The Work of Relationships: Tending Love


Hate is not the opposite of love;

Apathy is.

- Rollo May

here are a number of reasons why devout people go to church, an important one of which is this: the underlying human traits that support spiritual faith require regular tending. Congregants dedicate an hour or so a week to impassioned and inspiring tutorials about good living practices that are coupled with enjoyments such as choral music, stained glass splendor and fellowship. Donuts and coffee might even be part of the scene! Church services prepare members of the congregation to reenter their lives a little better informed and a little more resolute.

No sacrilege intended, but there is much to be gained by churching a long-term relationship in secular rituals that support the faith that is also required when we promise devotion to a life partner, a child or a friend. The Work of Relationships describes one such strategy for putting your relational money where your commitment mouth is.

(N.B. primo: Although I will use a primary romantic relationship as the example in this article, with some modification, the information in it will pertain to all those relationships in our lives that matter to us – especially, oddly, with our teenage children, grandchildren and nieces/nephews.)

Relational faith

I can’t imagine where a thoughtful person would have to live on this planet for her or him not to realize relationships take work. But I also can’t imagine that many folks could specifically address what the work of commitment entails. This disconnect breaks my heart because I know when people are faced with a vague and endless task, few willingly put that task on their To Do List. The work of relating doesn’t get on the list therefore, and therefore it doesn’t get done. It’s not that individuals are unwilling to work – most people truly are – it’s that they just don’t know what to do.

In a strong relationship, both members of the dyad have faith in themselves and faith in the other. The work of a relationship, then, is bolstering this bilateral faith. But how does one do this, especially given that faith is supposed to exist in the absence of proof? It would probably be helpful to refine our grasp of the concept of faith before we work to design a strategy for bolstering it. To do so we need to make some distinctions among faith, love and trust.


The Dance of Intimacy

- Harriet Lerner

Passionate Marriage

- Richard Schnarch


When you have faith in someone, you feel optimistic that the person has both the ability and the willingness to meet you halfway in the co-creation of a healthy relationship. You are willing to bank on that optimism as you move forward with donations of the time and effort needed to establish a reliable bond. If over time your hope proves to be justified, you will be well met with reciprocal donations. Over time in a vigorous partnership, faith strengthens to support a deeper and deeper love, which, in turn, allows for an even more profound faith. This strengthening occurs if, and only if, both participants are capable of keeping the faith. Like a 401k, relationship equity grows most steadily with matching contributions. As they say in shrink school, steady improvement of relational resources due to shared investment fidelity enhances the formation of an egalitarian, bilateral bond. Shrinks are a romantic group.

Love, such an important, foundational and misunderstood topic, is covered in depth in the previous article. In a nutshell, I define it this way: Love is an act of will to reliably extend oneself toward a significant other in order to create intimacy across difference for the purpose of providing comfort and challenge, and for facilitating the allocation of resources. That definition may confound you as there are a lot of words representing existential, feminist and psychological thought in it. It's only important here to understand that love is not a feeling but is a structure created between folks. When a relationship is churched, the components underlying the structure of love are constantly expanded, repaired and maintained.

Trust is the extrapolation of trajectory. Again, probably a confounding sounding definition. What it means is we can predict the level of effort a person will likely expend in a relationship by extrapolating their average behavior over the post-courtship length of the relationship. Let’s unpack that a bit. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, but when it comes to relationships, there’s a little hiccough in the equation. It turns out that there are two basic types of behavior that occur over the course of a relationship – courtship and co-construction. And, to add to the confusion, the two overlap in time. Courtship, which feels a little like free falling, is the discovery process where we explore whether or not the relationship is viable. (Again, for more depth, see the article on The Architecture of Love.) Co-construction, on the other hand, is the more effortful process of establishing the covenants, conditions and restrictions of the unique relationship that is being created. It’s the latter stage, co-construction, that we use to predict future behavior because if we have been able to work together to design and build our relationship, then we can better trust we will be able to continue doing so.

Taken together, the words “faith”, “love” and “trust” combine to define churching the relationship in this way: It is the substantiation of faith in the relationship using the trustworthiness of sustained effort which is specifically focused on studying the skills that underlie the creation of a solid love with the person to whom we have chosen to attach. Or more colloquially, the work of relationship involves an ongoing corroboration of our caring for each other by consistently working together to increase our ability to be loving.

