Let’s Work It Out

Writing is a funny thing. The simple act of sitting down in front of a computer to put a few thoughts into print can lead nearly anywhere and sometimes to extraordinary revelations. For example, I stayed up late one night to compose a few paragraphs for a woman I was flirting with, and by the time all was said and done, I was married. Now though, I’m staring at a blank screen and wondering why the insightful and well thought out article on relationships I was intending to write has become a stream of disorganized and unrelated thought.

The French philosopher Rene Descartes–who was reportedly extremely fond of baths–said that something cannot come from nothing. He used that statement as the starting point in the proof of his own existence, immortalized by the words, “I think therefore I am.” Unfortunately, that statement seems to doom the blank page in front of me to a permanent non-article status. I mean, how can it become a “well thought out and insightful” piece on relationships when it currently contains nothing that resembles a coherent thought at all?

Surprisingly enough, it seems we have the same challenge when it comes to relationships. We are expected (and attempt) to turn the inconsequential nothing of a wink or a smile into a Shakespearean saga of romance and true love. I’m pretty sure that Shakespeare wasn’t making it all up, but that’s still a lot of “something” to hang on what was most likely an involuntary muscle spasm. To make it all worse, the expectation is that this alchemy of amour will require nothing from us. We will simply find someone who has that certain je ne sais quoi, and it will all work out somehow.

You might not know this, but that hip French phrase used to describe the indescribable literally translates to, “I don’t know what.” A more honest interpretation of it might be, “I’m too lazy to put the effort into or otherwise work at figuring out something romantic to say that describes why I find this person attractive.” And finally, we come to the root of the problem. You see, the thing that a certain philosopher was avoiding by sitting in his bath was something that any physicist will tell you is necessary to change the state of things: work. Work is the missing mechanism that can transform a blank sheet into a sonnet. It’s the squeeze that the juice is worth. It’s been said that anything worth having is worth working for. Given that, are you really surprised that a good relationship is going to take a little work?

Of course, it’s all too easy at the start. Call it thrill-seeking, hormones, loneliness, desperation, or anything else for that matter. The fact is that for a brief moment in time, work is fun. We will happily while away a few months planning dates to the tiniest detail, cooking and doing the dishes, agonizing over our outfits, washing our clothes and our bodies, and yes, even picking up our clothes from the floor. No effort is too big or feels wasted. Suddenly, though, at or around the third month, something changes. It starts to feel like work, and we start to cut corners. A night out becomes a night in. We hide our lack of planning by pretending to be spontaneous. Our once meticulously chosen outfits have been lying on the floor for three weeks, and we eat dinner on the couch in whatever we were wearing when we left the house that morning.

What do you think is different? Did this person who once inspired us change from “I don’t know what” to “I know exactly what, and I’ll spend the next three hours telling you?” Did we just lose interest? Is it because we as humans are innately lazy? Personally, I don’t think it’s any of those. I think that the reason we stop putting in the effort is that we think we have finally gotten what we want. You don’t keep running after you’ve won the race. You’ve already won, so what’s the point? We just never realize that all the time and effort is the relationship.

One thing that I like about physicists is that their inquisitive little minds never rest until they’ve figured out the reasons for things. The first real physicist was a guy who really wanted to figure out why apples tend to fall downwards from trees, regardless of who or what might be sleeping under them. Not very many people were impressed by that line of inquiry at the time, but the answer he found has had far-reaching ramifications. The most relevant of these is that it takes energy to maintain a system. In fact, it’s impossible to separate the work required to maintain a system from the system itself. In other words, that highly romantic and interesting relationship that we’ve been enjoying for the last three months will cease to exist entirely if we don’t continue to put energy into it.

But who has time for all that? Eventually we will need to use some of that energy spent on the relationship to accomplish other things–buying a house and having a career come to mind. Also, you can only tell your friends you’re not hanging out tonight because you have to wash your hair so many times before they stop inviting you out. Fortunately, there’s a little light at the end of the tunnel. If you were paying attention you, might have noticed that I said, “…the energy required to maintain a relationship.” As it turns out, it doesn’t take as much effort to keep an established relationship healthy as it does to create one. The trick is to find the things you can do that will keep your “significant other” feeling significant–and then do them.

Unfortunately, this is also where that little light at the end of the tunnel can turn out to be a really large train headed straight for you. Did I say it doesn’t take as much effort? Yes, I did, and it’s true. But whatever you do, you can’t forget that the whole point is to make the other person feel like you’re putting in the effort. If you forget this rule, the relationship really will become work because you’ll be seeing a couples counselor once or twice a week and working overtime to pay for it.

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