Potholes & Dead Ends: Relationship Roadblocks to Look Out For
Not all relationships are good relationships. Not all relationships benefit us or our partners. Not all things that go on within healthy relationships are healthy. Not all people, at all times, are in the right space to be in a close, intimate romantic or sexual relationship. And by all means, a bad relationship, or one whose quality has gone the way of the dinosaur is NOT better than no relationship.
Most aren't the end of the world, and can be managed and repaired, with discussion and cooperation in the existing relationships, or by changing the nature of your relationship -- such as by switching to a platonic friendship -- sometimes without even having to work all that hard. The biggest part of the battle with relationship problems isn't fixing them so much as it is recognizing that there ARE problems, what they are and being willing to address them and work a little to seek out healthier patterns of behavior. Sometimes, by the time we get to our first few relationships in our teens or twenties, we're so excited to have them, it can blind us to obvious and not-so-obvious problems or mismatches. We might also be afraid to bring up issues for fear of losing the relationship we felt like we waited so long to have (even though if you're in one even by your early twenties, the wait's really not been very long.) Facing problems and working through them doesn't have to be awful, though: for many people, doing so strengthens their relationships with their partners and themselves. And there's never anything awful in the long run about doing what you can to ensure your own and your partner's well-being, comfort and happiness.
All By Myself: All too often, we're given the impression that it's always better to be in a love relationship -- any relationship -- than it is not to be in one, and that just isn't so. It's not even accurate to say that it's always better to be in a GOOD relationship than not to have one at all, because there are times in our lives when it may be best for us, and make us happiest, to be single and on our own. Being single doesn't mean a person is undesirable or unattractive: in many cases it means they're simply not interested in or ready for some sorts of relationships at a given time, or are waiting until they meet someone whose needs and wants will really work with their own.
• Be prepared for surprises: the people you really click with, with whom you have a major love connection, may very well not look like your 'type' or be anything like you idealized, expected or imagined. That's often part of the adventure.
• Be self-aware: knowing and learning who you are, what you want and need, and where you're going in your own life -- with and without partners -- puts you in a much better place for knowing the good stuff when you see it than focusing on how others see you, who THEY are, and what they might want from you.
• Learn to love and accept yourself: yeah, it sounds cheesy, but if you don't earnestly care for yourself first, and love and accept who you are, nobody else is going to be able to do it very well, either. And if you're really being yourself all the time then when someone does fall for you, you don't have to wonder if it's really you they're into.
• Trust your instincts: when you feel in your guts that something just isn't right, chances are good that it isn't. When your instincts tell you that something is really right? It probably is. By all means, temper those feelings with logic as well, but pay attention to your instincts as well: they're often pretty smart.
• Stop looking so darn hard: you're more likely to find quality relationships when you're living all of your life fully, rather than spending every waking moment fixated on hooking up or finding a partner. Desperation isn't generally attractive to healthy people, and someone who will really love you for who you are is going to be attracted to you when you're following all of your dreams, and an active participant in your own life, clearly able to drive the car of your life all by yourself.
• Take safe risks: nothing ventured, nothing gained is the order of the day. To get something started or kick things into high gear, someone has got to make a move at some point -- asking someone on a date, getting a phone number, expressing love or care, even just saying hello -- and it may as well be you.
• Know you're always worthy: everyone IS deserving of love and affection. Everyone. That includes you.
Entering into romantic or sexual relationships primarily to avoid being alone is a really bad idea. Not only is it awfully hard to have good judgment when we're so freaking scared of being alone we might shack up with anyone to avoid it, when we do that, in many ways we're using the other person involved to try and 'fix' feelings, or pretend they aren't there, that we need to work on ourselves. It's also all too easy, when you're in a relationship and deathly afraid of being alone, to become very dependent and clingy in your relationship and suck the life right out of it. So, your best bet? Wait for intimate relationships until times when you feel pretty good about yourself and your life just as it is, and you've got a self and a life to share in the first place, rather than seeking out partners to provide you with one.
For Relationships Sake: Feeling funny because you're 19 and have never been kissed and can't wait another second, even though there isn't someone special you feel drawn to? Sexually frustrated? Does it seem like all your friends except you are in a relationship right now and you'd better get one too? Did someone really popular ask you out, and even though you don't have a very good connection, or even like them very much, you feel you HAVE to say yes because everyone will be so impressed, or your dating them will say something about how cool you are? Feel the need to prove to your parents, friends or yourself that you're old enough, attractive enough, mature enough to have a relationship, no real matter with whom? Just plain bored?
