“Why are relationships so hard?” “Should it really require so much work, or is something wrong here?” After the falling in love phase has faded and our lover seems to morph from a dreamboat to a couch potato, we often are tormented by doubts and questions as these.

Don’t put the cart before the horse

Many great thinkers have addressed these concerns before us. Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, in his 1956 book “The Art of Loving,” argues that in our modern culture, we have it backwards in that we think the problem with love is that we haven’t found the right person who will love us and be the object of our love, but the real problem is that we don’t make the effort to learn how to love.

More recently, in his provocative May 28, 2016 New York Times article “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person,” author Alaine de Botton asserts: “Compatibility is an achievement of a love; it must not be its precondition.”

Here again, we tend to have it backwards. We believe we need to find someone with whom we are compatible first, and then we’ll have a good match and not have to work so hard to fit together. Then we’re often surprised when our previously compatibility-certified partner reveals his or her true colors and we discover that we don’t have that perfect fit after all and must have made the wrong choice.

Ask not how to change your partner, but how to grow yourself

Often we then proceed to focus on our partner and try to get him or her to change to reestablish that fit that we thought we secured in the beginning. In an intimate relationship, the urge to focus on the flaws of the other is virtually irresistible. Our pain, frustrations, gripes and objections seem completely legitimate given what the other is doing to trigger them. “If you didn’t behave that way, I certainly wouldn’t react this way!” We are utterly convinced that the problem starts with the other.

This may be one of the few things both partners agree upon—that the other guy is mostly at fault. With each party pointing the finger at the other, waiting for the other to work on his or her problems, neither is doing the necessary work. “I’m fine, but I think you should see a therapist. You obviously have issues from your childhood that are affecting our relationship.”

Don’t be afraid of hard work

In his 1966 essay “Buddhist Economics,” E.F. Schumacher points out that in Western culture we tend to regard work as a necessary evil which we strive to minimize or eliminate so that getting a job done with less work is preferable. But from the Buddhist perspective, the work itself has intrinsic value, helps us to develop our faculties, join with other people, form character and is something to be desired, not avoided or minimized.

The same applies to marriage and intimate relationships. The work of fitting together—the pushing and pulling, bumping and grinding, slipping and falling—as difficult and painful as it might be, is necessary and valuable. It is truly a gift to have someone who can safely challenge us to grow in exactly the ways that we most need to grow.

A partner, just by being who he or she is, may inadvertently call us to get better at assertiveness, setting limits, finding our voice and learning how to say “No.” Another partner may challenge us to learn how to back down, yield, compromise, develop humility and compassion.

In our modern Western culture, we are too focused on acquiring the objects of our desires, reaching the mountain peak. Fromm, de Botton, Schumacher and so many others remind us
to cherish and be grateful for the work itself, the painful process, the grueling journey, as this is what refines our character and ability to love.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Image courtesy of scottliddell / morguefile.com

Articles

Psychological Fitness

“Psychological Fitness” is my monthly column featured in the Binghamton, NY Press & Sun Bulletin since 2004. This page highlights articles, or adaptations thereof, from that column.