It is often assumed that good relationships require hard work. It is amazing to me what a grim and joyless impression many people have of committed relationships. They make it sound like the goal of a relationship should be to try your patience, not increase your happiness. But the point of having a relationship is what it can add to your life, not what it takes away. There’s a difference between thoughtful, clear communication and hard work. When it feels like hard work to get along with your partner, maybe that’s not normal.
Committed relationships in our culture are often characterized as being high in responsibility and low in personal autonomy. The media often depicts the dreary cliché that loss of freedom and happiness is the inescapable price of being a grown-up in a long-term relationship. As a result, many people go into relationships willing to put up with way too much—and getting way too little in return. Given the misleading message that you should be adult enough to settle for less than you want, it is no wonder long-term relationships frequently collapse. It’s an unsustainable economy.
Sooner or later, when people are working hard in their relationships and still not getting what they want, they may opt to leave. And they will leave with bitterness because they will feel betrayed by the cultural promise that self-sacrifice and infinite patience should have brought them happiness. But relationships are just like any other exchange. What you put into them is not necessarily what you get out of them. No matter how hard you work or what you give up, it doesn’t control the other person’s willingness to reciprocate. Psychological maturity and generosity are what determines a person’s level of reciprocity, not how much you give.
In good relationships, it is true that not every trade is fair and not every compromise is equally satisfying. Over time, however, it should even out so that each person’s investment is yielding a return. In the bartering of an intimate relationship, if I give you a sheep and you offer me an apple, I’m going to notice the inequity. If I am okay with the apple this time, it probably means I know you’re good for a sheep down the road. There’s a sense of fairness being observed by both parties, without unrealistic attitudes of entitlement.
Increased energy should also be a benefit of a good relationship. To feel energized by a person’s company means that contact with them usually leaves you feeling lighter, brighter, and in better spirits. Your relationship partner should enrich you, not tire you. People who are energizing to others keep up their own energy by doing things they enjoy. They look for opportunities to have fun, and thereby strengthen their interest and vitality. When partners are taking care of themselves, they bring good energy to the relationship. The synergy builds, and interactions feel rewarding to both.
But if hard work and too many unfair trades characterize the relationship, your energy will sink. The trade balance is too uneven.
Another erroneous ideal is that you shouldn’t keep score in a committed relationship. Somehow true love is supposed to be above that. But can you imagine a real human being not keeping score at some level? Much better to keep track of relative effort, so things can be equaled out if partners feel they are giving more than they are receiving. If you point out real unfairness to a person who wants to be fair, no offense is taken. Instead that person will be interested and concerned. It is only a person with an overblown sense of entitlement who takes offense when unfair treatment is pointed out.
In addition to fairness and reciprocity, a good partner is easy to talk to and makes you feel understood. This isn’t about complicated conversing; it is a simple willingness to listen like you count, too. Does the person get it when you explain that the relationship trade agreement is feeling unequal on your end?
The feeling that you can talk frankly about problems is one of the best ways to predict how rewarding the relationship will be. Your partner’s attitude toward communication predicts how hard your relationship work will be. If the person reacts angrily or withdraws and avoids, then it certainly will be hard work—just to feel stable.
You will feel more optimistic and competent in any kind of committed relationship if you see its underlying structure as a trade economy. That’s not unromantic, just realistic. If you want to keep your relationship healthy in the long run, keep in mind the rules of all trade: give as much as you want to, but ask for enough in return that you feel good, too.
Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. For information, call 757-490-7811 or visit www.drlindsaygibson.com.