate ways possible, as well as the force of social disapproval for having an unnecessarily bitter and nasty divorce.

  • Christine McQueen via Facebook

    It is true one must never compromise on things that are considered “core values”. But first one must make an honest assessment as to whether what you are disagreeing about is truly a core value or is it simply something you (or your spouse) are merely being selfish about.

  • ellen

    Yay!!! Thank you, John!!! Finally I feel like I must not be crazy anymore for saying this exact same thing! My husband and I met when we were 14. Started dating at 16, got married at 19 and had our first son at 22. On New Year’s Eve this year, we’ll be celebrating our 34th anniversary. I’ll save you from doing the math…we’re 53 years old now, married in 1977. Anyway, whenever people would be around us and see that we actually get along great and love being together they’d say “Wow, it must take a lot of work to be married” and I’d always say “No, it really doesn’t, it’s easy being married…life is hard sometimes but we’ve never had to work at being married.” And then it would happen, I’d get that look like I had two heads or I’d just said the most repulsive thing they’d ever heard! Those kinds of comments I’ve gotten have always made me feel like the weird one, like I must be living in a delusional world or something because I think being married is the easy part of life! I believe if someone feels it takes effort/work, or whatever you want to call it, then whatever it is you’re doing for your spouse and your marriage probably isn’t about what you’re doing….it must be about who you’re doing it for. Your article today just have me a big old Jethro Bodine bowl of happiness and I just had to let you know and tell you thank you!!!

  • Erin D.

    John, (as usual) you hit the nail on the head. I met my husband fairly young (19) and from the get-go everything just went plop, plop, plop—right into place. Never a question that he wanted me, never a question about his beliefs or opinions or how he would act in a certain situation. We aren’t identical by a long shot, but I felt like I knew him forever. I’d try to explain that feeling to my friends (“when it happens, it’s EASY and you just KNOW”) and it sounded like a bunch of crap, but it was the only way I knew how to explain it. Then, one by one, each friend met The One and was like, “I totally get it now!!!” Ha ha. 10 years later, hubby and I have had our ups and downs but there is so much trust in our relationship that we are good at addressing frustrations and concerns and working through things. To outsiders, we don’t have a whizz-pop-bang passionate relationship (though there *is* passion there, we just don’t display it in public!) but we’re still happy to be married and lots of other people either aren’t married or aren’t happy to be married to those whizz-pop-bang people.

  • Sean Patrick Brennan

    very true…open dialogue is very important to me and always has been…if the other person holds back or you realize very late they’ve been holding back, then you get into the “ugh” experiences I’m in right now

  • Profound words yet again John. I tried the “working at a relationship” for far longer then I should have. I finally opted to clear my marriage table and I haven’t looked back.

    Of course this topic can cover more then marriage or romantic partnerships. Friendships and business or social partnerships can and should be included. Although the intimacy of a couple is rather different, the concept holds true in other connections we have with people.

    Yeah there will be times where its a little tougher then others, but for the most part a couple should be largely in sync. When one sees such couples or are fortunate to be one of those couples, others certainly notice, as it is something all of us want, and certainly so many of us would love to have.

    For those that are in those relationships, Keep it up, we need the examples!

  • Dwayne G. Mason

    Wow. Kinda suprised at this one, John, and I’m usually on your side. Here you seem to speak of marriage as if it were a casual relationship. When you’re just dating, or even living with someone, you can just leave, “like a rat at a cat show.” Marriage is the difference. Marriage is a covenant before God, spouse, and family, a commitment not to be taken lightly. A commitment, in my opinion, that says, “We have already decided that this relationship is good, and loving, and permanent, and we promise to support, and love, and take care of each other, even when it isn’t EASY.”

    I’m not saying divorce is a sin. I’m not saying people shouldn’t divorce when they have tried, and worked, and finally realize that the marriage was a mistake. I just don’t think it should be quite so casual, quick, and easy.

    That’s how I like to think I would treat marriage, but I am denied the right to marry in most states. I’m sorry John, but your version sounds like just having a girlfriend.

  • Well said.

  • I’ve been reading a book by David Richo called The Five Things We Cannot Change, and in terms of what he has to say about relationships, what John writes of how and when he moves on is pretty much the most normal and healthy way to handle it imaginable. Considering that your childhood was not a place where you received any or most of the necessary emotional care from your parents, I’m frankly sort of amazed at how emotionally healthy you are.