Keeping a relationship going when you don't have a real connection with the person you're in it with, but are primarily concerned with just having a relationship -- ANY relationship, with whoever, really -- is a really good way to be sure that at least one of you, and likely both, feel like crap in pretty short order. People aren't objects to own, and neither are relationships. And without the people in them? There isn't a relationship at all.
The good stuff is always worth waiting for. If we feel the need to have some things in the interim, while we're waiting for someone right for us to come along, we can, and we can in ways which are fair and healthy. We can date more casually. If we feel sexually frustrated, we can masturbate. If we're lonely, we can make friendships and community connections based on interests other than love and sex.
Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire: Honesty is the best policy, with the little stuff as well as the big stuff. Lies and omissions can cause big problems in relationships, whether we're not being fully honest about the depth or kind of feelings we're having or if we're happy, or if we're keeping something seriously major from a partner, like being with someone else sexually when we're supposed to be monogamous, saying we feel sexually ready when we really aren't, or being in a relationship which is in itself based on a pack of lies, such as when you or a partner already has another partner romantic or sexual fidelity has been promised to, or a relationship you are hiding from friends or family.
Sometimes, situations are such that you may have to or want to wait a little to disclose things to a partner -- for instance, it often takes sexual abuse survivors a little while to feel comfortable sharing that history, and newly queer teens some time until they're ready to come out to family -- but important information does need to be shared and put out there, so if you're waiting, be sure you're doing what you can to get there in fairly short order. Between partners, even when it's hard to tell the truth -- when it may mean a partner's feelings may be hurt for instance, or may put us at risk of being rejected --- we should always be working towards it by just spitting the tough stuff out (especially if the information we have is something we know would make a partner reconsider a relationship at all), or taking small steps to get to being fully honest in time, which may even include telling a partner we have something important to share, but are not quite ready to do entirely yet.
Drama Major: A lot of people confuse drama with love, affection or real connection. The higher the level of drama gets -- parents disliking a partner, promises of marriage, a profound age difference, even emotional or physical abuse -- the more a feeling of love or passion may be interpreted because the emotional stakes are raised so the tension is elevated. That's not unreasonable, after all, writers have been using that exact same device to elevate their readers emotions for thousands of years. But.
That isn't usually real, even when it very much feels real. We're often simply reacting to those escalated circumstances, and all too often, that drama can keep young couples together, but stand in the way of real love or bonding.
So, if the drama kicks in, try to learn to see it and know that then, more than ever, is NOT the time to leap in blindly, but to step back and really look at what's going on. To take a break to do that, if need be. To do whatever it is you need to get a good, solid reality check.
Your Own Private Idaho: While at the start of any new relationship, it's normal to think about the other person a lot, to spend or want to spend a whole lot of time together, to put things that were once of the utmost importance to you on the backburner a bit, or to see your friends or family less often than you did before you entered into that relationship. But as time goes on, some of that fixation should shake itself out a bit.
If after a while, you or your partner keep drifting further and further away from your friends, your separate interests, your family, your responsibilities or goals, it's time to reel yourself back in on your lifeline. We really can't healthfully make one person our whole life. Serious conflicts can also spur on feelings that it's you and yours against the world. It may be that your parents have asked you to see less of one another, or even forbidden you to see each other. Maybe your friends just aren't accepting your boyfriend or girlfriend, or some aspects of your relationship, like being sexually active. The answer to that isn't to separate yourselves from those people and situations even more, or to avoid them by running away together, literally or emotionally. It didn't work for Romeo and Juliet, and it isn't going to work for you. The way to handle those situations is to work WITH everyone involved, to keep communicating, to consider making compromises so your relationship can be a part of the rest of your life more or less harmoniously, not your whole life.
Traffic Patterns: One partner may want to move things along a lot faster or slower than the other, like sex, commitment, being publicly out as a couple or as queer. Sometimes the general pace of a relationship flows pretty easily on it's own, but sometimes you wind up with stalls, speeders or bottlenecking, and you may need to direct your relationship traffic with a little more effort and intention. Either partner has the right and the ability to turn on a green, yellow or red light at any time. If you find you're feeling rushed or stilted -- or that the pace of your relationship just isn't in your control -- stop where you are and evaluate things. Talk to your partner about how you're feeling, and what pace is more comfortable for you and why.
Thing is, everyone is ready or interested indifferent things at different times, and that may have nothing at all to do with their interest in their partner.
We might WANT to be sexually active with a partner, but feel emotionally unprepared, or know we can't afford birth control or sexual healthcare. A partner may want to sign on as being your monogamous partner, but be worried about doing that too fast and then feeling fenced in instead of enjoying it. Outside factors may also effect pace: parents may have rules or restrictions which don't allow for serious dating or sex yet. Our relationships don't exist in a vacuum, and for teens, all your choices don't get to fully be your own yet, so you may have to address, manage and accept limitations and disruptions to your ideal relationship MPH.
