The Hardest Work

(August 2012, originally printed in 280 Living, Birmingham, AL)

I get to sit weekly with a group of counselors to talk briefly about our work, particularly areas where we feel we need another perspective. One of our counselors found herself doing some unanticipated couples work, and was struck by the relational dynamic of three people being in the counseling room at one time (she was used to individual work and its one-on-one dynamic). Our senior counselor responded that he has noticed that couples work is some of the hardest, if not the hardest, work he does.

As a marriage therapist, I agree. It is hard. But not simply because dealing with the agendas of two people in my counseling office is particularly difficult (though it is, at times), but mainly because BEING A COUPLE is hard. It is extremely hard work to do the work of being, becoming, and becoming more of a couple (I throw that last qualifier in there because many couples with whom I have talked who have been coupled for more than 15 years say that the work of becoming a couple never ends; many feel, in fact, that after 15 years, they are just beginning to cut through the junk and actually and finally are becoming united). It is crazy; after all, we are designed to be united with another. Yet, to become united involves a lot of crazy-hard work. Many would say that getting married is a lot of work, but that it pales in comparison to staying married and becoming one. Becoming one often means becoming disentangled in order to join with one another. Let me try to explain in brief.

In the beginning of a relationship, we find ourselves attracted to someone, for reasons not fully understood, but felt very genuinely. And so we pursue the relationship based on the belief that this is the right thing to do, because this is the right person for us. What we don't realize is that part of what we are pursuing is that this other person feels normal to us--that the relational style with which we engage them is familiar, because it is close to the style in which we grew up (yes, even though we often want the opposite type of relationship from what we grew up with, we choose a form of what is familiar, because we know how do deal with the familiar--the "normal" is a very powerful force). Often, my work with couples involves discerning the relational style of their parents without blaming those parents for what is wrong with the marriage. A couple has to become disentangled from those familiar styles to create a new style. Ultimately, our current relational style is our choice; we just have to learn some other options beyond the "normal".

A second factor is often hard at work to make marriage hard, and it can be quite a heinous factor. It is the "you do it" factor. Part of our attraction to the other is the sense of "you complete me" (love the movie, Jerry McGuire). But that sense more often means "you take care of me well," which, hey, that's reasonable. But more often, it turns into "you do it for me." I hate to say this, but many couples come into a marriage with a very sly and subtle desire to be taken over by another person, all in the name of "being taken care of," and then get extremely upset when some actual work has to be done. You see it when you find yourself hearing yourself say, "That's not my role in this marriage." Or worse, "That's supposed to be your job." Other oft-repeated phrases are: "I handle the outside, you handle the inside; I don't do diapers; You handle the checkbook; I don't do the emotional"--to name just a few. The you-do-it factor gets in the way of partnering--where we are in this together and join forces and act as one to handle the task and life. Life and homes require partners rather than kings and queens. And thus, my work often becomes about disentangling the parts that have been taken/given over in order for partnering to happen.

And these are just a couple of things that make being a couple hard, and reduce us to tears. But, unlike baseball, there is crying in marriage, and it is allowed, because the tears indicate a deep care, and a deep belief that one is capable of more. To quote roughly another of my favorite movies, A League of their Own, "Baseball is hard, but that's what makes it great." Marriage is the hardest work, because it is the greatest thing. It is becoming one, a new one, a new identity. It is nothing short of love.           
Please consider LifePractical Counseling for your counseling or consultant needs. You may reach us at 205-807-6645. Paul Johnson is a professionally licensed marriage and family therapist and professionally licensed counselor in the state of Alabama.