Understanding Your Imperfect Relationship

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Love relationships aren’t always hearts and flowers.  In fact, for most of us, after a blissful period of time when you’re feeling enraptured with your partner, some of the excitement wears off and you find yourself confronting the detritus the tide left behind on the beach.  In a healthy relationship love is usually mixed with other things, friendship, trust, appreciation of the other—and some boredom, irritation and flat-out anger.  Most of us have confusion and doubt in our relationship(s) from time to time.  There are lots of reasons for this; in fact, the list is endless, but here are some of the more common ones:

You Are Experiencing Repetition Compulsion

This is a tendency to try to solve problems that come from bad or uncomfortable childhood experiences by trying to recreate the problematic relationship dynamic and then fix it.  This happens for several reasons:

1. We do what we know.  If you are accustomed to a family where everyone yells, you’re probably going to feel weird and unsafe with a partner who doesn’t.  It will feel like s/he is holding out on you, like you’re sitting on a landmine that will explode someday, or like s/he lacks passion.

2. We do want to resolve bad situations, and it feels like we learn something new with every repetition.  We usually do, but it’s mostly small-scale learning rather than large-scale.  For example, you may learn how to pacify a particularly rageful partner, while you’re in the relationship, but you probably won’t learn to see rage as a general danger signal in new potential partners.

3. Partners who reflect something incomplete or unsatisfying from your childhood are sexy.  You yearn for people who trigger stuff in you.  If your sense of self doesn’t allow you to think well of someone who demonstrably likes you, you will try to make relationships happen with people who seem inconsistent or unavailable.  This doesn’t make you a bad person!  Everyone does the best they can with what they’ve got.  If something important is missing from your formative years, you work around it.

Paranoia/Self-fulfilling Prophecy

If you’ve been burned before, by cheating, lies or worse, or if you yourself have cheated, lied or worse, you are likely to be understandably nervous about trusting your partner (and future partners).  This is potentially the biggest internal pitfall of fucking up your relationship; your mind becomes a hell of uneasiness and you don’t feel safe with your partner.  It is incredibly difficult to keep bad thoughts at bay in these circumstances, whether you are the do-er or the done-to, and it can lead to lots of anxious questions that reveal your lack of trust.  These questions may or may not actually hit the target, but your partner (honest or not) will get tired of them and will feel hurt and annoyed that you don’t trust him/her.  There’s no short answer to this.  You can try to change yourself, your partner or the relationship, or you may actually feel like you’re keeping it real with these feelings and questions (see repetition compulsion, above).

Will s/he Ever Change?

Let’s say your relationship is pretty good, but there are some things that really bug you about each other.  Maybe you didn’t know about some of them until you were already in love; then you have to deal with the choice of leaving or coping.  Only you know whether the bugs are deal-breakers or not, but every couple faces perpetual problems (problems that will never actually resolve).  It’s normal for there to be things that you will argue about forever.  If you are in a long-term relationship without any arguments, at least one of you is holding back.

How Do You Know If You’ve Got A Good One?

Because you can work with them.  No matter how wonderful someone seems, if they make you uneasy, if you’re constantly questioning yourself around them, if you feel inadequate when you’re with them; this is not a person who is fully invested in you.  They may truly think you’re charming, beautiful, sexy, smart, skillful, talented or fun to be with, but someone who is really into you backs it up: s/he doesn’t cancel dates arbitrarily, demonstrates appreciation of you in general (not just on special occasions) and generally makes you feel safe.  With a good one, no matter what your personal quirks and idiosyncrasies are, s/he likes and accepts you.  With the best ones, they find your quirks amusing, not irritating, and they’re really tolerant of those weird little things you do.

Your relationship doesn’t have to be perfect to be valuable—don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Your own feelings are your best clue to how good your relationship is.  If you feel safe, loved, cared for and valued most of the time, you’ve got the goods with your partner, even if s/he drives you crazy occasionally.  If you feel unsafe, inconsistently cared for and only a little valued, you’re working with a tough situation that is unlikely to improve.  Whatever kind of love relationship you have, it probably resembles the ones you grew up with, but don’t panic if you grew up in an unstable home.  You do have some choice about what you want out of a relationship and lots of people manage to avoid making their parents’ mistakes.  Imperfection is the name of the game for most relationships, even the best ones.