The Difference Between Hard Work and Struggle in Relationship

I was once involved with someone who was quite lovely, and who wanted a much different sort of relationship than I did.  Our conflicting desires made the relationship unsustainable and rather painful. Unfortunately, we did not communicate to each other what we wanted our relationship to be until we were both too deeply hooked by the usual things that lure people into relationships, including doomed ones: attraction, sex, fireworks, and big feelings. If we’d spoken about our opposing relationship intentions from the beginning, it might have ended there. We were too attracted to each other to take the risk of losing a chance to be together, so we dove in without saying anything to each other about it.  The sex and fireworks acted as a sort of crazy glue, bonding us two unlikely beings quite firmly together. Once we both were hooked, some truths came out about our completely mismatched intentions in the relationship, but by then, neither of us wanted to let go. It felt like there was too much to lose at this point, so we forged on in this struggle to keep each other.

Eventually, I realized that the struggle was the only thing we had together. There was no real relationship, just that struggle. I remember having a picture in my mind of the two of us trying to carry a heavy treasure chest, each holding one handle and not getting anywhere because we were pulling it in different directions. I pictured one of us trying to carry it downhill toward a path to the ocean, and one of us trying to take it uphill toward the path to a mountain peak.  We couldn’t even get that chest onto either path and we were stuck in the crossroads pulling opposite sides of it, then getting hurt from the struggle; talking about how we felt hurt; discussing strategies that did not factor in the fact that we were going in opposite directions; trying again and getting stuck in that same cycle, over and over again.  I had to admit to myself that I could not move any treasure chest with this particular person, ever, and I had to leave the relationship behind in order to take the path I wanted to take.

That experience gave me a visceral understanding of the difference between struggle and hard work in relationships. A struggle is all-consuming and even feels like hard work, but it is work that takes you nowhere. You bust your ass, but you have no impact. In a struggle, you are controlled by that which you are struggling with. If you are struggling financially, your life is controlled by money, the lack thereof and the means you have to use to try make money. If you are struggling physically with someone who is much stronger than you, you are controlled by that person. If you are struggling with your unsatisfying job, your life feels controlled by that job. If you are struggling with a difficult relationship, you feel controlled by that relationship. When something is controlling you, you have little to no energy, space, bandwidth for anything else. That thing is the main focus of your reality, yet you have no real impact on it. That is what it is like to struggle.

In a good relationship, hard work feels different than struggle does.  A healthy relationship takes hard work, but it does not consume and control your life. A healthy relationship requires you and yours to understand that you can survive the loss of that relationship; that you do not need that relationship in order to survive. When you know this deeply, you are free to state your intention at the beginning of the relationship, knowing that you and who you are interested in are both free to walk away if your intentions are incompatible.  If you decide to build a relationship together, you know that you share common goals and that nobody is sacrificing their values or freedom to be in this relationship, and you start out carrying the relationship on an agreed path. You are choosing each other rather than falling into each other. This feels dignified rather than desperate. Your hard work has an impact. Your hard work gets you somewhere, because you are working together on something that you agreed to work on.  You are on the same page; you are not at odds with each other.  When you disagree about things, you aren’t disagreeing about the entire focus and direction of the relationship.

If you would like to leave the struggle and get to the hard work in a relationship, you are going to have to make changes that might feel scary.  First, you need to find out if this is a relationship that can be fixed: do you have common goals but are just having a hard time figuring out how to work together?  If this is the case, then a good relationship counselor might be able to help you find out how to let go of the struggle and focus on the work.  The work will have you looking at what draws you to the struggle in the relationship and how can you change your focus from the struggle to the hard work.  If on the other hand, you discover that you are in a relationship that can’t be salvaged, you will be focused on ending the relationship.  Your work will have you examining what draws you to a relationship that consumes you but that you can’t have an impact on.  Your work will have you exploring what impact you do want to have.  Once you untangle yourself from the struggle, you will be free to use your energy and hard work to build a satisfying life, with or without a partner.  The hard work is always worth it.

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