They say marriage is hard work. “They” being every other relative wishing to bestow you with wisdom the moment you get engaged.
The phrase is so regularly repeated that it’s sometimes used to bat away more complex friction in a relationship. Arguing with your partner? That’s the hard work calling. Intimacy issues? Infidelity? Financial stress? Don’t say we didn’t warn you...
But a couple of months back, when writer Danielle Weisberg tweeted a jokey take on the oft-repeated idiom, it sparked a debate on whether marriage should feel like hard work, or if this is just something we’ve been taught to accept.
One reply from a woman in Arkansas even went viral in its own right. “My marriage has never been hard work,” she said. “My wife literally lowers my blood pressure by walking into the room. (Confirmed and observed by a nurse at the hospital).”
So, why do so many cling to this phrase? Should marriage really be hard work? Or does the saying just make us feel better? And if marriage is so easy for some, should everyone else...give up?
Julia Goodall, a psychotherapist and host of the Grounded Families podcast, says therapists sometimes use the phrase “marriage is hard work” in couples counselling, because they tend to echo the language used by their clients. This is a tactic designed to “meet people where they are”.
However, she works with couples to establish what they mean by “marriage is hard work”. There can be a difference between marriage feeling like “work” and “working on a marriage”.
“I think that idea that marriage is hard is the same if you say gardening is hard,” Goodall tells HuffPost UK. “It’s not hard. It’s just that you have to show up every day in tiny ways and keep an eye on it. So it’s hard work in terms of the constant commitment of it, but it’s not difficult.”
The question of whether marriage should feel like hard work doesn’t have a straight yes or no answer, she adds. “When something like that tweet happens... I looked through some of the responses and it’s quite sad, because it polarises people. So either people are like ‘marriage is so easy, it’s the best thing ever,’ or ‘marriage is so hard’. And then both parties feel alone.
“The way that we polarise stuff – which is a normal human thing – it doesn’t really help conversation. It just says ‘I’m in this camp, you’re in that camp’. And actually, the conversation that’s useful to have, I think, is around ‘why does marriage feel hard?’ ‘Why do we feel on our own a lot of the time?’ ‘Why do we feel that things are often not how we expected?’”
Goodall believes in 2022, we’re still sold a “Disney idea” of what marriage looks like, so it’s no wonder it doesn’t always live up to everyone’s expectations. When people say marriage is hard, what they’re often attempting to convey is that they’re “in distress” or “in chronic disconnection” with their partner.
But to prevent marriage feeling like overwhelming “hard work”, you do need to “work at it” in small ways – again coming back to that gardening metaphor.
“There’s a piece around making yourself visible in tiny daily steps,” she explains. “So saying: ‘This is what I need’, or ‘this is what I feel like’, or ‘I’m really struggling with all of the things I have to get done in a day. Is there any thing that you can help me with?’”
This communication reset should also go the other way. “Ask: ‘How was your day?’ ‘how are you feeling about this?’, ‘I feel like this, does that sort of match with you?’” says Goodall. “It’s these tiny little touch points.”
Of course, there are times when marriage does become hard work, to the point where these “little touch points” can’t remedy it. If there’s violence, for example, Goodall says that’s a red flag that a relationship is toxic and worth leaving.
Also, if you’re having the same arguments over and over again, or there’s been a significant betrayal (such as infidelity), you may need outside help from a therapist to see if it’s possible to get you back on the same page. And sometimes, parting ways is the bravest decision – not a failure.
But for the most part, Goodall believes the question “should marriage be hard work” comes down to people’s perceptions about what marriage should entail.
“The people who are in really happy marriages often have very realistic ideas of what marriage looks like,” she says. “And so sometimes it’s just about perception.”
Next time you’re about to tell a newly engaged couple about the hard work ahead of them, pause to remember this classic When Harry Met Sally scene, which proves that while marriage may require some work, dating isn’t exactly a walk in the park, either.
And if you’re in a rut of feeling like your own marriage is hard work, pause to question why. As Goodall points out, accepting that marriage isn’t perfect can actually be quite liberating.
“We will never fit together like a puzzle piece, there will always be some little kind of jagged edges,” she says. “There’ll be stuff that we’re bad at and the other person is not good at.
“And still we choose to love each other. I feel like that feels more meaningful.”