I’ve heard my whole life that relationships are work. First, I rebelled against this and believed that storybook romances exist whereby all you need for things to go well is enough love (or at the very least lust). When that bit me in the ass, I reversed course and subscribed to this belief. In my first marriage, it was often something we said to each other, especially when things were rocky, that all relationships take work.
Thing is? While it seems that way, it’s really not the relationship that is worked on. It’s the people in it. I’ve realized that whenever I’m “working on the relationship,” what I’m really doing is confronting things within myself and doing things to be a better partner for the person I care about. It’s brutal, gut-wrenching work sometimes. It means admitting when I’m weak, scared, and wrong. It’s often uncomfortable and terrifying — but it needs doing, and frankly, the only part of our relationship that I can truly affect is MYSELF. And if my partner is doing things right, they’re also doing that work.
This is not a semantic difference. Oh no. Treating the “relationship” as a nebulous entity with its own undefined requirements, a project to be worked on with no real direction or plan (i.e., not informed by the wants and needs of all members) — well, it’s a recipe for disaster. Maybe the relationship is the overarching priority and relationship harmony and fulfillment within it, goals. However, it’s not really the target operationally. Change comes from within and then fans out to affect the relationship.
This really came to bear in my first marriage — while we acknowledged that work needed to be done, whenever I’d state that I needed X or Y to feel more supported, more fulfilled, more loved and appreciated, my partner’s first instinct was to say, “You’re trying to change me, why can’t you accept me the way I am?” This is not his fault as it’s a message culturally that’s repeated over and over again.
For my part, I strove to be patient, to live without the things I wanted and needed, because without his cooperation, it was quite literally the only thing I could do (short of leaving the relationship, which came many years later). However, without reciprocation, this turned me into a passive-aggressive, dependent, seething nut-bag.
The question is — how do things in a relationship change without the cooperation of all members? How are you supposed to work on the relationships, really work on yourself, without changing a little bit for someone else?
I don’t think you do. I think it’s all a matter of degree, really.
You can’t force someone to change of course. That’s silly. But you can ask for what you need, and they can decide to do what they can to work towards it. They can say no of course, and then you have to reevaluate, but they can also say yes and do some work. Doesn’t make either of you an asshole.
TL;DR — Relationships are not work. Personal development is work. Relationships take personal development. A few important steps of the proof are missing.