Relationship effort: how to avoid it dwindling with long-term partners

Old couple
Relationship effort: how to avoid it dwindling with long-term partners 1
Relationship effort is crucial. Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

My fiancé and I went to the Hunter Valley last weekend, one of Australia’s original wine regions in New South Wales, rich in volcanic soil from eruptions that took place 300 million years ago. When in wine country, it’s necessary to go on a tour to learn about the uniqueness of every winery, and taste the deliciousness on offer.

Our tour was on a Sunday, and as luck would have it, we were the only people, which meant we had the tour guide and cellar hosts to ourselves—a private tour but without the $600 price tag. Given that we had the full attention of our hosts, and as polite humans who always want to make the best possible impression, we felt obliged to offer our full attention in return. Our previous wine tours had always been in groups, with the hosts attention divided among many of us, granting us pause to daydream, pass the odd comment to each other, or play with our phones—something impossible on a private tour without being rude. Whenever I find myself thrust into a one-on-one position such as this, I seem to make a lot more effort than usual, so rather than the cellar door host giving their usual demonstration of their wine, which always seemed a little mechanical during group tours, it felt more like a personal conversation between the three of us. We concentrated on what they were saying, asked questions about the little things that interested us, and found ourselves engaged in rapt conversation like a group of old friends. Aside from learning about their wine-making process and the unique flavours, we learned about how climate change and the bushfires had affected their businesses, how they got into the wine-growing game, what they did as their younger selves, whether they expect their children to follow in their footsteps, what their favourite wines were, and more. When leaving each winery, I felt liked and appreciated, as though we’d made an excellent impression on our host, who had enjoyed our company as much as we’d enjoyed theirs.

My fiancé and I have the kind of disposition where we want people to like us, even need people to like us. It reveals our insecurity, but there’s a strange beauty behind it, because it causes us to make a great deal of effort with people, which leads to fulfilling conversations, confidence, and on the odd occasion, friendships. I hate the idea of being disliked by anyone, and so when I find myself in a situation where full engagement seems courteous, I find myself asking questions about the person’s life, which often progresses to a pleasant conversation that we both enjoy. My desire to be liked and appreciated compels me to behave in ways that make me liked and appreciated, and given that human relationships are one of our most fulfilling endeavours, I realise that my insecurity isn’t so bad after all. Or I’m misreading my social life, and people think I’m an annoying twat.

I finished the wine tour in a state of blissful confidence, somewhat due to my blood/alcohol level, but mostly due to the connections that my fiancé and I had made with the cellar hosts. Whenever I find myself in this mood, and attribute it to my concerted effort over the course of the day, a contrast is revealed between the amount of effort I make to impress strangers, and the amount of effort I make to impress the person I love the most: my fiancé. Strangers mean little to me, and my fiancé everything, so why do I behave in such an illogical way? This is not to say that I mistreat my fiancé—I strive to make her happy because I love and need her—but I don’t put in the same amount of concentration and effort as when I’m sat at the bar of a unknown winery owner, which is madness! The very fact that she’s my fiancé makes her seem secured, as though she’s forever mine, assuming that when my complacency becomes an issue, I’ll always be forgiven, but unaware that every act of forgiveness takes an indistinguishable chunk out of our relationship, carving out a horrific hole that becomes impossible to fill. It’s bizarre that the comfort and security of a devoted relationship causes you to lessen your effort, when you need even more effort to keep it alive. Marriage, a dog, and kids can add excitement, but if the complacency isn’t dealt with, if we can’t forgo our laziness and muster the same level of effort as for a stranger, or the effort from our first date, isn’t the relationship doomed? If we’re so damn motivated to create a bond with strangers, we should be motivated to create a stronger bond with the person who we love more than anyone else. Instead, we assume that the bond is unbreakable—that we’ll never love anyone else as much as we love each other, and we end up relaxed to the point of being in a coma. The fact that my fiancé loves me doesn’t mean that she’ll always love me.

Sometimes it can seem easier to talk to a stranger than your long-term partner, given that you know nothing about the stranger, and a lot about your partner. Unless you want to irritate them with repetition, the hundreds of questions you can ask a stranger aren’t available to your partner. But even those who have celebrated golden wedding anniversaries don’t know everything about each other. We develop and mature over time, and possess a rich and fascinating internal life, which remains hidden unless asked about. And this is the stuff we want to talk about more than anything else—conversations that conjure a wonderful sense of meaning, masking the unforgiving meaninglessness of our existence, and bonding us to each other like glue. The reason that we talk about the weather is because talking about the weather might lead to us talking about the stirrings of our souls, and when we’re in a loving relationship, we can skip the weather and jump straight into the good stuff. We won’t have meaningful conversations with our partners all the time, but unless we recognise that our complacency isn’t forever tolerable, and that we must make the same effort with our partners as we do with strangers, those conversations will be forever lost. 

