Seven Reasons Why Relationship Feels So Hard Sometimes

By Posted in - Blog & Relationships March 17th, 2015 4 Comments

One of our most essential needs is to love and be loved. Yet, we often find ourselves feeling lost and confused about how to a cultivate lasting, romantic relationship. Many of us feel challenged, uncomfortable, and utterly pained within the dynamics of our relationships. There are many reasons why relationships are hard, and in this article, I will address a few of the most common ones.

1. We are uncertain of what to strive for in an intimate relationship.

relationships are hardWe don’t have a good road map for what to expect within a long-term relationship. We are surrounded with media advertising and programming that portrays exploitative ways of relating romantically, which emphasize lust, power, and/or competitiveness. Other messages are filled with idyllic notions of what romantic relationships should be like, referencing “heaven on earth” and “living happily ever after.”  Lust and romance are aspects of a loving relationship, but they do not represent the totality of a lasting partnership. To expect or hope for our emotional experience in relationship to be one fixed state is unrealistic and limiting. (The majority of my relationship coaching clients work with me to transform these expectations.) How do we make room for a more full spectrum relationship?

The other challenge for when relationships are hard is that we do not have a clear vision of what we are creating within it. Without a clear vision, we can fall back into what is habit and convention. While habit and convention serve a purpose, does it address the things you long for in your relationship? Are you being proactive in cultivating the qualities and experiences you want within your relationship? Are you attending to what will really bring you happiness and fulfillment? (My couples/marriage course teaches you how to create a lasting relationship that both partners long for.)

2. We see our differences in relationship as a threat.

Relationships are complex. In a partnership, you have two individuals, with different personalities, ways of relating, expectations, and desires; not to mention differences in family upbringing, gender, culture, class, and beliefs. The list of ways you and your partner can be different is lengthy, but the point is that there are going to be times when you and your partner have vastly different perspectives. When encountering such differencerelationships are hard, it is natural and normal to experience discomfort and feel as though there is a problem. However, differences are not inherently bad. They do not have to result in power struggles, arguments, and threats to the relationship.

When confronted with a difficult situation or dynamic, partners often look to deal with the conflict or difference by one of three strategies. One or both partners:

  • Try to change their partner, saying “if you would be different, we would be okay (or we wouldn’t have this problem).”
  • Attempt to change themselves, thinking, “if I change, we will be happy (or we will not have these problems).”
  • Attempt to avoid the conflict, hoping that the conflict will go away and resolve itself.

None of these strategies work long-term. They might offer some short-term relief and harmony, but they do not provide the space for both people to be authentic and feel considered. These ineffective strategies essentially try to bypass the conflict process, but often with great costs down the road. Understandably we want to avoid conflict, because it is painful. We often feel our deepest fears, worries, and pain during conflicts with our significant other.

3. We don’t know how to deal with feeling vulnerable or scared.

We feel our deepest and most intense emotions within an intimate relationship. We may feel deep love and joy, alongside with intense fear and insecurity. When we fall in love and open deeply with a partner, we will become more intimate and vulnerable. This can be uncomfortable and bring up fears of being hurt. Only after the romance phase starts to settle, do we start to notice these areas of fear, pain, and vulnerability. This process can be difficult to understand, especially when it feels like the pain or fear is surfacing for the first time. It seems completely counter to what we might expect (see point #1). If you have ever experienced a loss, hurt, or rejection to whatever degree, it will be likely that you will feel some reaction at some point in relationship. This reaction or trigger is letting you know that you feel vulnerable or fearful.

Evolutionarily, you are (we all are) designed to survive and protect ourselves from harm, threat, or injury. Your sympathetic nervous system responds to a threat with the fight or flight (or freeze) response. The purpose of this response is to give you a boost of energy, so that you have the best opportunity to protect yourself physically. However, your limbic brain does not know the difference between different types of threats (i.e. a tiger is chasing you versus your loved one seems to be rejecting you). Therefore, you will have the same fight or flight response in relationship even if there is no physical threat. (i.e. perceived threat in your relationship).

rlationships are hardWhen you experience the fight or flight (or freeze) response, you will not have access to your prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for your higher levels of thinking (i.e. rational decision-making, moderating behavior, and working towards a goal). This makes being skillful in relationship very difficult when you are in the fight or flight mode. How do we learn to manage our perceived threats, fears, and vulnerabilities? How do we learn to heal and gain more security in relationship? How do we take care our ourselves and our relationship when we are triggered?

4. Either we don’t see our work or we don’t know how to do our work.

When I say “work,” I mean personal work…areas of improvement. Examples of doing personal work include doing therapy, relationship coaching, doing a marriage course, and other types of online relationship help. There is a difference between not being aware of your personal growth opportunities and choosing to not look or ignore your areas of growth. We all have parts of ourselves that we are not aware of. A good model to explain this is Johari’s window. Here is a brief overview:

Johari_Window Quadrant 1 (upper left): This is section represents what you know about yourself and what others know about you too. Another label for the area is Open.

Quadrant 2 (upper right): This is area represents what you do not see or know of yourself, but is known by others.  Another label for this section is Blind Spot.

Quadrant 3 (lower left): This area represents the things that you know about and see in yourself, but that other’s do not know or see. Another label for this section is Hidden.

Quadrant 4 (lower right): This section represents what is unknown to you and is unknown to others. Another label for this area is Unknown. This part can seem like a mystery because it is unconscious or subconscious.

