Is there a difference between a problem relationship – which may be a matter of something you can’t put your finger on – and relationship problems? Is one a tougher nut to crack? If you’re confronting the most common relationship problems, does it mean your relationship itself is on the rocks?
You may find yourself involved with – or married to – the most terrific person on the planet. And the feelings are reciprocal. But you aren’t immune to issues between the two of you; nor are you exempt from struggles caused by issues that are external to your relationship.
This is the distinction I make between relationship problems and the “problem relationship.”
Of course, there is overlap. We are never unaffected by those factors that are outside our control – including the opinions of others, especially if they meddle. And that may unleash relationship problems between the partners as a result.
Timing is Everything in Relationships
Haven’t you ever found yourself in love or in like with a great guy, but the two of you are a mismatch in terms of where you are in life? Perhaps there is a situation of kids from a former marriage throwing a monkey wrench into logistics. Maybe you’ve just nabbed the job of your dreams on the West Coast, and he or she is on the East Coast – with no options to move any time soon.
Ah, you tell yourself. If only the timing were different.
Perhaps relationship obstacles include an age difference – again you find yourself cursing what is out of your control. In the case of a five year gap between you two, this poses a problem if one is underage, but more likely, this difference isn’t significant. However, if one is 25 and the other is 40, childbearing may become an obstacle – if not immediately, then in the future.
Another example? One of you is approaching retirement and the other is just getting a second wind or a fresh Chapter 2. She may be looking at 20 years of vitality and career still ahead, and the desire for different lifestyles may be difficult to overcome.
Perhaps the timing issue is a matter of ambitions or financial necessity. For example, you may be headed back to school for an advanced degree, and the object of your affection is taking a two-year overseas assignment. Will your blossoming relationship survive? If you’re married, now what?
Maybe your mutual friends dislike each other. Maybe it’s your families. You’re convinced that if they only there were more time for them to spend together, or if they had met him or her before they explored his social media persona – they would see what you see. They would love what you love.
But the two of you? You see the potential – though you can’t move the relationship forward… at this time.
How is the problem relationship different from relationship problems? Is it important to understand? Does breaking both of these down enable us to know when to push on and when to let go? Or at least, to distinguish between circumstances that are beyond your control (the problem relationship) versus personal traits or behaviors that are potentially up for change or negotiation?
Defining the Problem Relationship
We read all kinds of tips and tricks for “fixing” our romantic relationships, “saving” them, or at least improving them. We also see guidelines and examples that tell us when to cut the cord and walk away.
We are taught to put a positive spin on our decisions, and continue looking for the perfect match. At other times, we’re counseled to “settle” – a word I don’t care for in the context of assessing another person’s value.
My bottom line?
I’m far from the picture of the perfection in any way. There is no “perfect” – no perfect me (or you), no perfect job (or profession), no perfect place, no perfect kids, no perfect timing, no perfect relationship. However, there is a broad and fascinating spectrum of lousy to pretty great! Ideally, we can dwell in the upper echelons of that spectrum.
I also have a specific view on the “problem relationship” and how we should approach it, depending on what exactly makes it a “problem.” And sometimes, the problematic aspect is not resolvable. We should address it, learn from it, and if appropriate – move on.
As for pinning down the “problem relationship,” consider this:
- Your communication is good
- Your sexual compatibility is good
- Your values mesh
- Your desired lifestyle and goals are compatible
In the “problem relationship,” circumstances beyond your control at this time make it complicated, if not impossible, for you to be together. These circumstances may include children, job, geography, or age difference among others. As for that last, the greater the gap in years, the more critical a factor it is – as one of you (the younger) is most likely to change, not to mention want more (and varied) experience.
So what if all of the above used to be good, but something has gone awry?
I suggest you consider carefully, including the investment you have both made in the relationship, and the genuine caring you have for each other. If “life” has piled on the strain for one or both of you, it’s easy for communication, sex, and even immediate goals to clash. But if the fundamentals were there beyond the honeymoon phase, I put your challenges in the relationship problems category, and not a problem relationship.
