Image licensed from Shutterstock // Olena Yakobchuck
It's the cliche experience every couple knows. After a few years together, your romantic life devolves into a drab bedtime conversation — something you two discuss while brushing your teeth, mentally drained after a grueling two hours of drama on Netflix.
It’s you who spits out the remnants of toothpaste, saliva, and food particles first. Then you turn to your partner. “Hey, we should probably do it tonight.”
Before answering, your partner gargles some mouthwash and spits it into the sink. “Yeah. It’s been like two weeks, right?”
“Wanna just do it tomorrow night instead?”
“Sure. I’m really tired.”
When scenes like this play out, it might seem like a subtle foreshadowing of your ultimate demise as a couple.
But not always.
Situations like these give us the illusion of a relationship running out of gas, causing fear and stress. Our lizard brain might think ignoring these challenges results in less pain, but that’s how relationships wither.
In my experience, dealing with them as they occur leads to more lasting happiness.
After decades of failed relationships and 18 years in a successful one, I’ve learned that most challenges aren’t as ominous as they seem. If you’re willing to put in the effort, you can easily overcome these seven challenges.
1. Your romantic life has devolved into a to-do list item.
When coitus migrates from an act of passion to an optional to-do list item, it can feel like the curtain drawing on the closing act of your relationship. This happens when you get complacent; you can fix it by being attentive.
Too often, however, we interpret these downward swings as ominous signs of doom instead of natural highs and lows.
We’re biologically hardwired to crave variety, according to an article in Psychology Today. When the act becomes routine, we lose passion. Anyone in a long term relationship will tell you that. The toothbrushing dramatization in the introduction might have seemed comical, but conversations like that do occur.
Introduce variety, spontaneity. Tease and flirt with each other. No matter your commitment, you’ll find that passion will explode and fizzle, accelerate and sputter, recover and retreat. It’s inevitable but fixable.
2. You desperately need a break from each other.
When an ex-girlfriend expressed a need for space, I resented her. To me, it felt like rejection. I reluctantly agreed to her request, but my bitterness persisted until it ended our relationship.
Years later, in my first long term relationship, I realized the foolishness of my perspective. I found that distance enhanced our mutual desire. Going away on a business trip infused us with passion upon my return. A weekend away with friends created the same effect.
Missing each other enhances the desire to reconnect, even if you’re apart for only a day or a few hours. There’s no need to feel guilty about wanting space or resentful when your partner desires it.
Allow yourselves time apart. Even when you’re in a relationship, you’re still an individual. You need time to do what you want (even if it’s nothing at all) without the need to compromise. Encourage your partner to enjoy their time alone too; don’t make them feel guilty about needing their space.
3. You want to live on different ends of the planet.
My girlfriend and I were living in Colorado and had been dating for about a year. We were at an impasse. She wanted to stay in Colorado while I sought a move back east. Eventually, we compromised. We’d move back east after she finished her education the following summer.
Years later, we faced another disagreement over our future. She craved a house and a yard. I wanted to remain in a cramped city apartment. We compromised again, agreeing to remain in the city until we had kids.
Differing visions of your future together can doom your relationship, but if you’re willing to compromise, you can render them minor blips on your journey together.
Compromise. If you insist on winning your way on every big decision, your relationship won’t survive. A compromise on major life decisions must result in win-win outcomes. Otherwise, one of you will resent the other.
4. Your jobs are more important than your relationship.
The Golden Rule of Relationships states that you should make your partner your top priority.
But there’s an addendum to that.
You can’t do that 100% of the time. It’s not possible, and if you try, you’ll drive yourselves crazy.
Life throws all sorts of curveballs at us. Sometimes, we need to focus more on our jobs to ensure we have shelter and food. Other times we need to prioritize our personal health or the well-being of a family member.
The key to surviving these de-prioritization moments lies in communication, compassion, and reconciliation. Communicate to your partner that you will need to prioritize something over your relationship.
Your partner needs to show enough understanding and compassion for whatever drives this need. When the crisis ends, reconcile by focusing your efforts on rebuilding your relationship.
5. Your family disapproves.
Remember when you were a teenager, and you brought home a boy or girl that threw your parents into a fit? It only made it more certain you would date that boy or girl, even if it were merely an act of defiance.
As we grow older and our family and close friends weigh in on our partners, we give their opinions a bit more weight, especially when we solicit their opinion. We reason that their objectivity yields insight clouded by our love goggles.
Friends and family members may offer more sound opinions, but they lace those opinions with their own set of biases. If you value their objectivity, press for specifics (I saw him steal money from you) and be wary of sweeping generalizations (she comes from the wrong family).
6. You each keep secrets that aren’t really secrets.
A year ago, my wife and I went out for dinner with my parents and siblings. We told stories of our childhood. My siblings were happy to tell a few of the more racy stories from my teenage years. These were mysteries to my wife. She questioned why I had never told her these stories before.
In truth, I had forgotten about them—nothing nefarious there, just an unintentional secret.
You’ll never learn everything about your partner, no matter how much they share. Ten years later, they’ll recoil in shock when they learn you slept with your partner’s college roommate’s sibling and never mentioned it.
Most secrets aren’t really secrets; they’re just factoids and stories we forget or deem unimportant. Real secrets, ones that damage relationships, involve active concealment of something you know your partner would disapprove of: cheating, gambling, legal problems.
7. You struggle to follow rules that aren’t really rules.
Biblical scholars will recognize this relationship rule as the eleventh commandment — the one that didn’t fit on Moses’s tablets.
On birthdays, anniversaries, and Valentine's Day, it’s imperative that you give your partner a greeting card dressed in poetic verbiage that expresses your love with pinpoint accuracy.
Five years ago, I woke up the morning of my wife’s birthday, snuck out of bed, and hastily dressed. Before sneaking out the door, she asked where I was going.
I couldn’t lie. “I forgot to get you a birthday card.”
“Don't’ bother. They’re a waste of money.”
From that point on, we rewrote the rules and decided never to buy each other greeting cards again. How silly. We followed this pointless rule for years because it was so ingrained in us. Neither of us liked it, so we did away with it.
The more rules you hold yourselves to, the more likely you will break some of them. Dedicate time to figure out the subtle, unspoken rules causing strife in your relationship. You’ll find that many are customs you do out of obligation. You and your partner reserve the right to decide which ones to follow and which ones to jettison.