It’s something I hear every day: “Relationships take work.” “Being in one relationship is hard work; being in more than one relationship is even more work.” “Polyamory takes work.”

I have been thinking a fair bit about relationship work these days, particularly since the stress of doing this crowdfunding campaign and working on the book has been taking me away from several of my partners, who would like more time with me. (Who knew that trying to change the world would take this much time?)

And yet, there are some kinds of relationship work which don’t really seem to me to be necessary, or even desirable.

When I think of “working on a relationship,” I think of two radically different kinds of things: work that makes me the best possible version of myself, and work that’s done for the purpose of managing unresolved problems within the relationship.

Now, work to make me the best possible version of myself is constructive (and, I think, necessary).  I work every day to know myself better, to develop better relationship and communication skills, to understand and be more true to my own values. This kind of work is ongoing. It’s never possible to be done with it. I learn more about myself every day; I learn how to be compassionate toward my partners, how to listen to them, how to care for them every day. It’s a process, not an end result. There will probably never be a time when I think I am done with it.

Some relationships create more work in that regard than others. When I’m with a partner who has a different communication style than I do, I have to work on increasing my communication skills, and on learning how to hear and understand her. That doesn’t mean that she is hard work, or a relationship with her is hard work; it means that she and I are different in ways that challenge me to grow and to understand her better.

That kind of work is awesome, healthy, positive, and rewarding. It makes me a better person.

But if we’re talking about relationship work such as navigating around someone else’s insecurities, managing someone else’s expectations, or conforming to someone else’s image of us? If we’re talking about work involving adhering to social roles that aren’t a good fit or to expectations that aren’t in line with our own values? Look out!

That kind of work tears us down. It makes us responsible for other people’s emotions. It takes us away from our own integrity.

Too often, I think it can be easy to get caught up in saying “relationships take work” without looking at the effort we’re expending, or where it’s taking us. I think that if we are to accept that relationships require work in order to nurture, which I believe they do, we also need to look at what kind of work is being expected of us. Does it takes us closer to or further from the person we want to be? Does it reinforce our integrity, or ask us to compromise it?  Are we working to solve problems, or are we working around them? Are we building bridges or building obstacles?

Relationships take work, but not all effort is equally rewarding. The kind of work we do matters.

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