How Much Work is Too Much in a Relationship

Relationships take work.  Just ask anyone.  No one- not Dr. Phil and not your grandma- will claim that romantic relationships are a walk in the park.  But how do you know if your relationship is unbalanced and you’re working too hard?  And how do you know when it isn’t worth it and you should leave?

You ended up here because you’re wondering if your relationship is worth the work you’re putting into it. Maybe you’re wondering if your partner will break up with you because they so rarely reciprocate the effort you put into your bond. Or perhaps you feel like you’re picking up all the slack, and you’re tired.

Ultimately, you’re the only one who can decide how much work is too much in a relationship, but as a licensed social worker, I can offer some tips to guide you.

One of the best analogies I’ve ever heard about relationships came from my mother-in-law. She told my husband and me that being in a marriage is like being in a canoe on a river. To get where you’re going, both people have to paddle the canoe.  

Occasionally, one person in your relationship canoe will need a break. One person might fall out of the canoe and need to cling to the side until they can climb back in. It’s okay if, once in a while, you find that you’re the only one paddling in your relationship. In the long run, though, to get where you’re going, both people need to paddle most of the time.

Boundaries

Most professionals will tell you that if you doubt how much work you’re putting into a relationship, you need to start by looking at your boundaries. But what does that mean exactly?

According to Cloud and Townsend, the leading experts on boundaries, “a boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership” (Cloud & Townsend, 2014). In other words, boundaries help you take responsibility only for that which is your responsibility and leave to your partner that which is their responsibility.

Have you ever heard the phrase, “good fences make good neighbors”?  The same principle applies in your relationships.  When we know what is our responsibility, we can let go of controlling other people’s emotions and actions.   Not only can we walk away from having to make other people happy, we can feel good about it.  Managing our own actions without worrying about controlling others’ feelings or actions allows us to stay in our lane emotionally.

Boundaries don’t just define what we do.  They also define how we feel. Boundaries can delineate tasks, such as who does the laundry and who gases up the cars.  They can also determine when we hold onto emotions and when we let them go. For example, your partner asked you to pick up some milk at the grocery store on the way home from work, and you forgot. It’s appropriate to take responsibility for the mistake and ask for forgiveness. But you can’t control how your partner responds to your apology- their feelings and reactions belong to them. Boundaries mean that you can do what you should do and leave it to your partner to do what they should do.

Good boundaries mean that you don’t expect your partner to magically know what you want or need. That falls on your side of the fence- communicating your thoughts, feelings, and desires is your job. What if your partner isn’t able to meet reasonable expectations?  When you have good boundaries, you know that you need to be okay with it or you need to move on.  You take ownership of your life.  You understand that your happiness is your responsibility. Sure, our relationships play a role in how happy we are, but ultimately it’s no one else’s job to make us happy but ourselves.  

The best way to figure out how strong your boundaries are is to ask yourself, “How do I feel when my partner is unhappy with me?” Being ‘in trouble’ with your boyfriend or girlfriend shouldn’t feel fantastic, but it shouldn’t leave you depressed, either. Are you able to make amends to your partner for anything you’ve done wrong and then trust them to deal with their emotions on their own? Or do you feel like you’re doing penance for weeks afterward, trying to get on their good side again?  

Questions to Consider

I’ve compiled a list of questions you can ask yourself if you need to decide if you’re putting too much work into your relationship. Take a minute to think these through- grab a journal and write out your answers to help you sort through your thoughts.

Do I always feel like this, or is it occasional?

You might be in a rough season of what is otherwise an excellent relationship. Is your partner going through any significant life changes? Have they experienced a recent loss or illness? As in the canoe analogy above, sometimes one partner needs a break, and the other has to keep paddling. 

Consider whether this is a temporary situation and when you can expect your partner to return to carrying their weight.  For example, maybe your partner just started medical school, and they suddenly don’t have much time to spend with you.  Due to the time, it takes to become a doctor, they probably won’t have much time for the next eight or more years.  Can you wait that long, or do you feel like you need to move on with your life?  Only you can decide.

Do I feel like my partner is taking advantage of me?

Some relationships start unequally and never balance out. If you feel like your partner always expects you to be the one to call, pay, do the chores and plan the dates, you might be doing too much of the work.  

Relationships are a partnership.  You should not be a parent or a caretaker to a fully functional adult.  I’ve met couples so unbalanced that one person served as an alarm clock, scheduler, taskmaster, and personal assistant.   Doing these things might feel loving, but they are actually preventing your partner from maturing into the person they are meant to be.

Are my efforts reciprocated?