    I have been codependent and clingy for years. I got a lot of affection, attention and appreciation from my parents, but not much acceptance or allowing. In retrospect, I kept trying to fulfill those needs in my relationships by partnering with people who shared the same quality of emotional care – there was little acceptance or allowing, or I didn’t know how to give those things and controlled my way straight down the spiral path to relationship hell. In my recovery, I’m learning that the fear of loss I have when it comes to being with someone is not something that is the other’s responsibility – it is my own. Beyond physical chemistry, which is something my partner and I have in abundance, we also have a very easy relationship in which we truly enjoy each other, are able to talk with each other about the most mundane and the most sacred things, and we have both healed from our pasts to the point where we have healthy boundaries. I still struggle with my fear and ego, and I realize that it is not his responsibility to fix that in me so I don’t ask him to. When I find myself driven by my fear or ego, I try to recognize it and make sure I do what I need to – meditate, pray, do some more reading of a well-worn library – to adjust my unhealthy thinking.

    Even though I have no expectation of the spark between us disappearing, I realize that it could happen. If he needed to leave the relationship in order to be true to his own deepest needs, that would be something I would have to accept. It would not mean I wasn’t worthy of love and affection, it would mean that what we had between us was not working for one of us. And if one partner is truly that unhappy, then really, its not working for both partners.

    I would rather my partner truthfully end the relationship than try to pretend or force feelings that aren’t really there. That’s no kind of relationship, and its not really love. If you believe you are doing someone a kindness to pretend to have a full commitment to them when you really don’t, you are not helping them. Its not compassionate. True compassion is acknowledging and moving on, allowing them to move on as well.

    My ex and I stayed together long after our relationship was beyond repair, and if I am to be truly honest, we didn’t have an easy relationship from the very beginning. We made it happen because we were so engaged in our own codependency that we simply willed it to be real and tried for the next ten years to MAKE it work. It was so miserable, so unhappy. There were other factors – his terrible anger issues, screaming & yelling, punching holes in the wall. I have no doubt that if we had stayed together much longer there would have been physical abuse on top of the emotional abuse.

    I belive God’s will for all of us is to have loving, fulfilling personal relationships. I don’t believe for a moment he wishes us to stay in relationship where one or both partner is deeply unhappy, because when that happens it doesn’t strengthen our relationship with Him.

    Okay, turning my “babble” switch off.

  • I don’t think that John is making light of marriage at all. I think the point is that relationships shouldn’t be so damned hard to keep healthy, and that sometimes the best thing to do, for both parties is to walk away.

    If the couple are compatible, if respect, honor, understanding, patience, laughter, concern for the individual are part of the package, and if that is understood and made a priority, then the “work” isn’t that at all, because it is agreed what the rules are. When it doesn’t it is because either some of those key elements weren’t there to begin with, or one or both parties decided to remove them. The reasons for that are quite varied.

    Deciding to fix things DOES take work, and it can be quite worth the effort. However it shouldn’t be a continual, endless process. Trust me on that one.

  • LSS

    i imagine you *aren’t* implying that people shouldn’t work on ourselves, which, for my husband and me anyway, is what “working on our marriage” implies. i hadn’t thought of them as two separate things but this made me think. cos i know you are big on people getting their metaphorical $#!& together as a person… and even maybe working on that together.

    i can’t (yet?) depend on myself to have actually properly “tried, showed up, and been honest”, so that’s what i’m working on… my husband is working on other stuff as well as helping me with mine, as he’s a lot further ahead in the whole figuring-yourself-out thing.

    maybe we should have waited until we were less screwed up to even have a relationship at all (especially me) … but if we had, we might have missed the good and pleasant parts.

  • Joanne

    My husband and I have been married nearly 30 years. And its mostly easy. I’m with John here – I’ve never understood these people that said you have to work at marriage. Oh sure, there’s ups and downs and times that are easier than others, but really, its mostly not difficult. If you’ve got to work that hard at it, you probably never had anything going on at all. We still have a great companionship and passion and just like each other a lot too.

  • Kim cohn

    Hi John,

    Sitting in a cafe high over the bay of Sorrento, sipping on a glass of wine. Trying to type with my thumbs.

    Life is hard..


  • Lymis

    I’m not sure easy is the right issue. My marriage isn’t always easy, but it has never felt like it wasn’t a given. Whenever the bumpy parts come along, the question is always “Gosh, what do I do about this” but never “Do I really want to stay with this man?”

    I didn’t get married until my mid-40’s. But I know I am not the same man at 50 that I was at 20, or at 30. It would be lovely to think I might have found someone who I had fallen for at 20 and with whom I’d grown in parallel with over the years.