Common mistakes

You hear of many couples who earnestly schedule date nights in a sincere attempt to put work into their relationships. Too often, however, these dates end up creating almost unendurable pressure. Pressure to step out of a hectic week to look wonderful, feel terrific, talk deeply and follow all that with inspired sex. What is happening in this “dating” situation is that the couple is expecting both courtship behavior and courtship feelings to magically reappear in a relationship that is well beyond the courting phase. Courtship is that expansive time early in a relationship when everything feels effortlessly perfect. At that point in a relationship we feel the thrill of discovery of a viable potential new love. This happens in romantic relationships, obviously, but also in friendships, parent/child relationships and with our pets. But back to date night, when people cannot regain past feelings of infatuation with their significant other, they fret that they are not “in love” any longer.

Something similar happens when parents try to force quality time with their recalcitrant offspring. Again, the pressure of, say, a fancy family vacation often leaves the parents and kids feeling even further estranged. If the underlying skills aren’t there to support the bond, no Disneyland moment is going to cure relationship ills.

Churching a relationship

What these couples need (what all couples past courting need) are helpful tutorials about good relationship practices that are coupled with enjoyments. They need to church the relationship first and go on dates once the relationship gears have been greased. To church a relationship is to routinize the necessary relationship practice into a weekly ritual. Successful churching will create the quantity time within which quality time (and maybe the magical feelings of "being in love") can occur.

How will this ritual help build and maintain a relationship?

First, churching a relationship reflects a commitment made real by our showing up weekly for time spent in thought, discussion and reconnection. In other words, we substantiate our relationship vows with reliable attendance and effort at weekly meetings. Additionally, to the extent both people in the relationship protect this churching time, it comes to represent a concrete and frequent renewal of their vows. Churching is an extremely prophylactic behavior because it provides an almost constant source of stipulation, which is a very advanced and potent relationship-building skill.

Second, churching provides a reliable and fairly safe forum for the partners to bring up issues when they are in their most reasonable and responsive state of mind. When the partners are both maturely focused in their communication efforts, there is simply more space for listening, hearing, learning, problem-solving, and so forth. The resulting pattern of successful churching teaches us that we can consistently address and resolve differences between us that may otherwise grow to unmanageable levels. When stressors rattle us during the week, then, we can rest assured it will be both fitting and successful to wait until our relationship meeting to bring up our concerns.

Third, it creates “psyche memory” that is similar to muscle memory. When we rehearse psychological skills under optimal conditions, they will be reliably there in our minds ready for us when we need those skills in vivo. I cannot stress the value of this aspect of churching too greatly. What I see over and over and over in couples counseling are two people who are trapped in reactive rather than proactive behavior toward the relationship. These people are not idiots. What traps them is a misunderstanding around the difference between earnest wishing and earnest effort. The misunderstanding is created by this process: when couples are in crisis and they move through the crisis through fighting, talking or therapy, what allows them to have the courage to tackle the crisis is an earnest wish for the relationship to continue. When the crisis is resolved, wondrous feelings of closeness occur and are inadvertently tied to the earnest wishing rather than the earnest effort. This is the result of the way our brain is designed. Earnest wishing is a strong feeling and it attaches to the joy of resolution within our minds leading us to believe that one causes the other. The crisis passes, our earnest wishing subsides and we go about our business. If the couple can be led to understand that it is the earnest effort that brought about the euphoric sense of closeness, it becomes easier for them to imagine that ongoing relationship work can lead to greater closeness and fewer crises.

Fourth, many people (perhaps more often men) feel very reassured by the idea that, for at least an hour a week, they know just what they are supposed to do with respect to putting work into a relationship. In this way, tackling the novel work of churching your love can paradoxically reduce the otherwise overwhelming, albeit vague, sense that there are myriad things we should be doing at all times. When two people agree to limit the grinding and polishing efforts to a couple of hours on a Sunday morning, no one has to fear hearing the “we have to talk” phrase coming at them willy-nilly throughout the week.

Fifth, because churching serves as a container limiting the amount of time and energy the couple dedicates to working on the relationship, the structure and schedule provide some of the willpower needed to sustain the work. Making something a habit always makes it easier to initiate.

Finally, good investment advice reminds us to “pay ourselves first.” This is also true in developing the emotional equity that stabilizes a long-term relationship. When we agree to church the relationship, we are agreeing to routinely endow our relationship with the time and energy needed to grow our equity. When fate drops a load on our relationship, and it will, we have the resources to meet the resulting challenges.


It’s not enough to simply sit down with each other and talk. Religious ministers are trained professionals who work hard on their sermons, readings, hymn selections and so on in order to provide their congregations with both information and inspiration. It’s neither realistic nor appropriate to expect someone in the dyad to serve this role. Yet, we must have a curriculum that can do the work of a minister.

