Here’s How “Work” Should Look in Love

#1 — It shouldn’t hurt.

“All relationships take work,” but not all work is good

One of the things that kept me in a bad relationship longer than I should have stayed — and what keeps a lot of us in bad relationships longer than we should stay — is the unfortunate phrase:

“All relationships take work.”

And it’s ugly cousin phrase:

“All couples fight.”

It’s not that I had never dated before or that every dude before him had been just as bad, because I had, and they weren’t.

It was more that many of my previous relationships — especially my high school sweetheart, whom I adored — were the makes of fantasy lands. We “never fought” and it was “easy” simply because we didn’t have a care in the world — our entire universe consisted of little more than deciding where to eat lunch, which movie to watch, and who would finally hang up on the other — after endless “I love you’s” — first.

I knew I didn’t want to live forever on puppy love alone. I knew I wanted a grown-up partner. Someone I could be serious with. Someone who shared my aspirations. Someone with whom I could share real struggles. Someone who wanted more than to settle down into a white picket fenced house made of gingerbread and tickle fights.

And I thought being in an adult relationship meant taking the bad with the good, and that part of the bad meant ugly fighting and contempt.

“All couples fight,” but not all fights are good

Contempt is a red flag. Resentment is a red flag. Name-calling and low blows and emotional warfare are all loud and proud red flags.

Maybe this sounds obvious. Or maybe it sounds like fantasy. I can understand either way.

Because I’ve certainly agreed with both at different points in my life. There have been times where I thought, “I would never be hateful towards my partner,” and other moments where I thought, “everyone hates their partner from time to time!” (Because, I mean come on — it’s in the sitcoms! And if it’s good enough to be a running joke across all our mass media, I figured it was good enough for me.)

It’s not. It’s not good, to fight this way. To see each other this way. To hate, even for a moment. There is a better version out there, and if you decide you want it hard enough, you can have it, too.

And after having it both ways, I can decidedly tell you: pervasive love and care and kindness — pervasive even in times of anger or frustration or disappointment, and probably especially so! — is totally and mind-blowingly worth it, and when you’re lucky enough to have it — both extend it and receive it back — you’ll wonder how you ever almost settled for any other way.

All couples get upset. All people have disagreements, frustrations, human emotions that don’t perfectly coincide. The difference between “good” work and “bad” is how you channel this, and whether you see each other as partners or opponents against whom you want to win, overpower, or be “right.”

#1: It shouldn’t hurt

Not overall, anyway. Not when you stack everything up. When you measure everything at the end of the day, the good should decidedly — immediately, irrevocably, undeniably — outweigh the bad.

When you look at your relationship overall, it should bring you way more happiness than pain. Like way way more. Not all the time and not every moment and not every day or even every week or sometimes even for a whole month straight, in real bad times. Because — especially if you’re in it for the long haul — y’all are going to hit some shit, and you have to be fair about that.

It’s not all cupcakes and rainbows, and it shouldn’t be. But when you look at the big picture, all at once, it should feel more good than bad.

#2: It should be proactive and “maintenance,” not reactive and “damage control”

The work should feel easy, composed, calm. It should be laying groundwork for the future and doing loving things in time of peace, not cleaning up after each other after blowing up in each other’s faces after bottling for two long and then having to apologize.

And just to be clear: if you are extending 110% of the effort — “more effort than them,” which is a red flag mindset all its own — but are also the one blowing up sometimes, then you are part of the problem.

Don’t codependent at this. Don’t “manipulate” at this. Don’t emotional warfare. Don’t be the one who thinks you’re a great partner because you actively and aggressively show up most of the time — if you’re also the one tearing it down some of the time.

Show up all the time. Show up even when you’re upset. Be proactive and put in the effort, especially when it matters most.

Future you will thank you.

#3: It should be a labor of LOVE

You should want to put in the work — in the same way you want to work on your car, or work out, or go through the painstaking task of making a butter pie crust from scratch, or whatever else it is that you enjoy.

My motorcycle is by far my favorite possession — when asked what I would save if my house was on fire, I always ask, “is the garage on fire, too?” That bike brings me insane amounts of joy.

And it’s literally not all sunshine and rainbows — I ride in the rain on that bike. I ride in triple digits. I ride in single digits, as long as there’s no ice. I’ll ride for 18 hours or 10 minutes. I’ll take most any ride over no ride at all. And I get the bike fixed when it’s broken, which of course happens.

And I do all of it happily, never resentfully. Sure, riding in the rain isn’t as fun as riding in perfect weather, and fixing the bike isn’t as fun as riding it, but I like the bike so much that setbacks like these barely matter. They’re just part of it.

That’s what love feels like. And how “work” in love should feel.

It should take effort, but the effort shouldn’t “feel” foremost like effort.

It should feel — foremost — like love.

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