- Be patient. Not only was Rome not built in a day, it wasn't rebuilt in anything close to a day. When you bring up problems, don't expect instant solutions: these things take time, and usually plenty of dialoging and experimenting. If you don't feel like you can have the patience to fix them or want to fix them over time. then it's likely your relationship is just over for you, and it's time to move on. (If you keep finding you NEVER have the patience to fix even little problems in a relationship, it's probably time to take a break from more serious relationships until you do.)
- Use "I" statements. Yes, it's cheesy. But it's also effective. So, rather than saying "You make me feel unwanted," try, "I feel insecure about your interest in me lately," rather than "You always want me to make the sacrifices!" howsabout "I feel like I need to make too many sacrifices for this relationship" or rather than "You're trying to make me feel jealous," try "I am feeling jealous a lot." Keeping out of the blame game, and talking about your feelings, helps keeps the person you're talking to from feeling defensive, which helps you both communicate best.
- Pick neutral, comfortable zones to address problems. In the middle of the school hallway, during sex, or when out with friends isn't neutral. Choose private, comfortable places where no one feels put on the spot or blindsided. And again, don't let things fester, so that by the time you bring your stuff to the table, you're hysterical or boiling over with anger. Usually, productive communication happens best when everyone is fairly calm.
- If you're going to talk to a friend about the troubles you're having first -- which is always okay, and often really helpful -- do be sure it is a trusted friend, not one who will deliver what you've said to your partner before you do.
Tug O'War: Feel like you have to earn a partner's time, attention or love? Possible you might be making a partner have to work pretty hard for things you should be giving easily and without trying? Don't feel fully worthy or feel someone you're seeing isn't? Do things just feel unbalanced?
Everyone who gives love, care, respect and affection is worthy and deserving of love, care, respect and affection. No one has to earn it. If you're having to work your buns off to get attention or time from your partner, if you often feel you're begging or pleading with them to get the things you need, or if, on the other hand, you feel really reluctant to give very basic things to a partner, that inequity needs be repaired or you need to get out of that relationship. Sometimes, one partner does a little more giving and the other a little more taking: that's normal and not necessarily a problem so long as it's temporary and both partners are willing to give a little extra sometimes when the other needs it. But if that's always happening, and one partner is always the giver or the taker, it could be that dynamic is happening because you or a partner are in a relationship for the wrong reasons -- like to avoid being alone or single, or to obtain casual sex without having to call it that -- or because you or they are losing interest in one another or the relationship, but are unwilling to move on. Maybe you don't want to rectify the situation because you LIKE getting all the good stuff without having to do same, or, if you're on the other side, because your self-esteem is at a low point, or you did something you feel guilty about and you honestly feel you DO have to earn the basics.
A relationship is a lot like a seesaw: if one person isn't carrying their weight, and is making the other do all the work, somebody's going to stay stuck on the ground and the other person stuck dangling midair. To make the seesaw worth riding, both people need to be doing the give and take evenly.
Just for the record, abuse is NOT a problem to work out. It is a problem to get away from as quickly as possible, by getting away from the person who is being abusive: do not pass go, do not collect $200.
Is your partner or relationship potentially abusive?
- My partner sets or would like to set all or most of the rules for our relationship.
- My partner is often jealous or possessive.
- My partner follows me around, checks up on me a lot, or insists I check in with him or her constantly, even when it's difficult or impossible for me to do.
- My partner is very concerned with how I look, dress or who I spend time with (friends, family, coworkers), and how much time I spend with others. My partner may okay some friends or family, but only those who clearly like them, or friends and family which are really theirs, not mine.
- I hide things that I think would upset or anger my partner (phone numbers, letters, photos), don't talk to him or her about parents or friends objections to or worries about the relationship, and/or am afraid to disagree with my partner or talk about problems in the relationship. I cannot talk to my partner about previous relationships of mine.
- My partner yells, calls me names, puts me down or seems to always have something negative to say about me, my family or friends.
- My partner often accuses me of things I have not done.
- I am afraid to say no to sex in general, or sexual activities my partner likes but I don't, or to ask for things which I like, want or need sexually. My partner refuses to let me use birth control or safer sex practices.
- My partner threatens me, or has threatened me, my property, pets, friends or family.
- My partner has a bad temper, and/or major mood swings.
- My partner hits, throws or breaks things when angry, and/or has pushed, hit, grabbed, restrained or otherwise physically hurt me.
