What Does Working On Your Relationship Actually Look Like?

Couple lover talking together in bedroom.

While sure, you learn how to put condoms on bananas and all the US state capitals, when it comes to learning how to work on our interpersonal relationships, it's not exactly in the school curriculum. And if your family of origin is also not communication-forward, it can put you at yet another disadvantage. But having relationships is a whole thing, that requires a lot of effort, patience, and yes, work. And that work, because it's of the emotional variety, is not always a lot of fun.

"The other day my mom told me she was proud because she thinks I'm so good at communicating in relationships, which I thought was funny," Jude, 32, tells Bustle. "She says it's because she did a good job with me, but I kinda think I learned by some major trial and error."

Such is the case for so many people, you know? You simply have to figure out how to do it as you go along, or seek out some guidance when it comes to dealing with your lovers and loved ones. But it's worth all the very real blood, sweat, and tears since, you know, connection is what life on Earth is all about.

Below, nine women share how they learned to work on their relationships, and how they are better for it.


Megan, 38


"When there’s conflict, I think a lot of times we conflate communication to mean or involve combat. So, it makes the prospect and act of communicating needs or what’s bothering you seem scary. Or we avoid it because we build it up to be more than it is. But I learned‚ definitely not from my parents, that if you have open lines of communication and trust that both parties are coming from a place of love and respect, then everything is on the table and everything is a discussion and communication during conflict stops being scary. And you realize it’s hard to classify those conflicts as fights when they were really just conversations where each person was heard."


Sammy, 33

"I like and love my husband so I say, why not ask for outside, professional help with our weak spots? If my options are to work on my relationship with my husband or to just endure years of resentment and dysfunction like my parents did, or just leave, the easier and more enriching option is to do the work. I don’t want to wake up at 65 with a burning hatred in my heart harping on years of regret."


Lisa, 32


"I think most women’s reflex in almost any situation is to try to assume responsibility. So if something isn’t going well - it becomes either what did I do wrong, or what is wrong and how can I fix it. In a sense, that's always been ingrained in me, so it's how I approach further learning to communicate."


Mika, 28

"My whole life I've been told that 'people never change,' but I've learned that when you accept your partner, without judgement or desire to change them, you end up changing yourself. So people do change, and they don’t at the moment you want them to. Relationships are about acceptance and healing old painful patterns as they arise. That's a skill you learn over time."


Daly, 37


"I'm going to be funny, here, but after being with my partner for three years, someone once told me that when it comes to love, if you really want to deepen connection, you have to let your dreams and idea of romance go, just kinda let them die. You've got to realize that all you are is two humans, plodding through. And embrace insanity. We're weird creatures. Start from there and be willing."


Jude, 32

"I just learned to talk about what is going on when issues come up, mostly from other people beginning conversations with me. That's how I learned I can do that with other people. You just experience that if you don't talk through stuff, it sucks. It's bad. You see what happens when people try to ignore things or swallow their feelings. Also, lesbians just love to talk. It's a blessing and a curse. "


Jill, 38


"I learned that in moments of tension or if a person is upset with you, leave your ego at the door so you can actually hear what they're saying and listen without becoming defensive. I can't just think of my response while my partner is talking. I've really had to learn to practice listening first and then responding, which is something I heard in yoga of all places. It’s OK for conversations to be slow and take time especially when hurt feelings are on the line."


Diana, 67

"I've learned that after many years of trial and error, that tending a thriving relationship requires patience, trust, communication, respect for each other, and a sense of humor."


Stella, 25


"A mentor told me that 90% of a relationship is just showing up for people. I was always someone who felt like I didn't get enough love, so when I took the advice of giving people the love I wanted to get, it was also easier to see that people did show up for me, already, too. Focusing on other people helps you recognize love, it helps you recognize your own needs, too."


Ellen, 36

"I think the two places I learned the most about communicating with another person were in couples therapy, and in graduate school. More specifically, during orientation for grad school when our whole cohort took a personality profile test that described our individual communication style. [...] It sounds dumb to say, but it was the first time that I realized that I can think I'm being incredibly clear and communicating beautifully, but the way another person hears me, how they take in and process information might mean that for them I'm actually being really confusing, unclear, or aggressive and unproductive. That has also affected how I communicate personally, with friends, or family, or my husband because I have more appreciation for the fact that what makes sense to me may be totally off for the other person.

And then, of course, there was couples therapy where I learned that it is unfair and inaccurate to ever accuse my partner of 'making me feel' something. That instead I can say, 'when you say this, I feel that.'"

And friends, if you ever feel lost navigating relationships, just ask. Ask friends, loved ones, teachers, a therapist. We're all working through this stuff together. The more work we put into connection, the more we get out of it.