Finding someone to spend your life with is hard. I feel I’ve earned the right to make such a statement as a happily married man who’s also a veteran of one divorce and one failed engagement. It takes time to find someone whose habits we can tolerate and who can put up with ours. Ideally, we’ll share some interests, find them attractive and enjoy their company and their conversation. When you throw in the complications of geography and time it makes finding a partner into a battle of seemingly insurmountable odds.
Even if you do eventually find the right person, the process of settling down can seem daunting too. You’ll likely want to test the relationship by living together first. You may need to consolidate your stuff with theirs — who gets to pick the decor? If you have kids or baggage from a previous relationship (emotional or otherwise) there are other factors and other egos to consider too. Planning a joint future and amalgamating two independent lives is more complex than any corporate merger.
If you get this far there might be wedding plans to make. Which friends and relatives make the cut for an invite? Who gets to give a toast? Religious or civil ceremony? Where will you take your honeymoon? If you don’t want to go through the legal or religious formalities, moving in together still takes nearly as much time and effort in the planning and execution.
And then real life kicks in — how will you divide up the roles and responsibilities? Who’ll pause their career to raise the kids? Who’ll clean the bathrooms and put out the garbage? How will you split the bills and the rent payments?
I don’t say all this to put you off — my own somewhat-chequered history should be proof that I’m a believer in working to find a happy relationship as a cornerstone of a fulfilled life.
But before you get to the desired end-state of being married or cohabiting, you’ve got to put in plenty of work to make it happen. As the song goes, “you can’t have one without the other” (albeit referring to LOVE and marriage — I don’t suppose the song would have done so well if it were called “WORK and marriage”).
The work doesn’t end either.
The process is more important than the prize
It’s not possible to separate the state of being married from the work that needs to be put in to achieve that state and then maintain it. Online dating may have made it easier to find somebody to love, but it doesn’t bypass the need to put in the work. I say this as someone who’s a believer in its power, having met my second wife online.
Most who’ve spent time dating know that there’s work to be done in screening potential matches and weeding out the time-wasters, narcissists, and the serial killers. Then it’s necessary to kiss a few frogs before you eventually meet your prince (or princess). Each stage demands time, energy and emotional investment. There’s no genuine or enduring fast track to the end-state.
The same is true in other aspects of life as it is in relationships.
The ends justify the means (and vice versa)
Many of us spend time dreamily picturing our ideal future. Depending on our preferences and goals it may incorporate one or more of the following:
- Happily married to the man or woman of our dreams.
- A clutch of children and a dog playing contentedly in the garden.
- A portfolio of investments growing steadily in our bank account.
- A prosperous career, with a grateful boss above us and an admiring team beneath.
It’s seductive to believe we can enjoy the end-state without the effort but seldom can the work be bypassed. It’s in our nature to want the payoff quickly — our fixation on instant-gratification and buy-now, pay-later attests to that desire.
If we can learn anything from crash-diets and get-rich-quick schemes and speed-dating, it’s that when we take shortcuts to results, they’re unlikely to feel as good or be as long-lasting.
Labels and titles are compelling — we’re attracted to them like magpies are drawn to shiny objects. When we imagine our future selves, the colour in the mental image comes from the labels we hope to gain:
Parent — Boss — Entrepreneur — Champion — Leader — Partner — Writer — Provider — Influencer.
Each of these means something at a conceptual level. Each denotes something that we hope to achieve or accomplish. Each label describes who we are and what we do, to others.
But we can’t fast-forward and become them through sheer will or desire alone. Each demands putting in the hard yards to attain the position. Each denotes a level of commitment and demonstrates that we’ve got skin in the game.
Defined by what we do
You can call yourself anything, but when the labels haven’t had the work put in behind the scenes, they lack substance.
- A parent has to find a mate, settle down, have kids and then devote the majority of their time, energy and resources to raising them.
- A boss has to climb their way up a career ladder, gradually gaining responsibility and honing skills before they’re deemed worthy of leading others.
- An entrepreneur has to find ways of creatively solving the problems faced by others who are willing to pay in return.
- A writer must practice their skill and devote significant time to putting words on the page and fearlessly shipping their art out into the world.
Labels are useful in conceiving where we want to get to in life. But focusing on the label alone as our intended destination ignores the process that has to be followed to get there. As Sinatra said — “You can’t have one without the other”.
It’s compelling to design our lives by reference to the various roles that we hope to achieve. It can be useful to do so too. It helps us to set direction, giving us something to focus upon and to direct our efforts towards. But the end-states cannot be separated from the work that goes into achieving and then maintaining them.
All romantic relationships demand sustained and prolonged work on a daily basis, not just to achieve the status of being married, but to establish and maintain for the long term. It’s about making a marriage, not just about being married. The differences between the two are subtle but important to be mindful of.
The same goes for any other label we might wish to apply to ourselves and in our lives — we are defined by what we do repeatedly, not by what we decide to call ourselves or what we would like to be.
Previously Published on psiloveyou
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Photo credit: by Laura Ockel on Unsplash