Whether or not your marriage exploded as a result of infidelity, or gradually devolved into a crossroads of incompatibility, it is very likely that it took a lot of psychological and emotional "work." Maybe you were constantly working on the relationship with your partner to make things better. Maybe you stayed busy working on yourself—exercising incessantly or engaging in various forms of therapeutic self-improvement in order to stay in the relationship. Or, perhaps you were simply working for years on gathering the courage to leave. While being divorced also can feel like hard work, it’s of a different kind.
One blessing of divorce is the relief of not having to do all that work on a difficult relationship.
Divorce also means that at some point—if you're not there already—you'll probably be ready to meet someone new. Which can be exciting, but also brings up that critical relationship question I get asked so often in my practice as a relationship consultant to singles, couples and many divorced people: "Just how much work should a relationship be?"
My client “Angie,” a 44-year-old fashion buyer living in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, was at this juncture. One year after her divorce finalized, she literally bumped into a divorced high school teacher named Ben at the freezer in their local deli. Their banter over frozen peas led to a phenomenal first date. Then a second. Then a third. Angie sensed that Ben was nothing like her ex-husband, Dave, a high-strung, overworked account manager at an investment firm. Still, she called me in a panic. "I'm finally feeling good, light and free. Out of relationship,” she said. “Why would I want to get into one, and complicate my life with all that work?"
It's a popular belief: Relationships are a lot of work. Marriage is a lot of work. It’s true that two adults who want to create a working partnership have to put in effort, but how much?
Unless you're a personal-growth junkie who believes that the only way to evolve is through conflict and suffering, then a relationship should not take a lot of grueling, painful work.
When should a relationship take work? During a transition.
There are times that your relationship will be tested, and it will take work to figure out how to proceed and stay connected to each other. You’ll have to discuss how to handle future challenges. In a healthy relationship, these cycles of relationship work usually happen in transitions.
Examples of relationship transitions include:
- The testing period after the relationship becomes “real,” 3-6 months after falling in love
- Moving in together and/or getting engaged
- The first year of marriage
- The birth of a child
Examples of transitions sparked by one partner within a relationship are:
- Major loss: job, parent, sibling
- Major success
- Major failure
- Job relocation or other geographic changes
These kinds of transitions can challenge even the most emotionally mature couple. Most of us don't deal well with change because it’s destabilizing. We are not at our best in the midst of it. Old wounds surface. New concerns present themselves. And since all change involves some element of loss, which is also difficult, getting through these passages gracefully requires attention, focus and skill. How can you navigate these challenging cycles, including the positive transition of moving past the “test period” into a real relationship?
Here are three steps to navigating transitions:
1. Learn to anticipate them.
We all make the mistake of thinking our relationships should be in a perfect, cinematic state of connection all the time or there's something seriously wrong with it. But if you've fallen in love, and recognize that a "testing period" will be coming down the pike, that knowledge can make it easier to bear when it does. If your partner is going through a crisis of his or her own, knowing that the relationship will be impacted for a while can help you take care of yourself, and take things less personally.
2. Embrace the chance to learn more about each other.
Times of transition (such as divorce) stretch us. In a relationship, they provide us with opportunities to know each other better, learn about our own expectations and develop more effective communication skills. With the right partner, getting through tough transitions can help us love more deeply. In a relationship that’s not a lot of work, transition times serve to make the relationship deeper, clearer and ultimately, easier.
3. Bring in fun.
Remember to balance the difficult phases of your relationship with periods of deeper connection, fun and celebration. You can keep things in balance if, for each transition phase, you create time and events to enjoy each other—a vacation, an afternoon off, or a special meal. And if you plan something fun to balance out a tough phase, be sure to leave the conversations about your struggles at home.
Angie was relieved to learn that she didn’t have to do a lot of work. She just had to prepare for those transitional phases and evaluate how she and Ben got through them. Two years later, still very much in love, Angie's rent went up by an exorbitant amount. After much discussion and deliberation, they moved in together.
When I asked her how her new living situation was going, she laughed, shook her head, and told me about their latest squabbles: where the artwork would go, who would do the laundry for the kids, and how they were going to parent when they were all together.
"We're working out a lot of things out right now,” she said. “But somehow, it doesn't feel like work."
Blair Glaser, MA, LCAT is a New York based psychotherapist, leadership mentor and relationship consultant who delights in helping people stand in their personal and professional authority. www.blairglaser.com