You’d probably like me to me a little more specific, so let me back up and start at the beginning.

Pick a day of the week that tends to have the most flexibility for you both in terms of schedule. Commit to having a weekly meeting of between 60 to 90 minutes on that day. Decide together on a source of tutorials. Information can be provided by reading aloud together or listening to novels, self-help books, websites, philosophy papers, podcasts and so on; watching web talks or movies; answering relationship surveys; or any structured activity that focuses the time on deepening your understanding of how relationships work, how people work, how healing works, etc. The source material should facilitate forming an identity for the couple – “this is who we are” and “this is who we want to become” – as well as sharpening the identity of each person in the couple – “this is who I am” and “this is who I want to become.” In addition to formulating who the couple wants to be, churching should also explore what the couple wants to do as they navigate each stage of life together. These goals may sound overly ambitious or too nebulous, but I predict you will be surprised by how quickly the two of you develop common relationship vernacular, values and communication styles, three critical skills needed to form a well-articulated relationship. Many couples also develop a humorous shorthand for their more resistant problems that can help everyone relax a bit while the work of repair is being done.

Here are some suggestions that can help the meetings stay fruitful.

In the beginning of your churching career, try to remember that the primary task of the churching process is to develop the ability to speak profoundly with each other about the deeper aspects of being two unique humans trying to love each other. As such, strive to keep the conversations less problem focused and more proactive-learning-and-growing focused. It's not that problems won't or shouldn't come up, it's that we are ultimately working to build a well-stocked, shared toolbox full of relationship skills, both basic and advanced.

Having said that, don't be surprised if the process of learning how to church the relationship is a little messy and chaotic. You may need to tinker with the timing, source materials or speed of the work in order to find the right combination that allows each of you to work at your best (more on this below). If, however, the initial attempts too often degenerate into fighting, it may be wise to use a professional therapist to guide you through the process a few times before you try it on your own.

It is wise to NEVER use any of the insights that arise during tutorials and discussions as ammunition to defend gripes you have about the other. It would not be helpful, for example, to take step seven from a list of effective relationship behaviors to exclaim, “See. Just like I’ve told you a thousand times, you should…”

It’s also wise to refrain from ever using self-disclosures presented to you as weapons down the road. When anyone is courageous enough to share a vulnerability, that disclosure is unutterably sacred. Throwing it back at the person, even in the most subtle and this-is-for-your-own-good way, is always both mean-spirited and counterproductive. Mean-spirited because we know better than to throw earnest moments of sharing back at the person who shared, and counterproductive because it amounts to punishing good behavior. Weaponizing self-disclosure is surprisingly difficult to avoid, so be vigilant for statements ready to come out of your mouth like “You even said yourself that you need to work on being more tidy.” or “I was very impressed when you told me last week that you realized you are emotionally shut down.”

Do not feel despair if the same issues get revisited and revisited. Insight and behavior change often require a long, long plateau of diligent effort. You may not feel that you are getting anywhere as a couple, but you are. What you are accomplishing, in very real terms, is the accumulation of a track record of willingness to engage. That is the action of love – being willing to stay committed to working out the details together. It is important to remember that nowhere in the definition of love, trust, faith or commitment is the requirement that the couple solves every one of its relationship problems. All relationships have long-standing troubles that take years and years to smooth out. And some relationship problems are the result of cultural issues that our human species hasn’t even figured out. So, please be patient with your progress and proud of the sustained effort.

Speed of understanding is not a virtue, especially when churching a relationship. If one partner is slower to grasp the essence of the material, that person gets to dictate the speed of the conversation. It is often the case that women, with their parallel-process wiring, are able to integrate information faster than are men, who are wired more in series. The wise woman checks in regularly with her male partner to see if he has blown a fuse. If so, it is time to revisit the material and talk it through more thoroughly.

Anxiety needs to be anticipated and understood. If thinking and discussing existential, relational issues raises anxiety, and anxiety is seen as painful, then folks (again, often the men folks) will start to believe that thinking and discussing are painful. While it’s true that high levels of anxiety are truly painful, low and moderate levels of anxiety are most often indicators of high quality engagement with life. If either member of the team feels greatly unsettled by anxiety, this would be a good topic to study and master together before proceeding to other areas of relationship building. It also might be helpful to study appropriately constructed defenses as well as healthy fighting styles early on in the churching process.