Just because you’re always the one to pay doesn’t mean your relationship is uneven. Everyone brings something different to the table. You might spring for dates, but your husband takes care of all the chores around the house. You might always be the one to call, but your girlfriend makes sure to text you every day to see how you’re doing. 

Unfortunately, there’s no official conversion chart that can tell you how many planned dates equate to loads of laundry done- and if there were, you shouldn’t be using it.   Healthy relationships aren’t about scorekeeping; they’re about feeling supported and valued.  If you’re asking yourself whether your relationship is worth the work, instead of counting up tasks and texts, try to take a broad view of your partner’s efforts.  Is there something you haven’t considered that may show your significant other is putting just as much into the relationship as you are?

Am I communicating my needs?

Sometimes extra considerate people neglect their own needs. They feel like they can’t ask for anything without being selfish. However, empathetic people might become upset when their partner doesn’t automatically anticipate and fulfill their emotional and physical needs.  

If you are a person known for your caring nature, you should know that not everyone has your sensitivity to others’ needs.  Just because your partner isn’t psychic doesn’t mean they don’t love you. Help them out by spelling out- kindly- what you need. Communicating needs can be as simple as saying, “I have been feeling disconnected from you recently. I would love it if you called me at least once a day so we can stay in tune with each other.”

Do I have reasonable expectations?

I mentioned that boundaries mean that you are responsible for your happiness. Sometimes we want our partners to take responsibility for things that should fall to us. Often, these unreasonable expectations manifest as neediness, such as wanting your partner to check in with you constantly. Or wanting them to bring you roses every single day. Or asking them to give up all their other friendships. These expectations are actually an illusion because what you’re really wanting is for your partner to meet every emotional need you have.  

Unfortunately, no human being can meet another human’s every need.  It’s simply too high of an expectation for your partner always to make you feel loved, wanted, and happy.   A therapist can help you figure out how to get your needs met in healthy ways, including sustaining a network of friends and addressing past traumas. 

What do people who know me think?

Romantic relationships flourish when the couple has a network of friends supporting them as individuals.  You shouldn’t give up your buddies just because you have a boyfriend or girlfriend.  Maintaining friendships prevents you from depending on your partner for all your social and emotional needs.

Having buddies outside of your partner has another benefit- it allows you to look at your relationship through another person’s eyes.   Ask your friends.  Are you working too hard?  Do they see your relationship as unequal?  Does your partner seem as ‘into’ you as you are ‘into’ them?  Your friends might have some good input and will likely be able to tell you whether your doubts are based on insecurities or reality.

Does this relationship improve my life?

Ultimately, our motivation for staying in relationships should be that they provide value to our lives.  Sometimes that value is realized when we remain committed through the tough seasons, but sometimes time merely proves that we aren’t getting anything out of staying.  Why are you with your partner?  Do they make you a better person, or are you just afraid of being alone?  Do you enjoy them, or do you just want the status?  

Deciding how much value your relationship adds to your life is a great way to determine whether it’s worth the work you’re putting into it.   If your life would be significantly easier or better without your partner in it, you should consider moving on.

Do I feel loved?

I saved the most important question for last.  It’s also the most complicated question because “love” is a word frequently confused with passion, flirtation, or desire.  When I say “love,” I mean a commitment to pursue your partner’s good as far as you can achieve it.  It takes more than chemistry to sustain a relationship- it takes a commitment to do what is best for the relationship and your partner.

Do you feel like your partner wants the best for you and is committed to doing what they can to help you achieve it?  Are you each willing to put aside some of your own goals for the sake of the other’s dreams?  Do you believe that your partner would do whatever they can to help you reach your fullest potential?  If the answer to these questions is no, you are correct in evaluating whether your relationship is worth the effort.

Platonic Relationships

Perhaps the relationship you’re questioning isn’t romantic in nature.  You’re wondering whether you’re putting too much work into your friendship with your childhood best friend or whether your mom should be visiting you more.  Most of the same questions and considerations apply!   After clearly communicating reasonable expectations, you should feel like a friend or family member reciprocates.  You shouldn’t feel taken advantage of by friends or family members any more than romantic partners should take advantage of you. 

Conclusion

Regardless of the nature of the relationship, boundaries are essential.  They help us own up to our own issues and let things go when they’re not our fault or our problem.  By asking yourself some simple questions and taking the time to evaluate your relationship, you can answer for yourself whether you’re working too hard.

Cloud, D., & Townsend, D. (2014, March 12). What Do You Mean “Boundaries”? by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. Retrieved April 03, 2021, from https://www.cloudtownsend.com/what-do-you-mean-boundaries-by-dr-henry-cloud-and-dr-john-townsend/

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