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Diving Deeper into Life & Love

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  • Steven Spotts, PsyD

Work, One of 16 Essential Ingredients in Healthy Relationships

Updated: Apr 21, 2018

This is part 2 in a series of 16 characteristics that help define mental health. Psychologist and author, Dr. Nancy McWilliams, shared this list at a recent conference and it prompted me to think about how our capacities for (or limitations of) these traits describing mental health might impact the development our intimate relationships.

Work, in contrast to love as defined in my previous post, is more an expression of our differentiated needs than it is of our attachment needs. That doesn’t mean we don’t find meaningful work with others important or that we always want to work by ourselves. In fact, what I’m describing here has little or nothing to do with the type of work we do or with whom we do it.


Instead, let’s think of work conceptually. What is required? Do we have to have an able body, an intelligent mind, a competent self, or an encouraging other to be able to work? Why do you work? Is it always for economic reward or are there other reasons?

Does it make sense to you that our capacity for meaningful work is an expression of our mental state? It involves our motivations, our sense of self and others, our attitudes, and our ability to ascribe meaning to our experience.


Why am I doing this right now? I’m not getting paid. I’m not necessarilyt even generating much in the way of conversation. However, somehow it still provides meaning for me. It is a way to clarify my thinking, to engage the thoughts of others, to live out one of my passions, to share my experience with others, and to give back some of what has been given to me.

Look around you. What expressions do you see of another’s work? Typing away on my macbook and sitting next to my iPhone, I’m thankful for Steve Jobs right now (not to mention the countless others who have developed the technology we use). But I’m also thankful for the books on my desk and their authors; for the craftsmanship evident in the desk itself; for the house I sit in and the lamp by which I read; for the utility company and their workers that provide the power to run all of these things, and for the breakfast I’m about to eat. If it wasn’t for the “work” of others, for what they give of themselves to us, where would we be?


Can you think of examples of how your work provides meaning to your life and to your relationships?

Have you ever been around someone who refuses to work. How “healthy” does he or she seem to you? What meaning does unemployment have for people? What does it do to self esteem? In times of high unemployment, what might you expect in regard to crime, to addiction, to civic pride, etc.?

I think it is very significant that at the pinnacle of creation, on God’s sixth day of work, He created man in His own image and gave what some theologians have called the great cultural mandate. God directs His new created humanity to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and rule over...every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen 1:28-30).

But God also speaks in regard to work after the fall when humanity fails to let God be the definer of good and evil. At that point He limits the damage we can do to this great gift of work (and to eadh other) by saying, “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life... (Gen 3:17-19). It's a built in limitation that prevents us from doing all that we might wish or think to do.

Creative and meaningful work is part of our God given likeness, yet (like all things) it has been tainted by the destructive and corruptive quality of our redefinitions of what is good and bad. So it appears that He provides for both our constructive and our destructive capacities.

Resentments regarding a spouse working too much or not enough are frequently the subject matter of marital therapy. If you are married, you likely have experienced those resentments, or maybe even guilt if your work requires too much of you. When it comes to balancing your relationship and your career, ask yourself if it necessary to sacrifice one to have the other. How well do you manage the tension between the two?

This subject can be even further complicated when the notion of “God’s work” is involved in those families committed to "God's work" usually referred to as ministry. When is the work of ministry or care giving ever complete? Is some work more important than others? And, does the “ministry” work of one partner take undue precedence over the “manual labor” of another? What is the difference, exactly?

There will always be people who need to be seen and problems to be addressed. Not finding a good balance between meeting ministry needs and meeting family needs has shipwrecked many ministerial families. Tragically, that is one reason many children of pastors, missionaries, and other care givers reject God or end up in therapy as adults.

What about you? What is your passion? Is it expressed in your work? What about your spouse? Do you know what they find meaningful about their work? How well do you balance? Does your work negatively impact your love? Take some time to talk with each other (or to a friend if you are not married) and “work” on this. Let me know what you discover.

Check back for part 3 of 16 characteristics of mental health: Play.


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