„Frustrated in relationship? Do the work!“– What does that mean?


19. März 2021


„Do the work!“ … „You gotta do the work!“ … „Relationship is work!!“ – Do you ever get tired of hearing that? Reading that in so many social media posts? Do you ever ask yourself: What does that even mean?

I did. It irked me. It gave me only a pretty vague idea of what I have to do. I thought I was working pretty hard! It felt awful enough. And it was slow going… I wish I had had the overview I have today. Might have saved me some loops and saved my marriage some awful fights. For example I misused non-violent communication pretending non-violence with a closed-off heart (read more about that here). I also got high and mighty often enough. That was lonely and unhelpful. Ouch.

Gradually, though, I was catching on. Here is a very simple overview of how I see „doing the work“ on myself and my relationships today. Basically I see two main areas:

  1. Awareness,
  2. Communication.

Both are in service of me and the relationship. And both are in service of me living my truth, and bringing myself fully to what I want to do with this precious life. And here is a list of things I do within these two areas. They are „the work“ for me, and life-changing. I am curious what is on your list – please share in the comments!


Relational self-awareness. I had to expand my self-awareness. Meditating alone was not enough. When the heat is on with my husband and the pain-level rises, practicing self-awareness is staying open, and in my embodied experience. How? Slowing down to simple feeling statements when I am „in it“ e.g. „I am scared.“ And: Asking trusted friends and my partner to practice this with me. Getting help from (couples) coaches.

Noticing when I exchange thought for embodied awareness. Analysing the problem at hand is good. Yet I learnt that sometimes not prudence, but fear evokes analysis. Then I get all in my head, shut down to my emotions and sensations. That way I miss a lot of essential data. My outer calm then is merely the tip of an iceberg, with an underwater volcano that others are keenly aware of. It is essential to catch myself pretending rationality. How: Little check in meditations that include awareness of bodily sensation frequently. Yoga. Dance. Body work (e.g. shiatsu). Somatic meditation. Having colleagues and friends who call me out. Therapy and coaching.

Expanding my capacity to be with strong emotions. As increased self-awareness opened a new landscape of emotions to me, I began training to be with stronger charges, for example feeling my fear without reacting when I perceive tension in others. I practice observing the course of my activation in my body and through time. How: I find inspiration in Bruce Tift’s „Already free“, enlist peers, close friends and my partners to help me regulate (co-regulation). Yoga. Mindfulness meditation. Bicycling and hiking mountains or long-distance.

Blindspots. I found out they are called that for a reason… My challenge: to stay open to the pain caused by my blindspots, and to the hard-to-hear feedback from others. Pain and feedback show me the way to see myself more clearly. How: Asking my partner, friends and practice community for feedback. „What is it like to be with me? How do you experience me?“ Listening. Pulling myself up from shame and collapse when I am too hard on myself.

Sense of direction. My direction toward wholeness is often counterintuitive, toward intense discomfort. Yet I also need to listen to my intuition. Huh?! Exactly. It’s confusing. My work is doing baby-steps toward discomfort in service of my deepest truth. How: Using support and guidance to stay oriented. Self care: Making time to be with myself to hear where my heart longs to go. Asking myself: What would I show/request/say/do if I weren’t afraid?

Knowing what I need. One of the most helpful things I learnt at The Relationshop School® was about our core and fundamental needs (Core needs: 1. Attachment and 2. Self-expression; and Fundamental needs: the 4S+C – to be Safe, Seen, Soothed and Supported and Challenged). This structure helped me find the courage and clarity, as well as the language to advocate for my needs. How: Learn about needs. Taking time to explore my needs with my partner, friends, peers. Recognising pain as a signal to look at what I am lacking (pain = Pay Attention Inward Now). Therapy and coaching.

Tenacity. It is hard for me to not back down. Yet as I flip-flop between „I am a delight! It’s all on him!“ and „I am broken! I will never get this right!“ I stay as steady as I can and stay the course. Secure relating looks simple to me, yet I find it very difficult to do. I am taking years to learn! What keeps me going? Small steps in the right direction have had massive positive impacts, even when I did them messily. How: Getting help from accountability partners. Community and peers. Listing why I care about this work (e.g. my children, my purpose…). Coaching and Therapy.