When we don’t want to look at parts of ourselves, we run the risk of making it our partners problem (see next point, #5)

5. We don’t take responsibility for our needs, preference, and desires.

When we do not take ownership for our preferences, desires, and needs, we try to make it our partner’s problem. This creates a dynamic where you partner feels as though you are wanting something from them, but it is not clearly identified or named. At the most basic level, your partner will intuitively know that it is not their responsibility.

If this dynamic is happening, your partner will likely feel defensive or overly responsible. A defensive partner will likely try to guard against being made responsible for something that is not theirs. They may even do the opposite of what you want them to do. For example, let’s say you are afraid of being rejected, and you want reassurance. If you do not take ownership for it, you will expect your partner to offer you reassurance unsolicited or in response to your indirect and unclear prompts. You will be disappointed if you don’t get it, and you may complain or blame your partner for not giving it to you. Your partner will probably feel defensive and resistant to your complaints or blame, which could feel like a form of rejection. As you can see, very little good will come for this cycle.

An overly responsible partner will attempt to take responsibility for your needs. They will do all sorts of maneuvers to help you, and even with the best efforts they will probably get it wrong. In the off-chance they get it right, it will still not feel quite right, because the dynamic is off. It will not satiate your needs, because you did not do the inner work. Also, it is likely that you will feel dependent on your partner to get your needs met, which increases feelings of resentment and disempowerment. Oftentimes, people cannot see this dynamic clearly when it is happening.

6. We try to win over rather than win with.

It is natural to want your partner to fulfill your needs. Your partner is often that one person that gets you more than anyone else and knows more about you than anyone else. It makes sense that you would turn to your partner for support. AND, there is a difference between wanting their support and expecting their support (see #5). Things get complicated when our partner’s needs compete with our own needs. It is easy to get into power struggles.

As I mentioned in my last article, Nine Destructive Behaviors To Avoid During Conflict, it is common to switch from a position of “trying to resolve an issue” to “trying to be right.” Couples will often enter into a conversation with the intention to talk about a concern constructively only to get derailed and start arguing. Partners will feel pitted against each other, both feeling like they have to defend their position and “win” or be beaten. This describes a power structure of one up and one down, where only one person can win.Relationships are hard

If the goal is to be right and win, then the goal is no longer to have resolution and understanding, where the couple wins together. It becomes very difficult to maintain a respectful and considerate stance with one another.

7. We have competing internal needs.

We have two needs that interplay together and sometimes are at complete opposition with one another. One is to feel excitement,  growth, or newness. The other need is to feel secure and safe. In relationship, we want to feel growth and expansion, and we also want to feel emotional security and know that our bond is solid.

So often, we emphasize security in relationship that we compromise our own authenticity and vitality, as well as our partners aliveness and growth. We end up unintentionally stifling the very thing that we desperately want to feel in ourselves and within our relationship.

How do we attend to both needs at the same time?  How do we tolerate the expansion and contraction of the growth cycle? How can you continue to cultivate an amazing, passionate, and vibrant relationship that keeps evolving and developing?

These are all examples of why dynamics in relationship can feel so painful. Please note that these are all very common challenges. The important thing to consider here is what to do differently. Stay tuned for my next article which will address some of the ways you can work with these challenges. The more you are engaged in thinking differently, the more you will begin to relate and approach situations differently.

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What do you think is a reason why relationships can be so challenging at times? Please leave a comment below. Thank you. ❤

(4) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Cindy Kenyon - Reply

    February 15, 2017 at 9:19 pm

    This was an incredibly helpful article…I have been experiencing some painful conversations with someone that I love very much and who I know loves me as well. This information is intelligent, thoughtful and makes so much sense – it takes what I’ve been experiencing and ‘normalizes’ it; so my fears are calmed and not leading to some very scary assumptions…all based on a lack of understanding on my part. There are so many areas we can be successful in – and still be so ineffective at relationship issues. The dichotomy of linking intense loving feelings with the equally intense fear and anger that goes along with falling in love are a mystery in one sense, but perfectly understandable in another. This article helped to provide some logic to the entire dynamic. THANK YOU!!!

    • Dr. Jessica Higgins - Reply

      February 20, 2017 at 4:12 pm

      Hi Cindy,

      Thank you for taking the time to respond. I really appreciate your feedback. You are so right that the dichotomy of intense love with intense fear is confusing. I am happy you are seeking new possibilities rather than going into scary assumptions!! Some of the most important work in relationship, I think. Please let me know if I can be of any support of your relationship journey. Wishing you all the best, Jessica

  • Dante - Reply

    January 16, 2018 at 1:59 am

    I have a great appreciation when I stumble upon an invaluable article like this – on point and straight up science; It totally makes sense.

    I was 19 and my first true relationship failed and I went dark, coping with certain substances for two years to cope and numb the pain. I then never committed myself in a serious relationship after meaningless flings. 17 years later, thinking I have a good sense of self and bringing myself to a good path, I’m ready to commit to this beautiful accident in meeting someone special. I just turned 40 and our relationship failed, calling off our engagement. After six months of the breakup, I learn more about myself continuously and questions arise even more.

    I no longer have the desire to reconcile since she chose another path quickly, understanding we don’t have a strong foundation and what we truly value aren’t the same.

    Romantic relationship is so complex and your article cleared so many things for me. I’ve also read your link for “nine destructive behaviors..” – very thoughtful and informative.

    Excuse my lengthy introduction. I just wanted to express my gratitude for sharing your knowledge.

    • Dr. Jessica Higgins - Reply

      January 19, 2018 at 10:18 pm

      Dante, Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. It means a lot to me. I also appreciate your sharing. Yes, relationship is complex AND there is a path forward where two people can co-create a beautiful relationship. You might be interested in this relationship map/tool Please let me know if I can be of any support.

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