From time to time, I’ll have someone on my couch or in my life say, “Well, my boyfriend broke up with me because our sex life was starting to get a little stale.” or “It’s so hard to online date! I hate it!” or “I got ghosted AGAIN.”
And then they’ll look at me and ask “Where are all the good guys?” or “Does anyone want to be in a long-term relationship anymore?”
And I get sad and frustrated because these people having really challenging dating experiences are incredible – warm, open-hearted, kind, funny, dynamic.
And they are also trying to date amidst a pool of people who seem to have pretty unrealistic relationship expectations.
Which is so, so hard.
Look, time will tell if the introduction of Tinder has permanently (and negatively) altered the dating and mating mindset of younger Millennials and Gen-Z’ers, but from what I’m seeing personally and professionally, most of us could use a bit of a reality check when it comes to reasonable relationship expectations.
So I wrote this post not just for anyone who’s in the Wild West of online dating at this moment, but also for those of us who are partnered and feeling frustrated or ambivalent in the context of those long-term relationships.
This post is informed not only by what I’ve learned in my own nearly decade-long relationship, but also what I’ve learned in the context of my career, specifically studying couples counseling.
Not everything I write may resonate with you, some of it may anger or challenge you, some of it may not apply, but perhaps one or two points will, and perhaps you’ll feel just a little bit more grace, compassion, and acceptance for wherever you find yourself in your own relationship journey.
The Reality of Relationships: Twenty Tempering Truths
1) The honeymoon phase ends for everyone.
The honeymoon phase – the phase of our relationships where we’re falling in love, having sex effortlessly and easily, moving about our days with stars in our eyes and a dizzying, anticipatory delight in receiving texts and glimpses of that person – is intoxicating. Who doesn’t love this stage? It’s heady, it’s enlivening, it’s fun! Also, it’s not permanent. When we’re in the honeymoon stage, a cocktail of hormones floods our brain – norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. These hormones contribute to the intoxicated, obsessive quality of the honeymoon stage. By design, these hormones ebb over time. And that’s okay, that’s normal. Contrary to the end of the honeymoon period being a “bad thing” in your relationship, it simply means that the next stage is beginning: the individuation stage.
2) Long term romantic relationships are one of the ultimate mirrors of “your stuff.”
Per the above point, when the honeymoon period ends, something known as the individuation stage begins. The individuation stage is characterized by less projection and a more realistic viewing of our partner coupled with reconciling the reality of our differences and trying to learn how to manage these differences in the context of togetherness. The individuation stage is also when “your stuff” will come up. Why? Because romantic relationships mimic the attachment intensity that we had with our early caregivers and all of our stories, beliefs, wounds, judgments, and patterns (be they “positive” or “negative”) will get triggered by your partner and brought up for you to look at when we enter the individuation stage of our relationships.
3) You can work on “your stuff” in this relationship, or you can work on it in another relationship, but you will have to work on it.
It’s easy to imagine and assume that if you’re struggling in your relationship things would simply be easier in another relationship. And maybe, to some extent, that’s accurate (more on that point later). But what’s also true is that you will inevitably have to work on “your stuff” – for example, your need to control and dictate, your codependency, your avoidant attachment style, your introjects about what your partner “should” do for you, etc. – at some point, if you want to maintain a healthy, long-term relationship. So you can either work on “your stuff” in the relationship you’re in, or you can work on it with someone else, but you will have to work on it if you want a healthy, long-term relationship. Setting healthy boundaries and learning how to navigate tough conversations is a great way to do this. If you want to learn more about how to do this, please consider seeking additional support and exploring my signature online course, Hard Families, Good Boundaries.
4) A willingness to work on “stuff” together and individually is, perhaps, one of the most important qualities you can look for in another person.
When I challenge my clients to make a list of the top ten qualities they want in a partner and this quality gets left off the list, I strongly urge them to include it and to include it at the top of the list. Because, in my experience personally and professionally, relationships take WORK. And someone who’s willing to work on the relationship and on themselves and not give up when times get hard (as they inevitably will!), is someone who has the potential to make a good, long-term partner. So I encourage clients to look for someone with a growth mindset and who is willing to grow in the context of the relationship.
