The Energy Accounting of Intimate Relationship

Here’s a question. Is your relationship worth it?

I can’t give you the answer, or even a formula that could tell you. But I can help you understand the math your heart is already doing on the topic, why it’s coming up with the results it is, and what would need to be different if you’re not happy with what it’s telling you.

Fair-weather relationship, or ride-or-die relationship?

When times are good—when your life in general is going well—it’s easy to love. It feels good to do nice things for each other. Being generous and loving comes naturally. Relationships tend to thrive in the fertile soil of a good life.

When life challenges have you feeling drained or stressed, the solidity of the relationship is revealed more starkly, one way or the other.

You might feel more gratitude than ever—I’m sooooo glad to be facing this with you by my side, I can’t imagine trying to do it alone!

Or you might feel the opposite—you start to experience them as a burden and feel resentful. All this plus having to deal with you too?

What is it that determines whether a relationship feels like the most valuable asset you have in the hardest of times, or an added liability you might just be better off cutting from your life?


Let’s say that everything you do for your partner or for the relationship is energy. Time, attention, supporting your partner emotionally when they need it, learning to speak their love language, financial support, doing activities your partner enjoys more than you, and so on. All different forms of energy.

And everything you receive from the relationship, everything that nourishes and fills your cup, is also energy.

If I asked you the energetic value of your time, or the exchange rate of supporting your partner when they’re down, or the cost to you of having difficult conversations, or how great sex contributes to your bottom line, you might shrug, unable to answer. These are questions of the heart rather than the brain.

The heart can tell you how it feels. If I asked you how often you silently wonder whether the relationship is worth it, that’s something you might be able to tell me. If it’s pretty often, that’s not a great sign.

And a good indicator that it’s not worth it is if you’ve started weighing the alternatives on a regular basis. The (possibly sizable) energetic cost of a breakup. The balance sheet of single life—the joy of freedom balanced against the ache of loneliness. The comparative value of a potential new partner. A relationship may sit in the not-worth-it state for quite some time before something finally changes.

So what does “worth it” actually mean?

Energy accounting

I’m going to say something that seems obvious, but bear with me because we’ll hopefully go somewhere interesting with it.

A relationship is worth it if you’re receiving more than what you’re putting in.

A relationship that costs you more than it nourishes and fills your cup isn’t sustainable, long term.

Either you end it, or you gradually run your energetic surplus down to zero and well into the negative, or you subsidize the energetic cost of the relationship from other resources in your life—fulfilling work, passion projects, love and energy from other family and friends, etc.

And this is true both ways. In order to be viable, the relationship has to be worth it to both of you.

But take a moment to think about what that means.

Both partners are receiving more than what they’re putting in.

That means relationship can’t be a zero-sum game.

A viable, long-term relationship is inherently generative.

So what makes a relationship generative?


At a concrete, everyday level, there are things you do as an intimate partner that really don’t cost you much, but are of great value to them. Kind words. A chore they hate that you don’t mind. Physical affection. A cuppa coffee or a prepared meal when they’re slam at work. Sucking their genitals pleasurably. Bringing a bit of humor and lightness when they’re stressed (or lightening their load by taking some of it on). Not letting them torture themselves over something dumb. All the little ways you watch out for them and have their back.

And vice versa. There are things they do for you that don’t cost them much but are of great value to you.

These high-ROI gestures, large or small, are precisely what make a relationship generative, rather than a zero-sum game. Relationships thrive on them.

Without them the relationship is a transactional, bean-counting competition—a race to get the most while giving the least—and intrinsically unstable. (Unless that’s what you’re both into.)

In a generative relationship, what benefits your partner benefits the relationship, and what benefits the relationship benefits you.

If everything your partner wants, likes, or enjoys—everything that nourishes and fills their cup—is too burdensome and costly to you to do, then the relationship doesn’t have good long-term prospects.

I often talk about the potential for relationships to get progressively better and more valuable over time. What does that mean, concretely? What are they actually doing to bring that about? They continue to discover things they can do for each other that don’t feel particularly costly to do but are of great value to the other.

The longer I coach couples the more convinced I am that these simple, generous, high-ROI acts are the everyday building blocks of thriving long-term relationships.

And it’s this generative quality that gives committed relationships the potential to be a lot more fulfilling in the long run than NRE (“new relationship energy”).

Fair-weather vs. ride-or-die, revisited

Let’s revisit our original scenario. Let’s say you’re undergoing a difficult career transition. Your reserves are low and your energy budget feels tight. Your capacity to generously pour love on your partner has plummeted, and your hunger to receive love and support from them feels urgent.

Meanwhile your partner, who usually has your back unwaveringly, has been struggling to support a sick parent from afar. So they’re feeling the same way.

Even couples who are good at supporting each other through individual challenges are at risk of having serious relationship strife when they hit mutual depletion. It’s a common movie trope: have the couple fall in love in Act I, then give them both life challenges and watch them fight to the brink of a break-up in Act II.

So are you going to be collaborators—yes, even here, in fact especially here—or competitors? Allies or enemies? Valuable assets to each other, or liabilities?

Couples in mutual depletion show up at my doorstep, each accusing the other of being the more needy, self-centered, moody, unavailable, unsupportive one, and seemingly at the worst possible moment. You’re choosing now of all times, when I need you the most, to stop showing up for me and become demanding? I can’t believe it! Don’t you see what I’m having to deal with over here? How are you even complaining?

And they’re both feeling that way.

Now it’s conceivable that neither of you is capable of showing up for the other right now, and that the most valuable thing you can do is turn your attention to self care and meeting your own needs, and letting your partner do the same. That’s certainly better than competing for who’s situation is the most dire, and thus more deserving of sympathy and inflow of energy.

But from a generative-relationship POV, it’s also conceivable that the most valuable, highest-ROI thing you could do right now is that one small gesture, whatever it is, that would mean everything to your partner.

Maybe it’s letting them delegate a few of those difficult phone calls or paperwork to you, because it’ll be a little easier emotionally for you than for them. Maybe it’s listening to them and comforting them first, knowing they would be doing the same for you if they could. (And in fact they will as soon as they can, and this is one small step toward restoration.) You get the idea.

It’s conceivable that very best way to spend your limited energy is on something that will fill their their cup a little bit more than anything you can think of to do for yourself right now.

It’s conceivable that you can gradually pull each other out of the hole, a little bit easier than you would be able to pull yourselves out individually.

That is a generative relationship. What benefits your partner benefits the relationship, and what benefits the relationship benefits you.

And the better you know each other, the more you know what you can do for each other that surpasses what you can do for yourselves.

Talk about it

Have this be an ongoing conversation with your partner. What fills their cup? What fills yours? Among those, which are the easiest or least energetically costly to do?

Do you both even trust that what you put in, you’ll get back multiplied? If not, is that the kind of relationship you’d like to have?

How can you make the relationship more generative?

Previously Published on Medium

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