My husband and I happened upon some photos of us riding horses on the beach during our honeymoon the other day and were chuckling about his first foray into riding. I have been an avid rider all of my life and he has always joked that the horse does all the work and riders just sit up there and look pretty. To my amusement, this experience taught him that this is just not the case.
After taking a nice leisurely walk on the beach, the guide told my husband that he could try a little trot. After a swift kick and a sense of pride that he did is so easily, my husband got his horse to trot. However, the pride was short lived because almost immediately his horse stopped and began walking again. Confused, and with me giggling behind him, the guide explained that horses are not wind up toys. She shared that riding is more like driving a car. As a driver, there is a constant need to apply the gas or the break, depending on what you want to do. Either way, you are a consistent and active participant in the process. A wind up toy on the other hand may go for a little while on its own after the initial effort to get it going, but it will eventually stop. She explained that keeping the horse going, and going the way you want them to, takes constant effort. Suddenly my husband had a much better understanding of what riders do.
Talking about this experience got me thinking about relationships and how many of the couples I see in therapy enter therapy because they thought their relationship was more like a wind up toy. Couples often put in a lot of work up front to build their relationship, but then assume that they can leave their relationship alone and it will continue to grow and thrive on its own. But, just like with a wind up toy, eventually their relationship stops working. So, what do most couples do? They try to wind it up again, hoping that they just need a jump start to get things back where they were. However, without continued effort, eventually they find themselves back where they were, wondering how they got there again.
As a couple therapist, I explain to couples that a healthy relationship takes constant effort and requires two active participants. I empathize with couples and agree that it would be great if relationships were self sustaining, but they just aren’t. As individuals we change and grow with time and experience and thus our relationships with others change and grow. As such, we can’t expect that the relationship we formed at the beginning is the same relationship 5, 10, 20 years down the road. Over time, we need to nurture, support, and encourage our relationship. We often need to negotiate and renegotiate boundaries, expectations and roles. We need to put time and care into understanding and supporting our partner. And we need to find ways to communicate our needs and wants in the relationship.
The wonderful thing about relationships is that the work doesn’t have to be complicated, hard, or stressful. Work simply means putting forth effort to continue to grow with your partner and not away from your partner. So, work can be having a date night or weekly check in with your partner. And, it is helpful to remember that small efforts more frequently will feel like less work and will keep your relationship happy, healthy and growing.
So, find ways to remind yourself to put effort into your relationship and be an active participant in finding new ways to connect and grow with your partner each and every day.