5) Sex and romance take effort and intentionality.
The 20-something who scoffs at the idea that they’ll ever have to schedule sex with their partner may be surprised to see what six years and two kids later brings. Needing to schedule sex and having to be super intentional about cultivating romance is not a failure on the part of the couple. It’s normal and natural that this may occur in a relationship. So don’t beat yourself up if your relationship demands this now. Instead, have some compassion and one or more conversations with your partner about how this may look for you both if you want to address it.
6) Stubbornness is a wonderfully-underrated quality that contributes to long-lasting relationships.
When I was in grad school, a few of my classmates and I had to conduct a qualitative research study for our stats class. My group and I decided to research the qualities and characteristics that contribute to a successful long-term relationship (we were all women in our late twenties in early stages of our relationships – we were personally curious!). We interviewed a range of couples who had been together for a minimum of 20 years and interviewed them extensively. What we found at the end of our research was this: stubbornness was the number one quality that contributed to the success (defined as overall contentment and longevity) of their relationship. Specifically, what these couples shared is that stubbornness, the willingness to not give up on one another when times got tough, to not quit during the months and even years when they were not in love with each other and trying to work through things, ultimately helped the couple stay together and weather the storms until they did feel in love with each other again.
7) Almost everyone will one day wake up next to their partner and think, “What was I thinking marrying this person?”
This is normal. This is natural. Sometimes questioning yourself and your decision to get with your spouse/partner is, I’ve found, inevitable. But also, so is the experience of randomly glancing over at your partner in a random mundane moment and being blown away by how beautiful or amazing they are. These two polar thoughts and feelings can exist in the same relationship and even on the same day. This doesn’t mean you’re in the wrong relationship or that you have wild mood swings. It is, I find, just a normal and natural part of being in a long-term relationship and reflective of the paradoxical feelings we can hold toward another human being.
8) Relationships can survive without villages, but not very easily.
We need girlfriends, nannies, couples counselors, randoms on Reddit disclosing their own deep dark secrets, women’s groups, and others who can hold space for us when we’re stressed, who can make us feel less alone through their own vulnerable relationship disclosures, and even be there to trade babysitting nights so each couple can have a date night. Cultivating and nurturing a strong village of supports is, I find, not only helpful but also necessary to a couple over time.
9) An absence of conflict isn’t a badge of honor in a relationship. In fact, I think it’s a bit of a red flag.
Sometimes I’ll have couples come to me who say they “never fight” and that they don’t have conflict. I get clinically curious when I hear this because a lack of conflict can often mean that, in order to preserve equanimity and peace, one or both partners may be holding back and not expressing their true feelings, needs, and wants. And this is a recipe for longer-term discontent in the relationship. Conflict, contrary to what most of us think when we hear this word, doesn’t have to be a bad thing. If you get two people together in almost any relationship context – romantic, parent/child, colleague, friends – conflict will be inevitable because at different points in time we will have differing needs, wants, and feelings from one another. That’s okay and totally normal! Conflict also doesn’t have to mean fist fights and screaming matches. In fact, it shouldn’t. But appropriately expressed conflict can actually strengthen a relationship over time by teaching both people how to more skillfully negotiate their inevitable differences.
10) Almost all of us imagine that other people are having easier times in their relationships. But this isn’t true.
Anecdotally, me and almost every other couples counselor I know is fully booked with a waitlist. Listen: my entire professional field would not exist if relationships were easy! The truth is that they aren’t. At least, not all of the time. So if you’re holding onto the story that the couple with the dreamy Instagram photos, or the pair with the seemingly amazing and easy-peasy in-laws, or the duo that has frequent long weekends away in Tahoe is having an easier, happier, more effortlessly sexy and smooth time in their relationship that you are, check yourself. We rarely know what goes on behind the doors of a home or in the universe constellated between a couple. Most of us simply don’t show all the raw, vulnerable, painful realities of our relationships to one another, and certainly not on social media. So please, be compassionate with yourself and your own relationship experience if you find yourself comparing your partnership to others.
