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Everybody knows that marriage is “hard work.” 

But is it? I mean, is that the best way to think of it? 

Maybe not. “Marriage is hard work” is not an immutable law of nature. It’s a manmade concept. 

A concept is a shortcut for the brain, a tool to help it predict what’s going to happen and screen out information that isn’t relevant. In this way, concepts shape our experience, determining what we scan for and what we are blind to. The concept of marriage as “hard work” sets us up to experience marriage as work. That is hard. And love as labor

If you want a better experience, choose a better concept.

Where Did It Come From?

In “Marriage Isn’t Hard Work; It’s Serious Play,” Nina Li Coomes reviews the book Making Marriage Work, in which author Kristin Celello traces the history of the concept that marriage is work. 

Though it is axiomatic now, the coupling of marriage and work wasn’t inevitable, Celello asserts. It arose in the early 20th Century as a reaction against rising divorce rates. By then more Americans were marrying not out of familial duty, but for love – and then divorcing for lack of it. Some thought this a dangerous freedom that needed to be weighed down, so they said marriage was work.

Americans love a good work ethic, so the concept took off.

The Cost of a Bad Concept

But what if the idea that marriage is hard work has had the opposite effect than intended? What if it’s increased divorce instead of helping people stay together?

We can’t know for sure, but it’s fascinating to consider. After all, what do you scan for when you conceptualize marriage as hard work? Chores. Logistics. A mental balance sheet of probably unfairly distributed responsibilities.

What are you blind to when you conceptualize marriage as hard work? Friendship. Generosity. Grace.

The Promise of a Good Concept

Coomes proposes “serious play” as a concept to replace “hard work.” 

Hold it in your mind. What does the concept “marriage is serious play” prompt you to scan for? To be blind to? How does it feel in your body?

Immediately, I notice it feels good in my body. Immediately, I see how much my husband, Guy, makes me laugh. I tend to be serious, and his playfulness is a wonderful leaven. Come to think of it, my seriousness is a helpful counterbalance to his playfulness!

And there it is: chores and logistics fade into the background, and friendship, generosity, and grace come to the fore.

The Only Hard Work

There is one bit of hard work I will admit to – that is, in fact, essential to keeping love alive. It’s the moment you choose to turn toward your partner when you are disconnected. 

Oh, it feels hard in the moment! When I am disconnected from Guy, I just want to be right! I want him to see things from my point of view, apologize, and promise never to disagree with me again! Is that so much to ask?

Apparently, because it hasn’t once happened yet in 29 years together.

To turn toward your partner when you are disconnected may be hard, but fortunately, it is only the work of a moment. You can do it:

1.Take as much time as you need to calm down – a few grounding breaths or a ten-minute walk around the block. These intermediate strategies prepare you for productive, not reactive, engagement.

2.Write down all your judgments of your partner. Writing helps to stem the flow of judgments, whereas thinking often increases them.

I do The Work on my judgments because it always helps me to understand the situation, so it’s a time investment with huge returns. Other coaches or a therapist might tell you to jump right into a conversation with your partner after you’ve calmed down, and if that feels good and gets good results, do it. But I don’t address anything with Guy until I’m absolutely clear in my thinking and relaxed in my body. 

If you don’t want to do The Work, meditate on the questions, “Is that true? Absolutely true?” for each of your judgments.

3.As soon as you’re clear and relaxed, actively turn towards your partner. Tell them what you know, now that you’re clear and calm. For me this looks like apologizing, clearing up confusion, problem solving, expressing a boundary, and affectionate touching.

Do this bit of hard work, let the rest of your marriage be serious play, and tell me what happens!



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