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Life Is Like A Three Legged Stool: Work, Love and Friendship

(2 minute read)

In a previous post I talked about Freud’s summary of life: “Love and work, work and love, that’s all there is.” And indeed, for people who have no one, or nothing to love, and have no role in the world that is valued by society (whether paid or unpaid, in the home or outside), it is difficult to be content.

I sometimes tell my clients that life is like a three legged stool: Love and work comprise the first two legs, while friendship and social relationships is the third. Now, of course, any of us can get along for a while with just one of these. We can all think of people who focus exclusively on their career, for whom climbing the corporate, professional or academic ladder is everything, and for whom a close relationship with a spouse, children or friends are ‘nice to haves’, but by no means essential. Their identity, self worth and well being are wrapped up firmly in what they do, and that’s all they need, at least for many years.

Similarly, there are people for whom love is the driving force. Sometimes that is romantic love, where one half of the partnership finds meaning in life through subordinating their own needs to those of their partner. Often it’s love for children, where a parent (generally the mother) is entirely focused on the well being of their offspring. Occasionally it’s caring for aging parents to the exclusion of their own needs.

The problem with relying on any one leg of the stool and allowing one or both of the other legs to become fragile or even disappear entirely, is that stools are only stable when they have three legs. And I’d suggest that we are only stable when we have all three — work, love and friendship — in our lives. Why is that? Because sooner or later, someone or something is going to kick one of those legs out from under us.

For those who are entirely devoted to work — jobs and careers don’t last forever. Even if we’re self employed, the day will come when we just can’t do what we used to. We’re fired, forced into partial or full retirement, or hang on, unwilling to recognize what others can see clearly: that we’re doing a less and less effective job. Eventually we are pushed out, or forced to recognize our incompetence.

For those among us who put everything into their romantic relationship, there is always the inevitability of death and the possibility of withering of affection or even divorce. All relationships must come to an end, or at least change. And for those who center their lives around their children, those children eventually go off to build their own lives, or begin to resist our focus on them. Perhaps these children make life choices we disagree with, or cause us to like them less.

We can, of course, survive these shocks and recover from them. But recovery is much faster when there are other supports in our life. The pain of losing a job is cushioned by a romantic partner and friends. The agony of divorce or the death of a spouse is likewise cushioned by supportive friends and the ability to lose oneself — for a while at least — in a rewarding job. And the pain of losing a friend, or being excluded from a social group is also eased by love and work.

And so, as we race through life in a whirlwind of work, romance, child rearing, parties, meals, chores and the like, it’s worthwhile remembering the three legs upon which our long term happiness depends. And if we find we’re too focused on any one of these, and have let others fade, perhaps it would make sense to rebalance a bit.


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