How Much Is Too Much Work in a Relationship?

Working hard on a relationship need not be fatal.

Posted Sep 04, 2019

nastya_gepp / Pixabay License / Free for commercial use / No attribution required
Source: nastya_gepp / Pixabay License / Free for commercial use / No attribution required

We always hear that relationships require work. But how do we know when a relationship is just too much work? When is it time to call it quits? Of course, there is no easy answer. But an important question to consider might be: Is the work we are doing on the relationship—by ourselves and with our partner—paying off? Working hard on a relationship need not be fatal as long as it leads to personal growth.

As long as we don’t expect our partner will be a magical soul mate with whom we see eye to eye on everything, we might anticipate that sharing our lives with a significant other will entail making significant changes. We enter into relationships because we want a change, but we never know just how much or what type of change a relationship will require of us.

Relationships are a journey of self-discovery.

When we feel challenged in a relationship, we might suspect that the relationship is not right for us. We might feel compelled to give up. But it is important to keep in mind that much of the pain of a challenging relationship is the discomfort we all feel when confronted with uncertainty. Starting a new relationship means embarking on a journey of self-discovery. It entails coming face to face with the unknown within us.

Dolly and Mark

Dolly tends to withdraw when she is faced with a conflict. Growing up with a mother who had an untreated mental illness, she observed how her father tended to avoid conflict by withdrawing from the relationship. She experienced their frequent conflicts as disruptive and unproductive.

When she started dating Mark, she tended to withdraw, perceiving his complaints as capricious and unreasonable. As a consequence, Mark often felt unheard and abandoned. Eventually, the conflicts escalated to the point of rupture. 

After a yearlong breakup, they decided to make another go of it, but this time Mark insisted that Dolly go into therapy. Through her work in individual and couple’s therapy, Dolly is beginning to appreciate the effects of her conflict avoidance. She has become aware of how she secretly ridicules Mark while overtly pacifying him. She realizes that her approach leaves him feeling foolish, patronized, and dismissed. 

As Dolly learns that her approach to conflict is unproductive, she begins to re-evaluate her parents’ relationship. Was her mother always the unreasonable one, or did her distress at being dismissed help fuel her emotional volatility? Whether her relationship with Mark continues, Dolly is clearly learning a lot about herself and how her withdrawal negatively impacts her relationship.

All Pain, No Gain

Feeling like you are working too hard on a relationship is rarely the result of too much self-discovery or change. Relationship exhaustion is often the result of a lack of change: pain without gain. Repetitive fights with no resolution lead to feelings of hopelessness, the real relationship killer.

Matt and Nancy 

Matt resents Nancy for his having moved to New York City to be with her. His quality of life was better in Boston, and he thinks she should have offered to move there to be with him, but, at the time, he felt too insecure about the relationship to ask her.

Since they got married, Nancy has agreed to move out of the city. While packing to move to their new home, Matt has yet another meltdown about how stressed he gets living in the city and how much he resents having moved there in the first place. Nancy feels guilty and hopeless.

In therapy, Nancy has learned that Matt avoids expressing his needs. Now she makes special efforts to get him to speak up. Nevertheless, his anger about the past remains ever-present and seemingly irresolvable.

Don’t put off getting professional help

When it seems like we are having repetitive fights and not reaching resolution, we should consider going to therapy to learn new ways to approach our conflicts. Most couples put off going to couples therapy, only reaching out for help as a last resort after having amassed considerable resentments. This storehouse of negativity makes it difficult to find the good will needed to forge an atmosphere of compassion and understanding needed to reach new agreements.

That said, new issues always arise over the course of getting to know one another romantically. If we seem to be having difficulties but are actively addressing them and learning from them, we’re probably on a solid path.