Relationship Blues: Not Quite so Happily Ever After
By Joan-Dianne Smith MSW, RSW

( From the Manitoban, University of Manitoba, and the Uniter, University of Winnipeg, September, 2003)

The course of love does not always run according to our hopes and dreams. While most relationships begin with the thrill of finding that special person, things often become more complicated or bogged down along the way.

For some people, an intimate partnership may develop relatively smoothly, and the relationship moves from the exciting stage of “falling in love” through to becoming a stable couple without significant difficulty. However what comes naturally for some people can represent an anxiety-laden and complex challenge for others.

What makes the difference? The answer may emerge through examining the challenge of finding balance in the relationship , and in looking at some of the common pitfalls in developing a partnership .

The issue of balance applies to several dimensions. First of all is the degree of involvement / investment: This refers to the priority that the partners place on maintaining the relationship. How important is the relationship? What is the degree of “appetite” or readiness to be connected emotionally? Or to have a committed relationship? Problems arise when there are differences in what each person is seeking. The continuum spans from wanting a casual relationship to seeking couplehood. And even within a mutually committed partnership, more satisfied couples tend to be those who have achieved a balance in the amount of active engagement or connectedness each is seeking on a regular basis.

Another area challenged by balance is the degree of autonomy versus togetherness: When couples first fall in love, they enjoy the discovery and indeed the pleasures of togetherness. But as the relationship develops, there is a need to find a balance between autonomy and being a couple. Each individual needs a certain amount of time and space to be ones own unique self, without feeling engulfed or taken over by the other. Individual interests and pastimes need to continue, and each partner needs the opportunity to express oneself honestly, without the constraint of conforming to a script or role defined by the other. This can become a delicate issue in which imbalances and vulnerabilities need to be respectfully negotiated. Differences are inevitable, as no two people are identical.

Related to these dimensions but perhaps even more impacting is the issue of balance in power and control. Power imbalances occur when one partner, maybe inadvertently, begins to make most of the decisions, control the agenda, and the other person seems to lose his or her capacity to impact the process. This can evolve into conflict and power struggles, and/or it may reflect an imbalance in the degree of involvement mentioned above. In some instances it may reflect a difference in self esteem, in which one or both partners, (consciously or unconsciously) believe that one of the pair is inferior to the other and must acquiesce in order to maintain the relationship. The goal here is to find a balance again, and to be mutually empowering in each other’s pursuits.

When these three areas: the degree of involvement, the autonomy/togetherness issue, and the power dynamics are in balance, the relationship has a basis from which to face ongoing life challenges. This balance concept can also provide a useful way to understand and evaluate significant relationships and to identify areas needing attention.

What then are some of the pitfalls making this balance difficult to achieve? There are numerous ways to have a relationship become precarious. Let’s consider three common ones.

Probably the most obvious pitfall stems from simply getting involved too quickly: When relationships develop rapidly it is difficult to see clearly while being swept up in the thrill of new love. When couples proceed quickly from first attraction to living together, they face the aforementioned balancing challenges before they know each other well. They may not have had the opportunity to see what the prospective partner is like when under stress, when with family, or at different times of the year. There is little time to practice working out small decisions before facing bigger ones. The risk here is that conflict and imbalances set in before the romance and honeymoon has been fully enjoyed.

Another fairly common problem is that of seeking the fairy tale: Some people have difficulty accepting human imperfection in themselves and others. They may be more inclined to pine for the unattainable or perhaps fantasy partner. This “Goddess” or “Celebrity” quest usually operates from a self-centered script, in which one attempts to find the right actor or actress to fulfill the role. And of course, no one is ever good enough. For people who experience this as more than a brief phase, it’s important to find a broader perspective in which they can experience the rewards of a more mutual authentic relationship.

Finally, and perhaps the most complex pitfall is the repeating of harmful or unproductive patterns in relationships. Unfortunately, this can happen despite overt attempts to make different choices in new relationships. At first glance, partner #2 or #3 may appear to be completely different from the earlier one who became disastrous. So, what’s this about? For some people there may be an unconscious attraction to people who reenact a relationship dynamic that although unhealthy or undermining, is actually familiar to situations in earlier life stages. “It’s the Story of My Life. Here we go again.” This kind of unconscious magnetism toward repeating a negative dynamic is an issue needing attention. It may be time for a moratorium on relationships while doing some self-exploration. Usually people need to talk to someone who knows them well and reflect on what may be behind the repeating theme.

So, what advice is there on these delicate matters? Volumes have been written on the subject, but let’s distill this to three important points.

Get yourself solidly together first. Sometimes people approach relationships with a sense of desperation, as if finding external love would heal, mend, or fill in some empty space within. This sets up dynamics which can lead to heartbreak. The bottom line in that we are each responsible for ourselves and our happiness. Those with a fragile sense of self, problems with identity or self-esteem, or entangled issues with past experiences or family would do well to devote some time to finding their own sense of wholeness or inner calmness before forming a serious partnership. It’s not that this can’t be done within a relationship, but rather that it becomes much more complex. One may consider many forms of personal growth including spiritual exploration, examination of one’s background issues, or therapy. Finding ways to soothe oneself usually works better than hoping someone else can make up for old hurts. Solid individuals usually tend to be more able to create solid partnerships.

Secondly, practise developing CLEAR COMMUNICATION AND CONFLICT RESOLUTION SKILLS. This is a key ingredient to building good relationships in any context, whether friendships, co-workers, classmates, or romantic partners. To communicate well, one must first be clear about the intended message and then find a way to express it in as direct, honest, and respectful manner as possible. Some people operate with a belief that it somehow spoils it, if one’s needs must be made explicit. The partner should just KNOW , if he/she cares. There may be moments of intimate connection when this happens effortlessly, but with the complexity of individual personalities, backgrounds, traditions, cultures, preoccupations, anxieties, habits, and stresses, it’s pretty unrealistic to expect or demand this on a regular basis. Conflict resolution skills grow out of good communication skills. As a couple matures, they begin to lay the groundwork for solving problems, making decisions, and resolving conflicts as they move into other life stages. One of the key issues initially is to identify differences without assigning right and wrong to them. This is most easily practiced on less value-laden core issues. Later, the same skills can be brought to bear when it’s time to negotiate the really important issues. For instance there is a huge journey between “Shall we order pizza or Chinese food?” and “Shall we have a big wedding?”

Finally, it’s important to actively work on maintaining and improving the relationship. This is the long term challenge. The point is that once having formed a partnership, even in the best of circumstances, it doesn’t automatically turn into “happily ever after.” Life is complex and unexpected things happen. The metaphorical garden needs tending to continue to grow and flourish. At a recent wedding, the clergy made the statement that love is a verb. Rather than viewing it as a magical thing that one may fall into or out of, it can be seen as something one does. That is to act in a loving way toward the partner, being respectful while working on all the issues mentioned earlier.

Building a satisfying relationship takes effort, but it’s fun and life-giving. Good luck, be Thoughtful, and Enjoy the Process!