The other day I was texting with a friend and she told me about the effort she was putting into another friendship. She mentioned that it was difficult sometimes to love this other friend the way her friend needed to be loved, but that the friendship had also taught her about the depth of her capacity to accept and love someone exactly as they are.
I was moved by this, and told her I thought she was doing some truly extraordinary and courageous Love Work for her friend.
Her response to that was to reflect that sometimes she felt the same, and was really proud of herself… but that other times she worried she was just being a sucker, and putting in more work than her friend was.
I thought about that, and how it can be difficult to know the difference between people-pleasing and Love Work, and how often I coach clients to set boundaries and advocate for their needs in relationships.
But then I thought about the Love Work people in my life have done for me — how people with bigger and braver hearts than mine have made it possible for me to stay in relationship with them — and how incredibly grateful I am for it.
The truth is that I wouldn’t be partnered right now if my partner didn’t have Love Work superpowers. I probably wouldn’t have friends if my friends weren’t extremely gifted at it. And I definitely wouldn’t have the strong sense of self-worth I have if it wasn’t for the Love Work my mom (and my whole family, actually) put in to see, love, and embrace me exactly as I am.
If I’m being perfectly honest, I’m not very good at this particular kind of work.
I can hold space for someone in a coaching relationship all day, offering them endless acceptance and love… but when it comes to my personal relationships I tend to focus on myself and what I need to thrive rather than the other person’s needs.
I worked so hard in my younger years to figure out who I was and what I needed to thrive, and break free from people-pleasing and trying to “earn” my worth. It took all my energy to put myself first, to live into my truth without apology, and to recognize that I didn’t owe anyone anything.
There was just no time or energy to spare, to build up my generosity of spirit, patience, kindness, thoughtfulness, or ability to care for and nurture others. Those skills felt too dangerously close to people-pleasing or “earning my worth” and I just frankly wasn’t interested.
This is why the people in my life have been calling me selfish for as long as I can remember. I never had a pet, I never wanted kids, and I refused to take care of my partner. There isn’t a natural “mothering” bone in my body, and I found the work of considering other people’s feelings rather boring and oppressive.
I’m happy to report that as I get older, this is changing.
In my late twenties, I had two extremely important friendships that encouraged me to think more deeply about how to love people better, and approach my loved one with more kindness, thoughtfulness, and courage.
Then about six years ago my first nibling was born, and I started doing Love Work in earnest. I approached generosity and caretaking as new skills requiring practice, like anything else. (I may not be a natural care-taker, but I’m great at setting goals and reaching them.)
One year I realized for the first time that cleaning up after myself when visiting my mom was Love Work. She likes her house clean, and I have forever considered a clean house to be a stupid and pointless goal, and refused to participate. Things don’t need to be so clean, I had maintained. Cupboard doors don’t need to be closed. Stovetops don’t need to be wiped down. Dishes don’t need to be washed until a few days have gone by. Your standards are ridiculous.
In my own house I still don’t close cupboard doors or wash dishes until they’re all dirty, but once I started thinking about those things as An Act Of Love for my mom instead of A Stupid Rule Designed To Oppress Me
it became a lot easier to do them. It makes her happy, and I want to make her happy.
I taught myself to do Love Work in tiny bits like this. It never came easily or organically – it still doesn’t – but it’s getting easier.
With my nephew it got a little easier. If I really wanted the last perfect bite of my meal, I would never have given it to anyone else, but if Benny showed up and asked for it, I found myself saying yes. If I was tired and didn’t want to play but he asked, I could sometimes put away my own desires and get on board with his.
It’s simple, really. It’s about wanting to make someone happy, and experiencing compersion – happiness about their happiness. But it’s still work.
It got harder again when I met my partner. Intimate relationships (especially with people who present as men) are where I find it most difficult to be caring, generous, and kind. I want things the way I want them, and I find it incredibly difficult to set that aside and focus on what my partner wants, because it impacts me so directly.
But since our first night together, my partner has been a role model for Love Work.
Drew is a natural Carer, and he has shown me over and over again what generosity, patience, kindness, and thoughtfulness look like. When we fight, I am quick to choose myself, but he will always choose us. When I’m hurt or scared, I’m quick to put up walls and run away. He always seems to find it in himself to choose courage and vulnerability until I can open back up.
He says it’s still work, but he makes it look easy. And while I still feel hopelessly behind, I’ve been inspired and encouraged by him, and I’m proud to say I’m getting better and better.
All of this is to say that I’ve been thinking a lot about love and care work, and how powerful and beautiful it is. How important it is for us to stay in relationship with each other, and how brave and hard it is.
And since Drew and I have been talking about starting a podcast together since we first started dating — to talk about sex, love, and intimacy — I’ve been thinking that maybe it’s finally time to start, and we should call it Love Work.
I’m curious what you think about this. I already have my podcast This Is (Not) About Your Body to talk about body image related topics, and I really love it.
But this would be completely different — Drew and I would be getting suuuuper personal, talking about our own relationship, our lessons, our fights, and our thoughts and feelings as we process them in real time. The work that goes into loving each other.
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