11) All of the “usual” relationship advice doesn’t apply if one or both of you have mood disorders, personality disorders, or unresolved trauma.
Most traditional couples counseling advice out there in the form of pop psychology articles and most relationship books for lay people is written with assumptions that the couple inheriting the advice is relatively emotionally stable and presupposes, to speak clinically, a certain amount of ego-strength and emotional regulation skills from both. However, if one or both partners in a relationship has a history of complex relational trauma, and/or a mood disorder or personality disorder, it’s important to remember that that “traditional” relationship advice may not apply and more specialized and clinically-informed advice and guidance may most likely be needed.
12) You will have many relationships within your one relationship.
You will fall in and out of love with your partner over time (and perhaps many times), the shift and balance of power and roles in the relationship may change as you two navigate different life stages, and, almost certainly, you will feel ebbs and wanes of attraction to them. Who you fell in love with in the early days of your relationship may change and likely, so will you and how your partner feels towards you. That’s okay as long as, per point four above, you two are willing to grow and get to know the new versions of your partner over time.
13) When we’re really unhappy with our own lives, we often project our unhappiness onto our partners and believe it’s the relationship that’s bad/causing us unhappiness.
This is a big one that I often see: projection of our own discontent onto our partner and the disproportionate blaming of the relationship. I truly don’t think we can adequately assess if it’s the relationship causing your unhappiness until we help you feel better in other areas of your life. It may be the relationship that isn’t a good fit and that truly is a source of discomfort. But if you hate your job, if you have unresolved depression and anxiety, if you have unhealed childhood trauma, if you loathe your body and are feeling deeply unfulfilled by life, we need to address this before we can accurately assess if your relationship needs to be left or altered.
14) Most of us have ongoing, perennial core issues with our partners, echoes of which may have been seen in the early days of being together. These issues can usually only be managed, not solved.
Perhaps this may look like a partner who didn’t pay for the first date and there then continues to be an imbalance of financial responsibility between you two years on. Or maybe you have a partner who forgot to fill up their gas tank before picking you up and who continues to struggle with mindfulness about day to day responsibilities years later. If you think back to your early days with your partner, were there echoes of patterns or tendencies even then that still show up today as one of the core issues between you both? Probably. That’s okay, it’s just more likely that those conflicts will continue to emerge as the years pass and most likely can only be managed, not solved for.
15) Not every relationship is designed to be in forever. And divorce and separation is not a failure.
Even under the best circumstances when we have a partner who is willing to work on their stuff and the stuff of the relationship with us, at the end of the day, not every relationship is designed to be in forever. Per point three above, sometimes it truly will be easier to work on your stuff in a different relationship. So I think it’s important to remember that relationship success doesn’t mean white-knuckling it out for fifty years together until nursing home time. Sometimes relational success means making the hard and brave decision to separate. Please allow your definition of relational success to be subjective, meaning, unique to you and you alone because, at the end of the day, no one knows what is best for you except for you. And if this means leaving your relationship, then that, for you, is a success.
16) Equitable not equal division across the quadrant of labor board is what we’re aiming for.
In my experience, the quadrant of labor that most of us in relationships deal with on a day-to-day basis includes mental labor, emotional labor, logistical labor, and financial labor. I’ll write a much more extensive post about this at some point but, for now, imagine that mental labor includes forward and future planning tasks, logistical labor includes day-to-day tasks like taking out the garbage and keeping the house stocked with toilet paper, etc., financial labor looks like the financial contributions to the household, and emotional labor looks like holding space for one another after long hard days or getting up in the middle of the night when your kid has a bad dream, etc.. It’s important that the division of labor across this quadrant feels equitable for a couple, it doesn’t have to look equal. Both partners don’t necessarily have to equally contribute 100K or divide the chore list totally down the middle. If the division of labor across the quadrants looks skewed but feels okay and equitable to a couple, that’s fine! It’s when the division across the quadrants feels imbalanced and resentment-provoking that we want to be curious and mindful about changing this. Also, the division across the quadrant labor board between any given couple will inevitably look different. So please don’t compare what works for you and your partner to anyone else.
