Are relationships really as complicated as people make them out to be?

Clueless2
asks:
I am LONELY. I just want a nice/easy relationship. I feel like all my friends that have dated someone slowly drifted away from my friend group. I don't want to leave my friends. They also talk about how much time/effort they put into relationships. I just want someone to go get ice cream with. Are relationships really as terrible and complicated as everyone makes them out to be? Sometimes I think I'd rather be forever alone than put that much effort into something.
Mo Ranyart replies:

Hi there,

I'm sorry to hear you're feeling so lonely.

First I want to tackle the fact that your friends in relationships seem to be drifting away from you and your group of friends. It's unfortunate, but it is common for many people to pull away from their friends when they enter a relationship, especially in the beginning when it feels so shiny and new. It can take time to learn how to integrate a new relationship into one's life without neglecting existing friendships, and if someone's very strongly caught up in the excitement of a new dating relationship or new to relationships in general, they may not even realize they're doing it. It's a bummer when it happens, but the good news is that many people who do this will get better at it as they get more experience with relationships, or once it's brought to their attention.

When you notice that friends who are in relationships aren't spending much time with you or keeping up contact they way they used to, taking the initiative to reach out to them can be a good tactic. In general, when people have this issue they aren't trying to ignore their friends in favor of a new partner, but it can happen by accident, and getting a special invitation to hang out from you might be a great reminder of what they're missing out on. I know it can be hard to reach out when you're feeling lonely, or if you feel like you're spending a lot of effort to initiate things and others aren't reaching to you as much, but if you have the energy for it, that will likely be a help to you. It's okay to directly ask "hey, I've missed hanging out with you lately, can we schedule some hanging-out-time soon?"

Since you're feeling lonely, it sounds like it might be a good time to reach out and strengthen your connection with your friends, whether they're ones being distracted by romance or not. If you aren't up for initiating a lot of one-on-one time, maybe setting up some recurring events like a movie/game night or outdoors excursions with a larger group might be easier? If there are clubs, hobbies, or volunteer opportunities you've been eyeing but haven't gotten involved in yet, doing so now can get you connected to some new people who will probably share some of your interests.

Scarleteen volunteer Sam wrote a great article about being ditched by friends in relationships; you can find that here for some extra reading & advice on this front.

As far as romantic or sexual relationships go, here's the the great news: they really can be whatever you and a partner agree on. It's common, especially for people earlier in their dating or romantic lives without a lot of previous relationships, for some folks to enter relationships without really discussing what they want out of it or what their preferred relationship style is. That can cause some conflict down the line when it turns out that two people had very different assumptions and expectations for the relationship.The key is doing your best to talk to a partner or potential partner to see where your desires and expectations overlap and where you might have conflicts; it's easiest to pave the way to a lower-stress, lower-conflict relationship if you're clear up front about where you both stand. Of course there's no way to guarantee any relationship will be wonderful and simple, or that what you think you want will be what you realize you need a few months or years down the line, but the more communication there is, the more likely it will be that things will go smoothly.

Some people really find that the relationship model that works best for them involves a lot of entwinement, with frequent contact and a sense that the relationship takes priority over other people or commitments. Others are happy to have a dating relationship that's just one of many important things in their lives, where dates or communication happen less often and the relationship isn't set up as more important than other things by default. It sounds like you fall more in the latter group, and that's something you could bring up with potential partners, whether you or they are the one initiating a date or a relationship.

Here are some specific questions you might want to ask yourself before you have that conversation with someone you're considering dating:

  • How much time (per day, week, etc.) do I want or have to devote to a relationship?
  • What priority do I want to give to a relationship in relation to other friends, hobbies, or commitments in my life?
  • What are my goals or desires for a relationship? What's most important for me to get out of one?
  • Do I want something exclusive/monogamous, or would I prefer an open or polyamorous relationship style?
  • Am I looking for someone who will fit into my established social circle? Do I want a dating partner to be a part of my platonic friend-group, or is it okay if my dating life is separate from it?

We have a longer article about identifying and establishing different relationship models here, if you want to go into this in a bit more detail. You might also find this piece about developing and maintaining healthy relationships helpful.

Now, I can't say that any given relationship, even a more casual or low-key one, won't be complicated, because people are complicated. But no relationship has to be high-drama or high-stress, or involve you committing yourself to more than a fun time getting ice cream with someone you care about, if that's not what you want. Even chill, casual relationships have their roadblocks and misunderstandings, but the more you know what you want and the more you're prepared to communicate with a partner, the better your chances will be of finding a relationship that works for you. And when you're in a relationship that is working, you're much less likely to feel overwhelmed and stressed out by it.

From what you've said, it sounds like you haven't seen a lot of great examples of relationships that are healthy and functional, where the people in them are able to feel relaxed and where conflict is minimal. And in all honesty, if you're in a relationship that does seem to be full of stress, conflict, and worry, no matter how much you might talk about issues and try to problem-solve them, that's generally a sign of a larger problem within the relationship. Think about strong friendships you have already: which of those feel fairly effortless and low-stress? Are there aspects of those friendships that can help you sort out what you want a romantic or sexual relationship to look like? As I said above, relationships aren't one-size-fits-all, but I think it's safe to say that most successful ones are built on the same foundations you'll find in positive platonic friendships.

I'm going to quote myself from a discussion we had on our message boards a little while back about the concept of relationships taking "work" to thrive, and the difference between that "work" in a functional vs. a dysfunctional relationship.

What that "work" looks like to me (in a healthy relationship) is doing something like painting a room together - maybe you have to compromise on the color, and neither of you are SUPER into painting near the ceiling up on a ladder, but you switch off and it's fun to hold a bunch of paint chips up to the walls while you're deciding on what color paint to buy. At the end of the day you're tired and the paint fumes have gotten pretty gross, but the room looks fantastic and it feels great to go eat some pizza in celebration. It's something that took shared effort and maybe some momentary frustration, but ultimately it's making both your lives better and more colorful. That sort of work doesn't really feel like work at all; it's taking time to listen to a partner and take their needs & wants into account, and trusting that they will do the same for you.

What "work" sometimes is interpreted to mean is more like having to pick up a partner's dirty laundry after you've asked over and over for them to at least put it in the laundry basket if they aren't even going to bother to do any of the laundry. Somehow it's just one person doing all the work of keeping things going, instead of a collaborative effort, so that person feels overwhelmed by problems in the relationship and tamps their needs down further and further because they think "well, this takes work and compromise, sooo I guess I'll keep compromising and continue to pick up these dirty shirts since it won't get done otherwise!" In this sort of situation, one person might be willing to take their partner's feelings into account, but it's not something that goes both ways.

If you find that a certain relationship isn't working for you, you don't have to stay in it. I'm not saying you need to jump ship at the first time of trouble; by all means, take some time to talk with your partner about the issues that are worrying you or not feeling right. But if a conflict just doesn't feel like something y'all can work through easily, or you're really stuck in a place where you're thinking "why would anyone want to be in a relationship if this is what it feels like?" then what's best for you might be to leave that relationship. If, after some experimentation, you find that relationships in general just don't feel right when you're in them or require more work or effort than you have to give, it's okay to choose not to date at all, whether that's for a little while or for good.