We’ve all known the struggle of being in a relationship and trying to make it work. Many of us complain to our friends and family when our mates are causing us strife and we feel frustrated, and many of us complain about the same things—lack of communication, lack of attention, and unmet expectations, for example.
Some relationships are not meant to last, either because they run their course and this is not the right person for you in the long-run (you have to kiss a lot of frogs as they say) and some relationships are poisoned by drug or alcohol abuse, infidelity, or domestic violence, and have a small chance of being saved without considerable help and change for both parties.
However, most of us have “normal” complaints and “normal” reasons that our relationships may struggle, feel unfulfilling, or go through a difficult period.
Over time, we, particularly women, have come to expect different things from marriage than in the past. Now that women make their own money, with many young women having more education and making more than their spouses, we no longer see being a “good provider” as one of the biggest priorities for a spouse. Over the past generation or so, gender roles, and therefore marital roles have changed, and our expectations have changed with it, often unfairly.
Many women expect their spouses to be less like men and more like women—emotionally expressive, attentive enough to meet our needs before we even know what we need, romantic, etc. And while there are men like this, many men are lacking in some of these skills, and we fault them for it, without really articulating what we need and want.
Men, on the other hand, may have married women with careers and interests outside the home, but have expectations that they can do this and run the household like the housewives of old. We expect our spouses to be more well-rounded than they may be able to reasonably be, and then fault them for being human. No one is going to be able to meet every need or fill every role, and we shouldn’t expect that. Going into marriage thinking that our partner will be a superhero sets us up for disaster.
Searching for Something Missing in Ourselves
Along with the idea of high expectations also comes the idea that we are looking for partners who will “complete” us. Romance novels and love poetry are filled with this idea that when we marry, we marry someone who carries some missing piece we’ve been searching for. And while it’s desirable to marry someone who makes you a better person, brings out the best in you, complements your strengths and weaknesses with a different profile or skill set, no one is going to make us happy with ourselves if we are not happy with ourselves in the first place. A good relationship can make us happier, but it can’t make up for something that is truly lacking in our own sense of self or our own low self-esteem.
To look to your marriage as your sole or main source of self-esteem, self-worth, or identity will only cause you to lose yourself in the relationship and then feel even worse as you forget who you are, what drove you and made you happy before, and what you really want and need as opposed to what you think you should want and need.
Trying to Change the Other Person
Too often we try to change other people to suit what we think they should be. Way too often we try to change the things that attracted us to that person in the first place. For example, you love your new man’s joie de vivre and childlike sense of being carefree, but once committed you see him as immature and irresponsible and try to change him. You love your new gal’s outgoing, flirtatious, warm nature, but later feel that she is too chummy with others and want her to tone down her friendliness.
At other times, we meet someone who has some qualities we are looking for and some we are not, and we hope to change the ones we don’t like. People are not like that. While we mature and grow throughout our lives (hopefully), we don’t typically change into completely different people. We may be able to change a bad habit, such as if you and your spouse agree his smoking or her lateness can and should be addressed, but the outgoing woman isn’t going to become a wallflower, and the spontaneous man with the youthful outlook can’t be expected to suddenly be the one in the relationship who becomes the worrier and sets up safety nets for the future. That may have to be his partner’s role.
We have to understand our partners and accept them for who they are. I recently heard someone describe how he fell in love with his partner’s calm demeanor and lack of emotional reactivity. Coming from a very dramatic, emotionally reactive family this was attractive and refreshing. But later on, when his partner reacted less than he thought necessary during an argument, it became, “Are you a robot? Can’t you react to anything I’m saying?” Understanding that she was more even-keeled than what he was used to, and reminding himself that that was one thing he loved about her helped him to better accept their different styles rather than feel uncomfortable that her way of responding was different than he was used to.
Lack of Presence
This is such a key issue. Today, with many couples having two careers, even after there are children, and feeling the crunch of the trend of longer work hours, commutes, obligations and responsibilities outside the marriage, etc., there seems to be less and less time to be truly present in the couple relationship. I think this is especially true once there are children, and it doesn’t surprise me that we have a trend of people getting divorced shortly after the children leave home. Too many couples turn around 25 years into their marriages and realize they haven’t had a date night in years, haven’t had a conversation that didn’t focus on the children in years, and have truly lost their connection.
It is very important to be present in a relationship, especially a marriage. Think about your friendships. If you don’t keep up with calls, texts, getting together, you lose touch and the relationship goes by the wayside. The same is true of a marriage. Yes, you’re seeing each other and talking every day, but is it about who’s going to do the grocery shopping, or is it about what you are both thinking and feeling, how much you love each other, and what your plans are for the future.
It’s also important to decide who’ll be running today’s errands, but more important for the future of your marriage is to go out to dinner, not talk about the kids, not talk about household chores, and remind yourselves why you chose to spend your lives together in the first place. I do think this is easier for childless couples to do, but it can be done even with a house full of little ones calling for your attention.
The old standby is communication. Conventional wisdom says you have to communicate to make a marriage work. We all know that, so why don’t we all make it more of a priority? This aspect of marriage ties into the above about being present. When we are present we can communicate with each other. When we communicate we don’t misunderstand each other as often or presume to know how someone else is feeling or what his intentions or ideas are.
When we express how we are feeling we are better able to address a difficulty before it becomes too big. When we sit and really talk, not a quick text, not talking while doing five other things, but really talk, it keeps the communication flowing and helps us to have better relationships. The lack of communication can cause little issues to fester and become bigger issues because we don’t express what we need to and then build resentment, especially because then our partners don’t meet our expectations (see above), when we never told them our expectations in the first place.
Overall, many relationships can be helped by remembering to keep things in perspective, don’t expect things we can’t get, be independent individuals who come together to be in a relationship, not two halves of some magical whole, accept the good and the bad (within reason, of course), keep talking, and pay attention and be present. And decide if something is worth fighting over. It may not be important tomorrow. Let it go in that case.