SF Counseling Center

10 Important Reasons Being in a Relationship is So Hard

Have you ever wondered why being in a relationship is so hard? We are going to explore 10 important factors.

But, first let’s start with a metaphor. I wake up in the morning and decide to check my email. Sometimes my computer drops the connection with my router; it is confused by the signals of all of my neighbors’ routers. My computer is trying to decide should it pay attention to Spike123, GoGiants, JanesGuest, DontStealMySignal or my generically named router?

You can’t see the router signals; they don’t SEEM to have any impact on your daily life. Why is this so confusing?  If you could see the signals, it would probably look like a minestrone soup of signals – so confusing and hard to see what signal belongs to what router.

In some ways the mind is facing a similar task as your computer.  Which signals are most relevant?  Figuring out these signals, and recognizing what to do about them is the key.  Here are 10 of the signals.

1. What is Left Unresolved From Your Childhood?

This is one of the most common sources of ‘signal interference.’  Stay with me here for a moment.  In our early childhood we learn what love feels like and what loving feels like.  That model is solidified as you grow.  If the family is consistently that way, the signal becomes stronger.  So, for example, a simple disappointment one time really won’t cause any problems.  On the other hand, regular and ongoing disappointments by parents can create difficulties in your willingness to be available.  It seems surprising since you might think consciously that now is the opportunity to try something different.  However your mind tells you this is how the world works.  Stay on router BadDog666.


2. What Kind of Role Modeling Did You Get?

How did the influential adults in your world manage their relationships?  Did your parents get along well, were openly happy with each other and demonstrated that by holding hands, smiling and sharing the occasional kiss?

No?  Did they fight, blame each other for their unhappiness, drink, have affairs, threaten divorce and show you that being married really sucks? Did a parent either demonstrate or perhaps even tell you that you need to be prepared because men/women can’t be trusted?  (They are your parent, so it seemed like a reasonable assertion at the time.)  Hmmmm, is it any wonder your relationships are difficult?

Here is a strange thing that is more common than you would think.  People can date and get along really well.  They decide to marry, but then that first year of marriage can be really difficult.  Why?  The internal model of what it means to be married kicks in, like a switch.  Suddenly, you find you are not getting along.  If you look a little closer you will see you are re-enacting your parents’ relationships (yes both of you).  Signal from router Spike123.


3. What Type of Attachment Style Do You Have?

Your attachment style is formed early in childhood. It comes from the ways your parents and guardians responded to you in your infancy and childhood. Parents how are reasonably well attuned, predictable, attentive and created a sense of safety usually raise kids who have a Secure Attachment Style.  If your parent(s) were unpredictable, emotionally unstable, unavailable or otherwise problematic, you may develop one of the Insecure Attachment Styles.  According to Attachment theorists, it is possible with therapy to change (essentially repair) your attachment style.

Why this is important:  If you have a secure attachment style, you are less likely to expect problems and thus you are less likely to create problems.  If, for example, you have a Resistant-Ambivalent attachment style – you will likely cling to your partner but then reject them.  It’s as if you can’t find any way to be comforted. It’s like one minute you’re too hot, the next minute you’re too cold.  You never feel comfortable.  It always seems like its the other person, but ultimately it is you who is struggling to find a way to feel comfortable. The router signal never seems stable.


4. Weaning

Growing up is a constant process of weaning.  Sure there is the initial weaning off the breast or the bottle.  However, there are many other elements of weaning as well. When did you stop holding your parent’s hand when crossing the street?  How old were you when your parent said you could no longer sit on their lap? When did they stop checking in on you when you went to bed?  Each of those milestones represents a lessening of intervention by your parents.  They also represent a reduction in opportunities to get parenting (and a more direct expression of love).

Some people (at least unconsciously) tell themselves those losses are only temporary and when they find someone of their own to love, all those good times will be restored.  For example, let’s imagine that your grandmother was the most loving person in your life.  When she picked you up, she even had a snack ready for you in the car.  Now, your partner does not prepare a snack for you when she/he picks you up.  In fact, she is exhausted from the day and can barely even talk.  Sure she loves you, but she’s no Nanna!  She even complains when you try to sit on her lap!

Successful weaning allows you to tolerate that your internal model of being loved and the way your partner shows love are different.  Like Mick Jagger says, “You can’t always get what you want …but if you try some time, you just might find, you get what you need.”  Everybody wants it his or her way. Compromise makes relationships work.


5. The Ability to Compromise in Your Relationship

It’s fun to get things the way you want them.  That’s fine at times.  But, remember playing with the friend in childhood? The friend who ALWAYS told you which character you had to be and how you had to act?  Remember your friend ALWAYS got to be the cooler character?  Remember that once you figured out it was never going to change, that friend became less compelling? Yep, that’s what it is like if you have problems compromising.


6. Bait and Switch

It is really a great feeling to be married, and that vow – you know the vow that everything is going to be great forever.  Your partner is going to be there to take care of you in sickness and in health, forever!  Yahoo!  You can finally stop doing all those sit ups, eat less kale.  Also, socks really are fine as a decorative accent item.  Sure you got your partner by dressing well, being super polite, being charming and thoughtful.  But, it was really hard to hold in your gut all that time.  The tactic of bait and switch is outlawed in used car sales. You can’t advertise a great car and then sell a look-alike clunker.  That rule has not yet extended to dating and marriage.