    But if marriage is anything beyond a burden, it has to be that special place where you get to be most human, most open, most vulnerable, and most free to be yourself. If that means that over decades, being most true to yourselves takes you in directions that no longer support living as spouses, that doesn’t automatically mean a lack of seriousness about the relationship, just a recognition that the most loving and supportive thing you can sometimes do is free someone to take a new path.

  • I actually like what Phil McGraw says: you earn your way out of a relationship – meaning you do your best to work it out before you walk away. Kind of a no brainer, really.

  • Remy Schrader

    Marriage is a relationship, but it’s also more.

    It’s an identity.

    Exchanging rings, re-naming, creating a home where you can raise children together.

    “The two shall become one,” you know?

    It’s not ALL of your identity, but it’s definitely a defining chunk.

    Does an identity require work? Maybe. We’re all born with one. But fully realizing your identity definitely requires discipline. Otherwise we’re just left with wistful potential.

    The way you write about “work” in this post John, makes me think of the old saw about “Doing what you love” (Har har!)

    Seriously though, even if a car’s got wheels, you still need to check the fluids and fill the tank. And when my Dad telling me ignoring the Check Engine light was foolish, the day the engine exploded suddenly brought his wisdom home.

    Not me though. That took a tow truck.

  • Achilz

    You’re right but life isn’t always easy and neither are marriages. I see all the people on the blog who say that their marriages are so easy. I wish I could say the same. But part of the reason my marriage has required a lot of work is that my wife and I needed a lot of work, on ourselves. After 20 years of therapy I’m still not the best I could be. And I’m not going to stop trying either. I have improved who I am immeasurably over the years, as I’m sure you have too. And my wife has seen that and, although initially resistant, she saw how personal improvement made our marriage better and so she’s been working hard too.

    Now, would it be easier to ditch this marriage? You bet. Would that make me happy? No way. I’d be miserable. I’d lose my family, which is really all I care about in life. So, I will do the hard work on myself, to be a better husband, to be a better parent, and to be a better human.

    I appreciate what you’re saying, and I’ve been said it myself, but sometimes hard work is necessary and it pays off. I don’t think one can simply write off every marriage that isn’t “easy.”

  • Val P.

    My husband and are dedicated church going people…and both of us entered into this marriage ten years ago as divorced people. His wife left him for another man, my husband was verbally abusive to me and our children. Regardless of how much trauma has happened in a marriage, it’s not easy to get divorced. Especially when you have children. It changes everything in your life. It changes who you are. And it changes who your children are. At my daughter’s wedding there were four sets of parents. When the pastor asked my ex-husband who gives the bride in marriage, he just said “we do”.

    And yet – being in a bad or abusive marriage with no chance of escape is a life sentence in a maximum security prison with no chance of parole. I cannot imagine going to a church that says marriage is forever – period. The choice that I made at 20 years old was a big mistake? Too bad. My church friends are the ones who came while my ex was at work and quickly packed my things and moved me and my kids to our new safe place. I met my new husband-to-be at that church. I will always believe it was God’s will for us both.

    Is divorce a bad thing? Of course it is. But life in a bad marriage is much, much worse.

  • Val P.

    Yes, I have that Dr. Phil book. Good book.

  • Don Whitt

    Totally agree, John. I find those relationships that “require work” are too depressing to sustain. I have an awesome marriage (we’ve had priors) that simply works. We really LIKE each other. And we’re alot alike, too. It’s easy.

    At the end of my previous marriage, after 16 years of counseling, tears, alienation, depression and pretty much the most frustrating, unfulfilling relationship ever, my soon-to-be-ex-spouse, in a pathetic last gasp attempt to restart the marriage said, “I’m ready for an intimate relationship, now.”

    Oh. You’re ready now. I’ve been ready for 16 years. Sorry – you don’t get to play Lucy to my Charlie Brown anymore – no more football yanking. It’s over.

    The concept that you can build something artificial or repair the irreparable has kept psychologists in business for decades. But it’s a fraud. The spark and mutual respect are there or they are not. And life is far to short and precious to make-believe. We all deserve more than that. We deserve real love.

  • Don Whitt

    Too short. Not to short.

  • Janey

    I agree with what you’re saying. “Don’t work too hard” is how I live my life these days, but I do think that relationships go up and down. My closest woman friend and I occasionally get fed up with each other. We back off for a month or two, and I always think that’s the beginning of the end. But it’s not and eventually we reconnect and support each other more than before.

  • Janey

    Agreed. There are few things in life better than a divorce that had to happen.