Action items are helpful. If, at the end of a churching session, each member of the couple has a specific relational task they want to practice, there’s a lot to be said for jotting it down and keeping it somewhere noticeable. (I think the fellow who invented sticky notes may have done as much for humanity as all the therapists ever born!) Another nag, however. It’s not nearly as effective when the action items come from the other person. Self-described tasks are always more likely to be implemented.

Critical input, like salt in soup, should be carefully introduced. Discussion without critique can be unproductive, but you don’t need much to spice things up. Effective critique occurs when the speaker is skilled at both assertion and empathy, so these might be two articles to also put on your agenda for early in the churching process.

(N.B. secondo: It is important to remember we should routinely be feeling five times the number of positive thoughts about our honey than critical thoughts. If this is not true in your relationship, if the very foundation of the partnership feels shaken or if feelings of loathing seem to dominate one or both members of the dyad, it would be wise to seek out a professional assessment of the relationship. Additionally, because critical input is so valuable in a partnership, if either or both members of the relationship feel devastated by even gentle criticism, it is time to find an excellent therapist.)

And enjoyments

You need to also spend some time designing the enjoyments. Maybe I should say you get to spend some time designing the enjoyments. All aspects of your churching endeavors are up for uniqueing. The setting, the accoutrements, the refreshments, the rituals, the budget, the timing, the frequency and so on are all yours to design. Have fun making your churching process lovely and pleasurable! And, if you send me your ideas, I’ll post them here on the website.

Great expectations

Expectations always have the potential to get us into trouble. When they are too low, we may struggle to maintain both our focus and our patience as the benefits of an endeavor slowly unfold. When they are unrealistically high, we are set up for disappointment – an all too common entry point that our petulance or our procrastination can use to hijack our best selves. But expectations, like hope, arrive unbidden in our minds at the speed of electricity – way before we have any chance of stopping them.

So please let me predict what you can expect from the first six months of churching to help you align your thinking not only with what will likely happen but also with each other.

In most relationships there is one person more dedicated to the relationship and clearer in the act of having chosen their partner. There is also regularly one person who has had more experience with the deep satisfaction and resilience resulting from a healthy attachment. This is very often the same person and it is very often the female in heterosexual relationships. These facts add up to the reality that most men are neither as interested in nor as skilled with attachment processes. It follows that it is generally the men who find it difficult to dedicate themselves to the process of churching. If a couple is forewarned that this may be the case, they can take extra care in the beginning to neutralize that threat by contracting to an experiment of 6 months of churching and an agreement to reassess at the end of that time period. If one of the partners is unwilling to pledge approximately 26 hours of structured and straightforward relationship work spread out over half a year, I recommend that the couple find a skilled and wise therapist without delay.

Don’t look for either smooth sailing or an instant comfort with the process. As I mentioned above, it can take several months for a couple to find the timing, setting, materials, rhythm and so on that will suit both their needs. If you can each remember that this trial-and-error process is normal, you can sidestep the unhelpful reactions of blame or disillusionment. Expect a lurching progression with weeks that help the couple feel closer and safer with each other and weeks when issues can seem insurmountable.

But let me stress here, it can be a positive sign when you have a working session that is a bit rocky. If you remember that the opposite of love is apathy, then the fact that you both care enough to get emotionally activated can reassure you that you are both still capable of passionately engaging with each other. A rocky session can also be an indication that you have hit upon an important issue that has been festering under the surface for a while. If you can take a deep breath as a couple, try to figure out what that issue is and perhaps look for resource material to address that issue more directly (or step out of churching briefly to seek couples therapy), your relationship can take a large and potent step toward cleansing and stitching the old wound.

It helps to know that very often a great session will be followed by a not-so-great one or two. This happens when one or both members of the couple feel too exposed and vulnerable by the transparent sharing that happened in the good session and the seeming fragility of the resulting closeness. A natural and appropriate reaction is to withdraw a bit. A few guarded sessions are just a way to self-protect and need not signal a problematic resistance or unreasonableness. The articles on defense systems and building trust can help the couple recognize what is happening in order to work more quickly through it. Again, if both people see this as normal and predictable, they can rest assured that no one is intentionally trying to sabotage the work.

There will also be developmental steps in the process of making the secular sacred as a couple puts churching practices in place for themselves. A rookie couple will tend to over investigate every blip that happens between the two participants. This is analogous to pulling a tiny seedling out of the ground to see how well the roots are developing. In contrast, an experienced couple will tend to have a long-arc view of the process. They will recognize the patterns described above so will, for example, laugh their way past a bad session that has followed an unusually fertile session. They will also remember that bland isn’t bad. As I alluded to above, a wise person remembers that quality moments are always embedded in a quantity of moments. They can even cherish those odd instances that would rattle a novice couple. I once fell asleep during a reading session (my husband has a very soothing voice), but we both understood that my doing so was a function of my feeling safe and relaxed in our ritual rather than being uninterested in the material or disconnected from him. Doesn’t mean that I didn’t get teased about it a bit.

