Why Relationships Are So Hard (And How To Learn From Them)
Romantic relationships are incredibly difficult, but that’s what makes them so rewarding.
In many ways your status as a grown-up depends on your success at finding a partner, buying a home, and reproducing. But despite the pictures that popular media paints about the glory of love, romantic relationships are one of the most difficult paths you can walk in life.
Again and again, I’ve seen my clients and friends struggle with finding or maintaining healthy relationships and of course I’m no exception.
I’ve had wonderful relationships and very unhealthy ones. I’ve gone through long stretches on loneliness, I’ve been unfaithful to partners, and I’ve engaged in a series of meaningless sexual encounters with little to no emotional connection.
Yet, despite my trials, I haven’t given up on love instead I’ve come to understand that it’s the unique challenge of relationships that makes them so rewarding. Let’s look at some of the reasons relationships are so hard and why that also makes them amazing.
Why Relationships Are So Hard
1. Facing Yourself
When you’re alone, it’s easy to avoid yourself. We all get triggered when someone asks us to do something we don’t want to do. When you’re alone, it’s easy to avoid this.
But in a relationship, it’s harder to avoid and to escape these triggers with your old techniques. Excuses are trickier to make, and often your partner is insistent about certain things. Your choices are to either get caught in a cycle of disagreements and resentment or work through these triggers.
Relationships force you to face yourself. Whenever you become closer with someone else, you almost always gain a clearer understanding of who you are. Like a snake wriggling through a tube, the container of the relationship can give you an almost too clear view of who you are.
If you embrace this, relationships can become a powerful tool of self-discovery and change. But you have to be open to listening and to choosing a new way when the old one isn’t serving you.
2. Having Difficult Conversations
Most of us have been raised to avoid difficult conversations like the plague, so we never learned how to have them. Your parents were bad at having them (e.g. ‘the talk’), and your teachers just wanted compliance.
As a man, this is probably even truer. Male friends often completely avoid difficult subjects, especially where emotions and vulnerability are involved.
In a relationship, you don’t have this choice. If you want to navigate disagreements, build trust, and get closer to someone, you have to talk about the tough things. Either that or you end up fighting about them.
Relationships are built, not on the good times and agreements, but on your ability to talk about the tough stuff. Talking about what’s hard creates closeness and sets a deep relationship apart from a shallow one.
What rocks is that if you can learn to talk about the tough stuff in your relationship, it can teach you to talk about the tough stuff in other areas of your life as well.
3. You Have to Compromise.
Single or not your life involves compromise. Whether it’s at work or with your family, your life is a balance between your wishes and the wishes of others. But relationships take this to a whole new level.
When you’re single, you don’t have to compromise on where you want to eat, or how to arrange the bedroom, or how to load the dishwasher. In a relationship, (at least a healthy one) the need to compromise crops up anywhere.
You are no longer just trying to meet your own needs. You’re also working to create harmony and connection. Which means that sometimes you’ll have to sacrifice what you want.
That doesn’t mean you have to give up every part of who you are. The best relationships are made up of two people who know and understand their boundaries. But relationships force us to let go of some of these little comforts you have, especially the ones that you’ve held on to for far too long. While this is challenging, it can also be very freeing. As you let go of your preferences you become more open to new experiences and reduce the suffering you might otherwise feel when you don’t get your way.
4. You Have To Be Vulnerable.
Vulnerability is perhaps the most powerful and scariest thing you can experience with another person. Even if you are used to being vulnerable with your close friends, being vulnerable in a relationship is totally different.
Relationships require vulnerability, because if you keep your heart closed and your partner at a distance, how can you ever hope to connect in a deep way? You have to open up and share who you really are, because if you don’t your partner will be dating a subtle lie you’re telling, and you’ll always be afraid they’re going to find out.
The good news is that your ability to be vulnerable can enrich almost every relationship in your life. All too often we live guarded lives, rarely opening up to those around us, and relationships can give us a space to learn to be open without being afraid.
The Practice of Relationships
Just like the rest of our lives, relationships are a practice. What little I’ve learned from my good and bad relationships taught me that to get and give the most in a relationship you have to show up, be present, and be willing to have your life changed as a result.
Creating a great relationship isn’t about fitting perfectly with another person. It’s also not about another person completing an incomplete you. You and your partner are already whole and complete just as you are.
Instead, it’s much more like two trees growing together and supporting one another. The path is often unclear and the maturation is mysterious. But I believe very strongly that if you are willing to take a deep breath and be open, romantic relationships can be a very powerful tool for walking the path of a happy and fulfilling life.
Toku is a mindfulness expert, speaker, and coach. He lived for over two years at a Zen monastery and now helps passionate people who are good at what they do, be the best at what they do.