Couple’s therapy was not going well for my friend. After two sessions with the counsellor, nothing had changed between them. They still fought often, despite her feeling like she was trying to change for the sake of their relationship, and they rarely enjoyed one another’s presence. She felt hopeless, but said she was still madly in love with him. Or, at least, the best version of him.
Relationships are hard, but when is a relationship too much work? How do you know when it’s over?
I’ve asked myself and many friends this very question. In addition to arguments about money and infidelity, high divorce rates in the US are blamed on excessive conflict and different communication styles. “Relationships aren’t supposed to be easy,” I hear critics say when couples throw in the towel. But since bad relationships also aren’t easy, it’s hard to know when where to draw the line.
I’ve struggled a lot to answer this question for myself in the past. I believed (and to a certain extent, still do) that most couples could have a successful relationship, if both parties were willing and were prepared to put in work, make compromises and change. Many arranged marriages work out just fine. Some sources say the divorce rate amongst arranged marriages is as little as 4 per cent. Keep in mind that this figure is hotly debated because many point out that cultures partaking in these types of relationships do not support divorce.
With a belief in perseverance, I’ve hung onto partners who I see now were emotionally abusive or ridiculously incompatible. After months of explosive fights and complete misery, I’ve defended my decision to keep things going. There was still love and that’s always worth fighting for, right? I knew relationships weren’t supposed to be easy, but had no idea when they were too hard.
And then I met the person I’m about to marry.
Our fights don’t involve either of us walking away in frustration. Instead, we have discussions about disagreements where we’re rarely actually angry at one another. He makes me feel comfortable enough to tell him when something he’s doing bothers me and he’s open to changing his behaviour. I return the favour. Before anything even comes up, we’ll ask one another if we’re happy with the relationship and the sex, or if there’s something missing.
It’s been a lot of work, but it’s work we’re doing as a team and it’s fulfilling. When we argue, I walk away glad we had a fight because it was productive. Instead of wasting energy on yelling matches that leave me exhausted, I’m energized by feeling like my voice has been heard. I’m not even sure it’s fair to call these fights, but it’s the closest we get.
Most of the relationship has been long distance. Due to a car accident that left me with a concussion, communication was difficult for a couple of months. I couldn’t text or email, and talking on the phone gave me headaches. He patiently supported me through my bouts of depression and concussion-induced irrational anger. “I know what you’re like when your brain is healthy,” he said. Dealing with the hard times was worth the good times, for him, and for me as well.
It also helps that we require a similar amount of personal space, agree on how much time we want together as a couple and how quickly we want the relationship to move. That eliminates a lot of the arguments I see many other couples having(including some I’ve been apart of in the past).
So, how much work is too much in a relationship?
Now that I’m in a relationship that feels healthy, I think I can answer that question. It’s too much work when it’s draining, unproductive and unfulfilling; if you’re putting in more than you’re getting, it’s too much. While that alone might not indicate that it’s time to call it quits, it’s definitely time to try something different, and couple’s counselling is a great place to start.
My friend and her partner stuck it out for a few more sessions with their counselor and both dedicated more effort to change. They’re still working on the relationship, but there’s a lot more fun involved in it now too. The happiness they bring one another at their best outweighs the bad times, at that makes the work well worth it.