Romantic relationships make up a lot of our popular culture. Songs are written about love, TV’s shows focus on dating plots, and tons of books have been written on the subject of love and it’s easy to understand why.
In many ways your status as a grown up depends on your success at finding a partner, buying a home, and reproducing. But despite the pictures that popular media paints about the glory of love, romantic relationships are one of the most difficult paths you can walk in life.
Again and again, I’ve seen my clients and friends struggle with finding or maintaining healthy relationships and of course I’m no exception.
I’ve had wonderful relationships and very unhealthy ones. I’ve gone through long stretches on loneliness, I’ve been unfaithful to partners, and I’ve engaged in a series of meaningless sexual encounters with little to no emotional connection.
Yet despite my trials I haven’t given up on love instead I’ve come to understand that it’s the unique challenge of relationships that makes them so rewarding. Let’s look at some of the reasons relationships are so hard and why that also makes them amazing.
Why Relationships Are So Hard
You Meet Yourself –
When you’re alone it’s easy to avoid yourself. Maybe you get triggered when someone asks you to do something you don’t want to do. Often when you’re alone you can avoid this. Sure maybe it happens sometimes at work, but when it happens with your friends you just avoid them or make an excuse.
But it gets harder when you’re in a relationship, because you can’t escape these triggers with your old techniques. Excuses are trickier to make and often your partner is insistent about certain things. So you either have to work through these triggers or get caught in a cycle of disagreements and resentment.
Relationships force you to face yourself, because whenever you become closer with someone else, you almost always gain a clearer understanding of who you are. Like a snake wriggling through a tube, the container of the relationship can give you an almost too clear view of who you are.
And while this can be difficult, if you embrace it, relationships can become a powerful tool of self-discovery and change. But you have to be open to listening and to choosing a new way when the old one isn’t serving you.
You Have To Have Difficult Conversations –
Most of us have been raised to avoid difficult conversations like the plague. Your parents were bad at having them (e.g. ‘the talk’), your teachers just wanted compliance, and your first boss probably had more bad morale boosting ideas than difficult conversations.
If you are a man, this is probably even truer, because very often male friends completely avoid difficult subjects especially where emotions and vulnerability are involved.
But in a relationship, you don’t have this choice. If you want to navigate disagreements, build trust, and get closer to someone, you have to talk about the tough things. Either that or you end up fighting about them.
Relationships are built not on the good times and agreements, but on your ability to talk about the tough stuff. Because talking about what’s hard is what creates closeness and what sets a deep relationship apart from a shallow one.
What rocks about this is that if you can learn to talk about the tough stuff here, it can teach you to talk about the tough stuff in other areas of your life as well.
You Have to Compromise –
Single or not your life involves compromise. Whether it’s at work or with your family, your life is a balance between your wishes and the wishes of others. But relationships take this to a whole new level.
When you’re single, you don’t have to compromise on where you want to eat very often, or where your bed should be in your room, or how silverware should be loaded into the dishwasher. But when you are in a relationship, (at least a healthy one) the need to compromise can crop up anywhere.
You are no longer just trying to meet your own needs. You’re also working to create harmony and connection. Which means that sometimes you’ll have to sacrifice what you want, or they way you’ve always done things to support your partner.
Now that doesn’t mean you have to give up every part of who you are. The best relationships are made up of two people who know and understand their boundaries. But relationships force us to let go of some of these little comforts you have, especially the ones that you’ve held on to for far too long. While this is challenging, it can also be very freeing. As you let go of your preferences you become more open to new experiences and reduce the suffering you might otherwise feel when you don’t get your way.
You Have To Be Vulnerable –
Vulnerability is perhaps the most powerful and scariest thing you can experience with another person. Even if you are used to being vulnerable with your close friends, being vulnerable in a relationship is totally different.
With your friends, trust was built over time and the rules have slowly been scripted out. But relationships are usually more tentative. A relationship can feel like a month’s or years long audition you are both attending where each person is trying to determine if being together is the right thing for their life.
Because of this being vulnerable in relationships is harder. The chances of rejection are higher and so is the risk.
Relationships require vulnerability, because if you keep you heart closed and your partner at a distance, how can you ever hope to connect in a deep way? You have to open up and share who you really are, because if you don’t your partner will be dating a subtle lie you’re telling, and you’ll always be afraid they’re going to find out.
The good news is that your ability to be vulnerable can enrich almost every relationship in your life. All too often we live guarded lives rarely opening up to those around us and relationships can give us a space to learn to be open without being afraid.
The Practice of Relationships
Relationships just like the rest of our lives are a practice. What little I’ve learned from my good and bad relationships had taught me that to get and give the most in a relationship you have to show up, be present, and be willing to have your life changed as a result.
Creating a good relationship isn’t about a static you fitting together with another static puzzle piece person. Moreover, it’s not about another person completing an incomplete you. You and your partner are already whole and complete just as you are.
Instead, it’s much more like two trees growing together and supporting one another. The path is often unclear and the maturation is mysterious. But I believe very strongly that if you are willing to take a deep breath and be open, that romantic relationships can be a very powerful tool for finding the path to a happy and fulfilling life, even if the person you’re with, isn’t the one you stay with.