- I am afraid to disagree with my partner.
- I feel like my partner's anger is my fault, and/or feel if I change or behave a certain way they will behave differently.
- I have an exit plan for when it gets 'really bad.'
Those behaviours above usually are abusive or are precursors to abuse. They also often escalate and become constant. Emotional or verbal abuse may not escalate to physical or sexual abuse, however, those abuses are still harmful and are still unhealthy. And in many cases, emotional and/or verbal abuse DOES escalate to physical or sexual abuse.
Sometimes, a partner or other person may hit once, make a threat, or engage in one or two abusive behaviours and it WILL be one-time. In those situations, that person is usually very quick take full accountability for what they have done and do EVERYTHING to avoid that happening again. In other words, they will admit that what they have done was not okay, and it's very unlikely to happen again. One of the big marks of abusive behaviour is that it is systematic: it begins, it continues and it usually escalates over time. So, if it DOES happen again, it's incredibly likely you're dealing with abuse that will continue until you terminate the relationship and get out.
Remember, there isn't any prize out there for who stays in a relationship longest, and how long a relationship lasts can have little to do with its quality. An intimate relationship should make both partners within it happy, enhance the self-esteem and emotional health of both, support the goals and well-being of both and -- more times than not -- make the people within it just plain feel good (given, of course, for the required freakouts and worries about early relationships -- unfortunately, there seems to be no escaping that). When you're not juggling kids and bills, work and life, mostly, your romantic relationships should be play: that isn't to say they can't be loving a serious, but rather, that mostly the amount of hard work they require really should be minimal. Dragging a relationship out that's over, or which isn't good for anyone in it anymore, is never wise: usually it just ends up causing everyone in it to get hurt even more than they would otherwise, to ruin what aspects of the relationship still exist, such as friendship. Moreover, there's little point in it.
If your gut tells you it's over, it probably is. Same goes for your instincts telling you the partner you're with just isn't the right one for you. If you feel something is in serious need of discussion and repair in an otherwise good relationship, then hop to it: don't let things fester, or hope they'll fix themselves.
It's not atypical to feel like you've got to meet the great love of your life right at the starting gate, or that the first person you're with is the one you're meant to be with until the end of time. It is, however, really atypical for either of those things to actually be the case. During our teens and early twenties we are doing a metric arseload of changing, growing and personal development, so it's completely common and sensible that who "fits" us at 16 isn't going to fit with us the same way even a year later. Or, as Buffy explains in the final episode of the show, she comes to realize that it wasn't her fault so many relationships of hers didn't seem to last: that she was cookie dough, not cookies. In other words, that she wasn't done baking yet, becoming who she is truly going to become, so as she's still in flux, so then are her relationships.
Corny as it sounds, even if you have snags like those in the list above, try and work through them, and the only fix turns out to be a breakup, these are lessons worth learning. Nobody likes breakups, but all our relationships do tend to teach us a lot even when they don't go as we'd like them to. So, by the time you do find yourself with someone where you've got a great fit, where most of the time it's all good, the yucky stuff you've been through before is going to be a big help when it comes to both having perspective and having some experience in knowing how to try and work through tricky bits.
You probably don't believe me, and that's okay. You will later.
Most relationship advice and wisdom we see in the world is for people far older, in a different space in their lives, on a certain track. You're still finding out what your track even is, and neither that, nor a relationship, should be a big hurry. Even if it feels like one, it really isn't. No, really. So, don't fence yourself into any relationship too fast, or when something just doesn't feel right or isn't working, no matter how you try: you've earnestly got all the time in the world to find relationships that really DO feel entirely right, which are functional and mutual, and they are out there. Learning to be patient about that is going to help you an awful lot, because for many, ten years from now you may still be looking for a good match, someone with whom you can work through rough spots, but with whom you have few of them most of the time.
Lest that sound bleak, know it doesn't really have to be: again, no romance at all is always better than a lousy one, and when romantic or sexual relationships are only one aspect of your life, not the whole of it -- and that gets easier too as you get older, and more parts of your life and interests develop -- taking the time to find what and who really fits with you, your goals, your life, your wants and needs gets easier. It may have you frustrated at times, but it becomes more clear how vital a good fit is, and it also becomes more clear that all our relationships are important, are little journeys (sometimes big ones), and that we can generally be a whole lot more relaxed about the whole works than we were in our teens. Possibly because all the relationship craziness in our younger years? Just wore us plain out.
So, for now? Look out for the potholes, and share the wheel so you and your partner can drive around them together. If you hit a dead end street? Back up, pull out and do what you can to remind yourself that at this stage in your life, you're not late to anything: you're just out for a leisurely drive.