If our partner has enough emotional intelligence not to make us feel like idiots (most of the time), we should be comfortable and motivated enough to broach our most desired topics. There’s plenty of questions to ask a stranger, but they aren’t the kind of deep questions you can ask your partner. I can have a conversation with a stranger that makes me feel liked and respected, but it’s difficult to have a conversation with them that makes me feel loved, desired, and needed. That conversation is reserved for the person we adore. We end up taking one of the most precious and wonderful things in the world for granted: a soul-stirring conversation with the guardians of our hearts, that makes us cherish each other all the more, and only to be had through concerted effort—the kind of effort that we put into making strangers like us, but leading to something much more beautiful.

Turn up the brightness in your life by silencing your judge

Angry judge

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The gavel – that little polished hardwood hammer that fits most snugly in the judge’s hand – is something that we all love to use. Each occurrence in our lives is judged to be good, bad, or neutral, with an unforgiving and decisive smash on the block.

Judging our experiences is natural behaviour that has allowed us to endure through the ages, from the tiniest, inconsequential sea-dwelling microbes, to the complex Earth-ruling creatures that we are today. Judgment proffered us with the motivation to get the fuck out of the way when a rhino was charging at us, or to tip-toe towards the cave of an attractive, hairy neighbour. Without this evaluating force we’d be aimless wanderers, with nothing to entice us; zombies without a cause.

Our tendency to assess is a crucial force in our lives, but we’ve become overly partial to it, and perhaps a bit cocky. Our dynamic, businesslike brains can rapidly evaluate our desire or aversion towards something, and yet, the conclusions that we make aren’t always in our best interests. Watching a cricket match for six hours might seem like a hell designed just for you, and that’ll be a permanent assessment unless you approach it with a more receptive, open attitude. There’s nothing wrong with giving something a chance – let’s not pretend that you’re a high-flying socialite with a calendar busier than a hoard of spring bees. Your judgments aren’t infallible, and you could be missing out on a great deal of joy.

Judgment colours your experience, creating distortion before its even begun. Declaring that something is bad is like tarnishing it with hideous black paint – the encounter is bound to be ruined. Judgment often creates a self fulfilling prophecy; a miserable destiny authored by yourself.

Nothing in this world is inherently good or bad, we just label them so. A monstrous category five hurricane that hurtles towards an innocent American town isn’t fundamentally evil, just as the rains that make a poor farmer’s crops grow cannot be considered fundamentally good. This is Mother Nature at work, exhibiting her ruthless indifference towards our species. But these are extreme examples – less drastic occurrences happen to us a thousand times a day, with each one painted as good, bad, or neutral.

“Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” — Shakespeare, Hamlet

Our incessant verdicts can cause us a great deal of stress. Relinquishing our judgment of “bad” offers us an escape route to a more peaceful mind, one in which our experiences aren’t automatically corrupted by bad habits.

“Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them.” – Epictetus

This is not to say that judgment can be permanently suspended, we still need it to survive. It’d be foolish to defer the assessment of an articulated lorry that is charging in our direction. Similarly, our sense of morality is pinged upon the ability to discern right from wrong; good and bad. Most of our deductions, however, are much more trivial, and their cessation can offer us serenity.

Non-judgment means you don’t have to make an evaluation of every experience, you can simply be aware. This state of mind can be delightfully tranquil, in which usually threatening events are stripped of their danger, encouraging us to pay close attention instead of turning our backs. We experience things just as they are, not how we’ve assumed them to be. Non-judgment is a way to see the world clearly, like getting a pair of spectacles after having blurred vision for years. Suddenly, a sharpened focus is attained, in which a thousand details that we’ve never noticed – that we were too judgmental to notice – are presented to us in dazzling fashion. Withholding our interminable judgments turns up the brightness in our lives.

“I never approve, or disapprove, of anything now. It is an absurd attitude to take towards life.” — Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

How do you practice non-judgment? Much of it is about being mindful, which can be improved through meditation – a habit with so many benefits as to seem like snake oil. It requires no equipment or skill, just a dogged determination, and patience.

If the thought of sitting still for prolonged periods makes you want to start uppercutting people, you might consider trying the following instead:

  1. Notice when you’re judging. Pay attention to what happens in your body and mind.
  2. Recognize your thoughts without denouncing them as bad or good. Suspend your judgment.

We’re never going to stop smashing the gavel entirely, and nor should we – it’s essential for our survival. But we can train ourselves to use it less frequently by practising non-judgment, and in the process, our minds can attain a serenity in which we’ll live our lives with less friction, and greater contentment.