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Doing the Real Work

For years I have had the sneaking suspicion that if I could only figure out the secret to life, everything would be fine. I wasn’t naïve enough to believe there would never be another struggle, but I really did hope that one day things would snap together like a nearly elusive jigsaw puzzle. There before me would be a crystal clear image of the perfect way to live.

Naturally, this has been a frustrating pursuit, mostly because that just isn’t the way things go. Still, in the last few months, I’ve had several reminders of something that I think might be the truth. And this is it: Things take a lot of work. Plain and simple. Even writing that sentence, I’m struck by the simplicity of it and I can just feel people rolling their eyes when they read it. But let me explain.

Some romantic notion we have about our relationships is that, if we truly love each other, it won’t be hard.

Recently, I heard Sally Field talk about her new book, In Pieces. As she recounted highlights of her career, and reflected on what it took to write a book, her emphasis was on “doing the work.” When she wanted to be taken more seriously than she’d seemed in The Flying Nun, she took her acting to a new level and began studying at The Actor’s Studio. When she wrote this recent book, it took her seven years to do all of the work required to tell a compelling story. I was struck throughout her whole talk by the energy she got from doing the real work required to succeed at whatever she was trying.

This is not news to anyone, of course, because we all know that the good things in life really do require hard work. Or at least we know that phrase. What we sometimes forget is that this hard work takes time. Working really, really hard doesn’t mean it’s going to go faster. Especially with emotional work, the more honest we are, the more work it usually is, and the longer it takes to really get through something challenging.

This work is also what we engage in when we are in relationships with other people, whether they are our friends or our partners. If we are truly going to trust other people, we need to do the work it takes to hear them, to be honest with them, and to stick with them when things are particularly difficult. All of this takes a long time. Some romantic notion we have about our relationships is that, if we truly love each other, it won’t be hard. It will be simple and carefree and fun.

Jodi and I have been together nearly 17 years. Sometimes it feels as if we have no spare time to devote to working on our relationship. Instead, we focus on our jobs, on keeping up with our house, our pets, Jodi’s kids, our cars—everything we have and love in our lives. All of that is work, too, but relationship work requires intense connection and lots of talking and listening. In short, it takes a long, long time.

And so, we remind ourselves regularly of the value of the work we need to do. With every conversation, we know that we are growing closer, and the work begins to pay off. We’re not simply paying lip service to any thing or any one. We are giving each other room to be who we are. We are trusting the other person to hear who we are and love us anyway. We might be afraid or defensive, but whatever we feel, if we stick with it, we are rewarded. This is the work of a relationship, but it is also the beauty. The result is an intimacy so much greater than anything we can imagine because we were willing to do the work.

I know when I think of the secret to something, it implies that it’s the way to make things easier. And that may be the reason so many of us struggle. We’re looking for that thing that is going to make everything easier. I’m learning at this stage in my life, though, that the real secret is that the work makes things better. And better beats easier every single time.

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