Give understanding. I prided myself to be a good listener. But I really learned to listen much more deeply through a listening structure taught in The Relationship School®. Here is a mini-summary: Decide to really listen. Are you present? Do you feel curious? Then really listen (reflecting efficiently; being actively interrupting and asking questions in service of understanding). Check back with them often to see if you are getting them. Stay curious until their experience makes complete sense to you and seems relatable. Let them know how and why their experience makes sense to you (this is called „validation“ and calms people way down). I notice that few people know how to listen fully, all the way until someone feels understood. Yet when I feel understood I calm down, and new possibility arises. How: Get the structure and practice it with others! It’s like playing the guitar: thinking about it won’t do the trick. Use in daily life and notice the difference.

Have an infinite set of new eyes to see. One of my biggest challenges is „automating“ my partner and others: I see what I expect and am blind to the rest. Returning to fresh eyes over and over again is a challenge. How: As I walk toward the other person, I notice my expectations and set them down consciously (e.g. when my kids were younger I would walk upstairs to check out a loud commotion, using the staircase to let go of my assumptions and stay open with each step). Yoga. Meditation. I listen to my favorite music, dance. I sing. I move in nature. I pretend that my husband is a wondrous specimen I just found.

Know what they care about. I thought I knew what made my partner’s heart sing. Yet as I was able to work better with my charges, I listened more deeply, and found more ways to relate to it. I know what the three most important things are in his life, and stay curious as they change. This is key to my understanding, our collaboration and mutual empowerment. How: I observe how he spends his time and ask questions. I work with my judgements and hire a couples coach if my charge keeps me from accepting his desires.

Take responsibility. Over and over again I fall down, yet I keep practicing using I statements. No blame. At first I practiced this in half-day „blame fasts“. I rarely made it though the half-day… When I got better at noticing blame and asking myself „What do I need?“ when it arises, I had a big shift. Read more about that here. How: Learn about your needs, because being „starved“ makes you cranky. Practice self-care. Get a practice partner to help you stay true to this, and to unload and share the struggle.

Take ownership. This was a big step toward learning how to repair our connection for me: Owning my actions and my experience. And letting them have their experience. I try to not get tempted into a battle of right and wrong. Relating is all about understanding and each other’s subjective experiences. When my behaviour has caused upset I make an effort to acknowledge what I did/said/didn’t do and what I would rather have done/said instead. That works better than a quick „I am sorry“. How: Learn about using acknowledgement versus apology. Practice with friends. Hire a coach.

Know your judgments. I try not to kid myself that I am beyond judgement or irritation, always calm and loving. I know I will fool no one but myself… My work is owning my judgements, noticing them and doing the work to clear them, again and again and again. The more I do, the more I love – that is my biggest motivation. I cherish having opinions and preferences, and aim to hold them lightly. How: Learn how to clear resentments and bigger charges. Practice this with friends. Hire a coach.

Boundaries. I strive to be clear about what is ok with me. In finding my true, flexible boundaries, I often go through porosity or rigidity. It may take me a while to find the line, and the lines are changing, yet this got so much easier with practice. How: Be transparent with your inner circle about wanting to learn this better, so they understand and can be supportive. Get to know the signs that you failed to uphold a boundary (e.g. time starvation, irritation, feeling spent and defeated). Practice within a trusted community. Stay alive and playful – as Esther Perel points out at the end of this eclectic but very useful video. Otherwise it become all about borders and rules.

Speak with skill. I need to know myself and my partner to speak with skill. Why? Knowing what they love most in life, I can advocate for what I love by pointing to synergies. The more I know how getting my needs met serves them in practical real life terms, the more ease I experience in negotiations. How: Get the help of a friend to list how meeting YOUR needs would serve THEM. Get creative. Stuck? Get a (couples) coach.

Ok, what was meant to be a well-structured, short list turned into a bit of an ecosystem: diverse and complex. And not complete, of course. Let me know if my collection helps you! What is missing? What is your experience with „doing the work“ on your relationships?

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