Edge of Everywhere

Why Relationships Work/Why We Work at Relationships

Posted on: November 1, 2009

In my last post, I theorized that relationships rely on one of two things: proximity and work (which could also be called effort, or commitment). So what happens when two people who became friends at school or work or through some other activity lose that proximity? In what situations do we work to maintain the relationship, and in which do we abandon it?

When relationships work/when we work at them:
1. We both find the relationship fulfilling (as DJ said in the comments on my last post) and feel a special connection that we feel has a meaningful place in our lives.
2. We each feel invested in the other person’s life and automatically feel compelled to keep in touch and support the other person through whatever they’re going through.
3. We feel that spending time together is worth prioritizing above at least some of the myriad ways we could each be spending our time.
4. We have activities that it’s important for us to do together as opposed to with other people or alone.

When relationships don’t work/when we don’t work at them:

1. Both people get lazy and don’t make time to contact the other person, even though we always enjoy the time we spend together.
2. Only one person makes the effort to stay in touch and make plans, until the lack of reciprocity leads them to give up.
3. There’s no specific motivation to contact each other or do a particular activity together, or to prioritize seeing each other above the myriad other ways we could each be spending our time.

Maintaining a strong relationship doesn’t feel like work. However, if I’m the only one putting in the effort, or neither of us is, it does feel like work. In these cases, I feel like the fate of the relationship is in my hands, and I need to remember and decide to contact people and try to make plans with them. My motivation here is different than in the examples up top; I am working to keep in touch because I feel that the relationship has potential and I should nurture it–and that if I do, I can help it grow into something meaningful and self-sustaining. This isn’t nearly as strong a motivator as the reasons above, and most of the time it does not actually motivate me to take action.

In my next post, I will discuss online friend-dating, which has produced most of the relationships of this variety–ones that did not develop naturally through a shared environment, activity, or group of friends, and that require a conscious effort on the part of both people in order to survive and progress.


2 Responses to "Why Relationships Work/Why We Work at Relationships"

Ooh, I’m looking forward to the online friend-dating post; that’s a phenomenon I’ve never really seen discussed before.

It’s funny because even if a friendship is ideal and mutual, to me it will always feel like some measure of work. I’m just realizing that in this moment. And I don’t mean “work” as always being a bad thing– if a relationship is fulfilling enough, I’m willing to do things that feel like “work” to me. Actually being with the friend doesn’t feel like work, but all the planning involved in hanging out with friends does feel like work. Or maybe I just think it’s a lot of planning because it seems arduous to me. I can see though that if you have some effortless friendships and others that feel like work, the work ones are problematic. However, most of the things that come easily to me involve being alone, and I really do like being with other people a lot of the time. So for me the work part can be this invisibly one-sided thing. That might have not made much sense, but I typed it all, so I might as well post it 🙂

I think proximity is something that is extremely underrated. It’s the same thing with jobs. It’s been found again and again that long commutes make people very unhappy, but no one seems to heed the information.


It seems like you’re struggling with an investment question. All relationships take “work” in the way that you describe it, so the question is: when is work just a natural part of the relationship structure and when is it a sign that the other person isn’t that interested in keeping things going?

I handle this by looking for indicators that the relationship is something that they’re willing to prioritize. They may not initiate hanging out (that may not be their style), but do they make time in their schedule when you reach out to them? Do they keep a slot open for some sort of regular get together? How often do they flake? How do they emote to you about the time that you spend together?

If they’re prioritizing you then something about the relationship must be working for them, and it’s worth the effort to keep it going. If not, then spend at least a little time trying to listen to where they are in their life and see if the relationship COULD fill a more powerful emotional gap for them.

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