Phillip and Emily have been married for just over a year. Far from happy newlyweds, both of them entered into the relationship with fear and trembling, right down to crying spells and powerful second thoughts on the wedding day. Their dating life, on the other hand, was filled with laughter, intrigue, and romance. The two could barely stand to be out of the other’s presence, and friends and loved-ones marveled at how quickly they seemed to bond. So quickly, in fact, that they only dated for 6 months before tying the knot. Now, each of them can reliably report that on any given day, they’re not sure they have what it takes to make it.
Morris and Jamie are the classic “on-again/off-again” couple. Their 3-year dating relationship has been characterized by countless break-ups and make-ups, each time the couple promising the other this time they were in it for good. The predictability of this cycle is remarkable, though neither of them seems to see it that way, and both of them experience their dating lives as chaotic. Now they’re going through the “let’s date other people” routine again, but neither is sure they can make it for another go-round.
Abe and Jennifer are the proud parents of 3 grown children in their 20’s. Since the last departed for college a few years ago leaving them with a completely empty nest, they haven’t quite known what to do – with themselves or each other. They knew this day was coming, when they’d be alone again with just themselves and their marriage, but they didn’t spend much time planning for it. Consequently, to some degree they have separate interests and lives. Now, when they lay down at night next to each other, they’re both feeling like strangers. What’s worse, their mutual fear of discussing it has prevented them from knowing what the other is thinking, and has lead to anxiety, anger, and feelings of hopelessness. They’re pillars of their community and respected members of their church, so they don’t feel comfortable talking with a pastor. But they’re both uncertain what may happen if they don’t do something soon.
Relationship problems are unbelievably common, at any stage.
You’d think we’d know how common relational difficulties are with the reports on TV and the internet. Yet, somehow we’re still surprised with they pop up in our own lives. But the truth is that relationships at all stages encounter problems to a greater or lesser degree – during friendship, dating, long-term commitment, and marriage. Relationships can encounter troubles with:
- Life change or transition such as job change, geographic relocations, family changes, etc.
- Anger/temper outbursts
- Emotional or Sexual Infidelity
- Time Commitments
- Individual, personal struggles such as troubled pasts
Most relationship problems are rooted in things we learned a long time ago.
Many of our attitudes about intimate relationships and what to expect from them are shaped by observing our parents’ and other adults’ relationships. People often have either very naive or pessimistic views of relationships, tending to believe that they should never disagree or that conflict is permanently inevitable. Our own experiences of familial and intimate relationships play a part as well as we tend to establish certain relationship patterns early on.
Patterns from the past are capable of changing.
Still, as much as we have learned from the systems we were a part of and watched, it is possible to live more happy and fulfilled, relationally and otherwise. The hard part is that, because we often drift in and through relationships with little or no active awareness of how we got where we are or what we need to work on, we’ve ended up reinforcing some of the dysfunctional patterns we’ve learned over the years. But these things can be unlearned with time and work. How much have you already committed to your relationship? Is it worth working on?
Start out by assessing where you’re really at.
It’s normal for relationship partners to have different needs in at least few areas, such as spending time with others vs. spending time with each other, wanting “quality time” together vs. needing time to be alone, going out dancing vs. going to a sporting event, etc. These kinds of differences are germane to any relationship and not necessarily indicative of a major problem. It’s what you do with these differences that counts. Finding a way to work “toward” each other is key.
Here’s a great relationship assessment. Answer each question with a simple “yes” or “no.”
- My partner and I have clear communication.
- We have trust in one another.
- There is mutual respect between us.
- We have common interests.
- We are able to perceive things differently without expecting each other to see things the other’s way.
- I feel my partner values me intellectually, emotionally, and if intimate, physically.
- I am able to grow independently, and I support my partner’s growth, thus our relationship is also growing.
- We each have activities and friendships we enjoy outside of those in our relationship.
- We accept each other as we are, rather than constantly trying to change each other.
- I truly receive joy from our relationship.
This may come as a shock, but if you have even 1 “no”, it might be worth considering whether there is relationship work that needs to be done.
A lot of these thoughts seem to assume we’re talking about heterosexual relationships. What about LGBTQ+ relationships? Do the same principles apply?
All humans have needs for love, safety, and commitment. LGBTQ+ persons are no different in that sense. But there may be some unique dynamics, however:
- When both partners are of the same gender, prototypical characteristics of that gender may be exaggerated in the relationship. This may be experienced positively or negatively.
- Partners in same-sex relationships may feel unable to be open about their relationship with friends, colleagues, and family, potentially leaving the couple isolated and deprived of a support network.
- The nature of monogamy, relationships, and polyamory are unique in some portions of LGBTQ+ culture, and thus may not be easily or fully understood by themselves or others.
Change, Inc. St. Louis Couples Counseling is LGBTQ+-friendly, and any number of our therapists can help!
Some healthy reminders for everyone.
- One: You are responsible for your own feelings. Your partner’s behavior and attitude surely impacts you, but ultimately, you are in charge of the way you think, feel, and relate. Own your stuff!
- Two: Communicate your feelings directly, openly, and honestly. Tell your partner directly what you want or need (“I would really like to spend time alone with you tonight”), rather than expecting them to know already (“If you really cared for me, you would know what I want”).
- Three: Set aside time once a month (or more) to discuss issues troubling each of you. Don’t overdo it and get fixated on relational problems, but do your best to keep this appointment every so often to talk through troublesome things. Do your best to keep most of your struggles limited to that time frame. You’d be surprised how many of them you’ll forget by the time you get there because they weren’t really that important!
- Four: Avoid name calling, or intentionally calling attention to known weaknesses or sensitive issues (“hitting below the belt”).
- Five: Unhealthy is unhealthy. Relationships that have commonly occurring themes of explosiveness, anger, drama, infidelity, abuse, or otherwise negatively impacting phenomena should be addressed with humility and honesty,
- Six: Know when to get help. There’s no shame in asking someone to help you move through something as a couple. In fact, most would suggest that the healthiest of couples are those who recognize their own limitations and seek help when needed!
Need some guidance with all of these? We can help!
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