17) Relationships require tending to like any pet or plant or living entity.
This may be a fairly obvious point, but relationships require work, energy, and attention. Much like a plant or pet, if you neglect it too much, you’ll see the impacts of the neglect. If you tend to it, you’ll see that impact, too. How much you can and want to tend to your relationship may look different over time but it’s important for any couple at any stage of their relationship to be curious about how they are or are not tending to the relationship and what reasonable and realistic tending to the relationship could look like now.
18) Most of us want to crash on the couch with Netflix and wine at the end of a long workday and work week. And that’s okay!
Individuals and couples often say this to me with guilt in their voices that this – crashing on the couch with Netflix and wine or ice cream at the end of a long day or week is about all they have the energy for. I usually laugh and say something like, “Well, who doesn’t love this?!” Truly, I don’t think that’s atypical – especially of any of us now in our thirties with buckets more responsibility than we had in our twenties. And it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong if the two of you are in your pajamas side by side doing this or taking Buzzfeed quizzes on your phone after tucking the kids into bed. We don’t have to pathologize this! Unless of course, it doesn’t feel good to one or both of you and you want something different. Then we want to be curious. But if it’s working for you, don’t beat yourself up because your Friday night doesn’t look like someone else’s or resemble what Friday nights may have looked like in your twenties.
19) Consider how you want to FEEL in your relationship and realize that this may not come in the package you’re expecting.
It’s important to think about how you want to feel in your relationship, not necessarily how you want it to look. By this I mean, think about how you want to feel on a day to day basis. Is this secure, safe, loved, and cherished? You may imagine and assume that feeling secure and safe would look like being with a hedge fund investing partner who has plenty of money to take care of you and your babies, but maybe, in reality, it could mean being with a man who isn’t as career-driven and who doesn’t bring home big bucks but who tends to you with selflessness and generosity in many small and nurturing ways day in and day out. Think about how you want to feel in your ideal relationship and practice being open to this partner arriving in a package you may not necessarily have been imagining.
20) Getting to know someone takes time and repeated circumstances to unfold.
This may not be the most popular opinion, but I truly think that dating someone and getting to know them takes a lot of time and circumstances to unfold. Think years! Coming full circle back to point number one, the honeymoon stage isn’t always grounded in reality (thanks, hormones). How your partner responds when your sex life starts to wane, when one or both of you get sick, when commutes and long work weeks start to wear on you, when challenging times arrive, THIS shows you more clearly the person you are partnered with. And this also gives you the opportunity, per points three and four, to discover if the person you are with and if you yourself are willing and open to working on your stuff in the context of these more challenging times.
There’s a risk in writing a post like this of appearing like a Debbie Downer. Believe me, that’s not my intent at all.
I don’t mean to make relationships sound exclusively heavy, hard, or all work and no joy and play.
What I do mean to do is provide a tempering perspective on what I find can often be an unrealistic set of relationship expectations informed by pop culture, the media, Tinder and Tinder-like disposable attitudes to mating and dating, and other influences that purport that relationships “should” be easy and effortless all the time and anything other than this means it’s not a relationship you should be in.
Relationships can be joyful, fun, easy, magical, sexy, delightful, hilarious and thrilling AND they can also feel hard, challenging, triggering, frustrating, maddening, lonely and more.
Relationships, like everything else in life, are both/and, not either/or.
So, I hope you found these tempering truths, these relationship thoughts helpful, grounding, and maybe even a bit relieving if you find yourself judging yourself or your relationship for being anything other than “light and easy.”
I’d also love to hear from you in the comments: What, in your experience, is one or more ideas that you would share from your own relationship experience to help set more reasonable expectations for others? Leave a message in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.