As many of you are no doubt aware, Ben Affleck got a lot of flack after his infamous 2013 Oscar acceptance speech, in which he thanked his (then) wife Jennifer Garner for the “work” that they put into their relationship. This comment prompted an intense backlash, which has been revisited in light of Ben and Jennifer’s divorce earlier this year. Many thought the writing was on the wall, and some questioned the very idea that marriage and work are synonymous, including this pointed article specifically questioning experts’ wisdom that successful relationships do in fact require work. Here’s a key quote from this opinion piece:
…maybe if marriage seems like really hard work, there is something that needs a little fixing…. is our marriage work? It can’t be. Because I never feel like I need a vacation.”
Well, perhaps it’s time for the Science of Relationships experts to weigh in. I’ll cut right to the chase: Ben was right. Relationships are hard work. And that’s OK.
Relationship Skills are Learned
First off, no one is simply born with relationship skills— we learn social skills through direct observation, personal experiences, instruction, etc. For example, people learn which words to say (or not say) when their partners need comforting. People learn what types of contact feel good when they’re having sex. People learn (perhaps through reading articles on this site) how to get over a rejection/breakup, or how to cope with a partner’s infidelity. All of these learning experiences require effort, attention, engagement, and patience. Learning about relationships requires work, just as learning about mathematics or chemistry requires work.
Perhaps this learning process comes more naturally to some than others, making it true that some people don’t need to put as much effort into learning about relationships. But that’s just a matter of degree. Everyone works.
Relationships Can Be Like Careers
Working on long-term relationships can also be very fun and enjoyable. In this regard, a long-term relationship is like an ideal career. It takes a lot of hard work and years of dedication to have a successful career, but if you really enjoy it and derive high satisfaction, then it may not really *feel* like work (but it’s still technically work). If you’re a baker and you love to make cakes and cookies, you still need to go through the process of producing those goods, advertising them, selling them, etc. You still need to clock hours. You still have obligations. You still need to be productive, and to justify to others why your work is valuable. But if you love what you do, that productivity feels awesome. When people work on something they intrinsically enjoy, they can lose track of time and effortlessly focus their attention on their task. People sometimes label this feeling as “being in the zone.” Psychologists refer to it as complete immersion or “flow.” This type of work makes people really happy, and the best part is that it doesn’t really feel like work.
What Counts as “Work” in Relationships?
Healthy romantic relationships are extremely similar to careers in this regard. They require a great deal of effort, maintenance, accommodation, investment, and care (among other things). When you communicate with your partner, you need to actively listen and validate their feelings, even if you disagree with what they’re saying.3 You need to practice impulse control if an alternative partner tempts you.4 You need to show lots of active enthusiasm for your partner’s interests and activities5 (even if personally you find them dull or boring). You need to help them feel safe and protected when they experience distress.6 You need to show lots of gratitude and appreciation for your partner. 7,8 You need to put aside your own selfish goals for the good of the relationship (scientists call this pro-relationship motivation),9 or to resist responding with negativity when your partner makes a mistake10 (and everyone makes mistakes from time to time).
These are all variables that are associated with long-term relationship health, and all of it is “work,” which can be challenging for many people even if they deeply love their partners. If you label these behaviors as something different, that’s totally fine, but when all is said and done, they’re still work. If it feels really good to make that kind of effort, then it simply means your choices are paying off.
So to summarize, these “work” variables are totally normal and within the healthy range of relationship experiences. Don’t worry if you feel like your relationship takes work to maintain—that simply means you are similar to most people in relationships. If (somehow) you can effortlessly maintain a successful close relationship (without any “work”) for decades, you are truly a rare breed of human. Personally, I think people were upset at Ben Affleck simply because what he said was not very romantic (what a terrible crime!), but I empathize with his perspective. Relationships are hard work. But they’re the best kind of work.