Common Relationship Problems
WebMD offers insights into some of the most common relationship problems and how to solve them. I’ve expanded their list and included additional challenges many of us may have run into in our lives.
Here is a list of the most common relationship problems:
- Acts of infidelity
- Poor communication (including conflict resolution)
- Various types of sexual incompatibility
- Fights over kids (discipline, education)
- Money issues
- Emerging differences in values and belief systems
- Trust (jealousy, possessiveness)
- Personality types (introvert / extrovert)
- Common interests (sports / arts; go out / stay home)
- Schedules, logistics, chores
- Interference from outside parties
- Fallout from life events (medical, relocation, loss of job, etc.)
In the sexual incompatibility arena – key to most of us – there are any number of disconnects possible, including changes in libido, loss of sexual attractiveness between partners, loss of emotional intimacy, another romantic interest entering the picture, and so on.
Furthermore, abusive relationships of any sort – those that involve substance abuse, manipulation (verbal, emotional), or physical abuse – require serious attention. Physical abuse is never acceptable, and nor is the psychology behind it simple. But let’s not underestimate the damage of emotional or verbal abuse either, and the insidious way it can creep into a relationship and render one party at a loss for how to regain her footing.
Life Events and Relationship Stress
Certainly, you may arrive at points where there are differences in what you want out of life. Some may be negotiable – where you live, how you live; others are deal breakers, for example, if one of you wants children and the other does not.
The last item on the list above is not to be discounted – when life events such as the loss of a loved one, an illness, loss of job or relocation may significantly impact the practical aspects of life – security, money, living with pain or compromised functioning even if temporarily – but they may challenge the foundations of one’s identity. The resulting disorientation, not to mention depression and ongoing stress, may put significant strain on our daily lives in general, and on our closest relationships in particular. We fight to establish a “new normal” – and it isn’t always pretty.
My Rx would include plenty of listening, empathy, patience, reinforcing what you love about your partner, and helping him or her not to feel “in it” alone. Naturally, this assumes a certain level of commitment in the relationship. The equation (and response) changes when that isn’t the case and both of you consider the options.
Also worthy of special attention is the mention of outside parties. This is can be a grueling, isolating kind of stress, bringing us full circle to the “problem relationship” wherein your partner or spouse may not be liked or understood by your family or friends. If they respect boundaries, the effects on your relationship may be minimal. If they are constantly offering unsolicited opinions or trying to break you up, you have a more significant set of challenges.
Another significant source of this particular stress? When you’re talking about life after divorce, you may be dealing with issues of an uncooperative ex (or two), complications of blending families, and circumstances that conspire to make loving or living with a new partner difficult.
Seeing Our Partners As Others Do
In my own experience, I find it useful to attempt to see a romantic interest or potential partner as others do. It isn’t always possible, but by listening and observing, we may be able to glean new insights. I will also add this: We may not see our partners as clearly as others do.
There are times when we should heed the warnings and intuition of trusted friends. We may be far too close to a situation to process the big picture. We may believe we have all the answers, when in fact we are blinded by love, by great sex, by a desire to be part of a couple.
Others may also see the ways in which we have grown – and grown apart. There are times when both parties see the value in working through and working with this sort of evolution. They happily adjust and stay together. There are other times when that is not in anyone’s best interest. And, some issues can only be addressed with outside expertise, namely a highly skilled therapist or counselor.
Naturally, when there are children involved, we must consider what is best for them from all applicable angles. Again, timing is an issue. What is a problem for a child of 10 may no longer be an issue at 15. What is a problem at 15 may be irrelevant as that teenager heads off to college at 18.
One more recommendation: Try to see yourself as your partner does — right now. This may be an illuminating exercise, causing you to rethink what you previously viewed as “right” or “wrong” between the two of you, and to allow for the possibility to view yourself differently and your partner with a more open mind.
Listen. I’m not planning on hanging out a shingle. However, I am informed by my reading, my listening, my observing, my fascination with human motivations and of course my own experience, including my share of mistakes. And I am heartened by how much we can continue to learn from each other about our relationships – those that work well, and those we should walk away from. I am convinced we benefit from taking our time, holding true to our values, and welcoming the input of those who know us best – within reason.
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