She Said, He Said: Why do relationships have to be so hard?
May 14, 2018
In the past few months, we've received several questions about why relationships are so hard.
It would be convenient to simply say that men are from Mars and women are Venus and the differences in our modes of operation and emotional needs create all of the challenges in relationships. While these gender differences do play a part in the struggle, we've found that same-sex relationships are just as challenging, even with both partners being from the same planet. Our beliefs around why relationships are so hard have more to do with a couple's ability and motivation to adapt to the many transitions that occur during the evolution of most relationships.
Psychologist and author Sue Johnson provided one of the best analogies we've found to illustrate the challenges in relationships. She suggests that each phase of a relationship has its own kind of music. The music is the setting in which your relationship exists. It incorporates all of the notes that impact your life, including wellness, family, friends, finances and work. As we experience a transition from one phase of a relationship to another, the music changes and we must adapt to that change with a new style of dance. The dance is how we engage with our partners — how we communicate, support, problem solve, criticize or appreciate. Whether we sway or stumble with our partner is influenced by expectations, vulnerabilities and how we face the discomforts of having to stretch and grow.
Relationship transitions can occur on a scale from minor shifts in tempo to major changes in the entire arrangement. Minor shifts include changes in jobs, moving, minor losses and house or car purchases. Major changes include the end of the honeymoon phase (where we were more strongly driven by brain chemicals), marriage, kids, empty nest, retirement and significant losses.
As these transitions occur — as the music changes — we need to learn how to engage and communicate differently with our partners. If we don't adapt the dance (due to lack of motivation) or can't (because we don't know how), the relationship becomes much more difficult to navigate.
We trip, fall and step on each other's toes. The resulting dissonance and fading sense of safety typically leads to one of three outcomes: leaving, getting left, or staying in a rut. While staying in the rut may appeal to partners wanting to avoid a painful crescendo, the long term consequences are often just as consequential. Partners in deep, ongoing ruts often forfeit essential interpersonal needs or become tempted to get those needs met outside of the relationship.
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Buddhist philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh has said that, with the distractions of social media and access to online content, it's never been easier to escape from ourselves. We believe it's also never been easier to escape from relationships, both emotionally and physically. There's a perception that emotional needs can be met through social media, contributing to more emotional affairs through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Pornography and physical affairs also have never been more accessible — online dating site Ashley Madison asserts: "Life is short. Have an affair."
Culturally, the willingness to learn a new dance and to create a deeper bond is waning. When the music inevitably changes and there's a need to adapt, the modern trend is to simply find a new partner. Technology has made it much more alluring to end relationships at these challenging transition points — just swipe right to find a new one. It's a chronic cycle urged on by the intoxication of new relationships and the technology-driven ease of finding another partner.
So how do you adapt to a change in music? It begins by recognizing what changes are taking place for you. What worries, stresses and insecurities are arising? What are you excited about and feeling confident in? What expectations do you have for yourself and your partner as you enter into a new phase? Learning a new dance begins with open communication about each of your needs, wants and hopes. The new footwork requires taking into account the experiences both of you are having as individuals, and employing patience, support and space for each of you to continue to grow into your best selves, together.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Submit your relationship questions to info@AspenRelationshipCoaching.com and your query may be selected for a future column.