Ever thought about how upset you are that your partner no longer …. (fill in the blank) that she/he did while you were dating. Bait and switch is unconscious, but it works both ways.


7. Keep Courting

This is the opposite of Bait and Switch.  You want to be happy and have your partner be happy?  You need to keep courting.  All those nice behaviors such as checking in by phone or text (‘how’s your day?’), doing something thoughtful, appreciating who they are – are all part of keeping the relationship from faltering. If you want your partner to feel special, you have to work at it (back to the sit ups, so to speak).


8. Commitment and Monogamy are Ongoing Relationship Choices

Wonder why so many people have affairs?  Well, many different factors are at play.  One of the big ones is biology.  According to evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology we are not designed to remain monogamous.  (Well, that is discouraging!)  Other factors include role modeling of parents, social norms and gender expectations in your given culture – just to name a few.

This may seem unsettling at first, but it helps explain some things.  Moreover, it reinforces the idea that we need to keep up our part of the bargain and remain a good choice for our partner as we expect them to do for us.  Also, to add weight to this, the evolutionary sciences assert humans keep scanning to be sure they select the best possible mate.  It’s one important reason people get ‘cold feet’ before the wedding day – essentially, evolution is raising the question, “Is this the best I can do?” It is a normal process, but the scary thing is it does not go away with a vow.  Biology continues to press us and we need to understand the pressure and deal with it appropriately (whatever appropriate means for your relationship).


9. “I Don’t Want to Belong to Any Club That Will Accept People Like Me as a Member.”

The full quote by Groucho Marx is: “I sent the club a wire stating, ‘PLEASE ACCEPT MY RESIGNATION. I DON’T WANT TO BELONG TO ANY CLUB THAT WILL ACCEPT PEOPLE LIKE ME AS A MEMBER'”.  What Groucho was describing, perhaps without consciously being aware of it – was internalized prejudice.  In his case, it would have been internalized anti-Semitism.

Essentially, we get messages from an early age.  Many studies have noticed it seems to happen around 5 or 6 years old, that we recognize that we are not all the same.  It is also the time when children begin to get or at least recognize messages from others (society as represented through others) that for some elemental reason, outside of our control, we are unlovable.  It could be racism, homophobia, classism or any other form of prejudice.  The message becomes, ‘You are less valuable,  less important, less lovable.’

People who struggle with internalized prejudices have internalized these messages and have turned the message(s) against themselves.  It is as if the dominant culture is correct, and I am less lovable/valuable, etc.  The problem continues when this internalized message is activated and reacted to internally.  Suddenly, it can’t be that ‘this person loves me – I’m Gay!’ Or, my partner is settling for me because I am … (choose your category, it works the same way).  Sure this is a form of low self-esteem, but it is insidious and it is constantly reinforced by our society.  If you feel at some deep unconscious level that you are unlovable, you are not going to trust or perhaps value your partner.


10. Culture, Point in History and the Cultural Amalgam

Culture runs through us and we don’t even notice it.  What it means to be in a committed relationship has changed very dramatically over time and is quite different in other cultures.  In some cultures, it is an open secret that men have affairs, well, because they are men and that’s what (they think) men do.  Our culture has been telling us there are two distinct genders.  This assertion is being challenged more recently.  Some cultures see the genders as quite polarized, even to the point of being foreign and unknowable to each other.

Culture shifts and we shift also, but not always at the same rate. For example, the roles of women initially shifted during WWII when women went into the workplace to support the war effort as many men were fighting abroad.  That shifted back after the war, but about 20 years later came the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s, and gender roles were brought back into the fore.

Now 50 years later, our culture continues to struggle with gender equality.  Women are massively underrepresented in business, government and sciences (to name a few areas).  Despite being in the workplace, women are still expected to do an unequal share of the work at home. Some have linked the politically conservative backlash in our country to struggles accepting the changes in gender and racial roles in our (slowly) changing culture.  So, our culture is shifting and the point at which you were born and the time in which you live will have tremendous impact on your sense of self and how you think about relationships.

We coined the term ‘Cultural Amalgam’ to express the idea that many of us come from families which have recently immigrated (say in the last two generations or so).  Within these families, the cultural norms and mores of the old culture still exist – either consciously or unconsciously.  Many people struggle with the mix of cultural influences (old culture and current culture), the values of each and how to create a mixture that works for them – the Cultural Amalgam.

One example may be coming from a culture in which gender roles were more polarized but living in a culture in which gender roles are expected to be more equal.  What then does it mean to be a man or a woman?  What does it mean to be gay, but have family and the influence of family who come from a culture which sees homosexuality as a sin or as being broken?  How does one reconcile those cultural influences and how do they impact a loving relationship with a partner?

Final Thoughts

This is clearly not an exhaustive list, but rather a highlight of the many possible reasons why it can be so hard to have a loving relationship.  These various factors interact with each other, they do not necessarily stand alone.  So, the situation can be quite complex.  Nonetheless, with patience and work, relationships can be much easier and more rewarding.  Couples therapy is often a very good place to work on these types of issues and the fact of learning about oneself in the presence of your partner (and vice versa) can be extremely powerful and rewarding.

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