Finally, the positive data can be difficult to notice and assess.

First of all, at the beginning of the churching process one or both members of the dyad can have a storage unit filled with unresolved resentments and hurts. Even if the work on the relationship is starting to pay off, then, it can be very hard to let go of some of those negative feelings long enough to allow for a kinder and more sincere closeness to occur. If you find yourself thinking more and more positive thoughts about your significant other in the weeks following the initiation of churching and you bravely admit to yourself that you have been a bit stingy about sharing those due to either ongoing bitterness or fear of not hearing positivity coming back to you, please gently urge yourself to bring that up during a work session. And please do so without feeling shame for your lack of generosity. And please consider reading the long and complicated and vital article on love together first.

Second, even when both people in the relationship are eager to see improvements in the bond and are willing to demonstrate better behaviors, much of the improvement between the two folks will be the absence of negative behaviors. It is much harder to spot missing actions – when your partner stops correcting you in public, for instance, or your both resist the temptation to let your tone of voice slide toward disdain. Experienced couples often check in at the start of a relationship meeting with a review of the week and an acknowledgement of any forward progress, recognizing both the absence of irritations and the presence of new warmth and closeness.

And the following long sentence probably needs to stand alone: Because men lag in their levels of dedication as well as their relationship skills, when they increase both, the improved balance in the partnership is extraordinarily reassuring to their partner, meaning that a very common side effect of churching can be improvement in the sex life of the couple.

If you realize that sex is a physical conversation between two people, it makes sense that routinely entering into undisturbed, careful and intimate talks will foster a willingness to have undisturbed, careful intimacy. And how does one ever overstate this – because it is so very often the men who are less committed to and less interested in the general workings of a relationship, when they start to up their game the result is a surge of relief on the part of the woman. Hopefully this upgrade will lead to the bedroom in both his willingness to listen more conscientiously and explore more deeply, and her willingness to speak up more routinely and request more honestly.

All this is to say that calm curiosity is simply the most effective way to navigate through the process of building churching skills between you and your partner. I invite you to send me your experiences with the churching process – especially around expectation and results – so I can include any concerns I’ve left out.

Silverback female

I have been a therapist for a long, long time. Please let me pass along to you two additional tidbits. With regard to churching a relationship, I have never seen it fail. Yes, the process can be lurching and messy in the beginning, but all the dyads in my practice who have put in the time to learn how to church have been successful in strengthening their relationships. With regard to source material, everything I have learned from all those years has been included in the articles of this website and organized in the order I have found to be most helpful to folks as they try to improve their psychological health. If you and your partner read through the 50 plus articles in a careful and thorough manner, there's over a year of material here for you. So, if you and someone you love are starting to feel couched in sloppy relationship habits, please let self-construct help you reenergize and recommit.

In conclusion

Like a secular church service, weekly work on our relationship will send us back into our week with more insight and more resolution, for we will have been substantiating faith in our relationship using the trustworthiness of sustained effort which is specifically focused on studying the skills that underlie the creation of a solid love with our life partner.

- - - - - -------------------------------------------------------- - - - - -

Now. As a little addendum to this article, I want to make the point that it’s also sensible to church your relationship with yourself. Life is difficult and I think a certain understandable inertia can result from facing that truth. Daily struggles to stay true to our best intentions, the profoundly confusing unknowns in life and the people we encounter who are behaving poorly all threaten to cripple our existential enthusiasm. If we let ourselves get too drained, self-doubt and apathy start to creep in. It’s always generative (or regenerative) when we connect to the people whose well-constructed lives are the purest examples of living in good faith. We can do that by routinely exposing ourselves to these people, be they authors, thinkers, speakers, neighbors or whomever. The more reliably we connect to the existential GPS system of these folks, the less far afield will we wander. I highly recommend taking the time and effort to curate materials and people that inspire you and train yourself to make the space weekly to select one item or person from your collection to absorb and enjoy. And, of course, we also deserve a well-designed, comforting environment for our weekly self-growth ritual. Let's hear it for exotic coffee served in the coolest mug with the crunchiest biscotti.

Rachel Naomi Remen said, “Perhaps the secret of living well is not in having all the answers but in pursuing unanswerable questions in good company.”


© Copyright 2014 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.