As you and your partner begin to edge toward coupling up, or even marrying, keep your eye on these key areas. They are important. While your relationship doesn't need to be perfect, you do need to watch for some troubling patterns and trends over time. It is not unusual for people to spend months or even years with someone, all along sensing that the match is not a good one. It is not productive or pleasant to be in a situation where you are always second-guessing yourself about the long-term viability of a relationship. Some people also simply fall into love too easily, getting swept up in a rush of excitement and expectation and never considering whether they may be traveling down a dead-end road.
Generally these four factors cause people to eventually break up, divorce, or stay miserably together.
1. Do you want the same things?
Love is, of course, powerfully seductive. However, a boatload of seduction won’t stop deep frustration from setting in if you and your partner do not want the same things over the long term. Notice if you are able to talk about what you want in the future, and if your partner is also able to do so as well. Then see how similar or dissimilar your visions are. You do not need to be identical — variance keeps life interesting. But look for how you are alike or different in big ways. Do you both want to live in the same geographic area, or type of community? Do you both want children (or do you both not want children)? Are you both homebodies, or does one of you prefer a high level of social stimulation while the other is more introverted? Do you both aspire to demanding careers or to a more relaxed lifestyle?
Believe what your partner tells you about himself or herself. If he says he doesn’t want kids, don’t tell yourself you can eventually get him onboard. Do you really want to have children with someone you have to manipulate into such a massive undertaking? If she says she doesn’t like being around lots of people, and she avoids high-risk activities, don’t tell yourself that you can persuade her of the fun in these pursuits. People are who they are. And over time, differences of this kind can become huge stumbling blocks to happiness.
2. Can your partner speak openly?
When talking about your days, your sexual desires, your future hopes, or even your vacation desires, can you and your partner mutually express yourselves? Does your partner shut down when you bring up emotional material? When you ask questions and try to get to know the other in a closer or deeper manner, do they distract you with another topic? Take note if they do: If you and your partner can’t openly express yourselves, and feel safe doing so, emotional closeness will move out of reach. Many people tell themselves they have to give it more time and be patient. I find that when it’s a good match, couples find it easy to be open early on. You may not share your darkest secrets right away, but it should feel exciting and enticing to both share and to learn about your partner.
3. Do conflicts inevitably turn toxic?
Of course, early on, conflict may be quite minimal — everyone is on their best behavior. But over time, do you find that when you and your partner disagree, one or both of you goes to a mean place? When people call each other names, engage in character assassination, blame the other for their problems, or become verbally or physically abusive, their thought processes are impaired. When that is the case, people stop growing, and couples stop developing. Instead of enjoying your time with your partner, you become consumed by how to protect yourself from an argument, or rehearsing what to say the next time they upset you. It’s a good sign for the longevity and health of your relationship if you are able to have conflicts and resolve them while making each other feel better in the process.
4. Can you be your real self with your partner?
The best thing about long-term commitment is having someone who knows you inside and out — and loves you anyway. Notice if you are putting on an act with your partner, or if you find yourself consumed with saying the right thing or doing the right thing in their presence. Also, notice if your partner is able to let his or her guard down with you. When one or the other member of a couple has a perfectionistic underpinning, the other member may feel a need to rise to this impossible expectation. Over time, being perfect becomes exhausting, and you may start to wonder why you are in this relationship at all. People stay with friends and romantic partners for the long term when they feel comfortable being themselves in the presence of the other person. This kind of ease makes it possible for couples to be silly, spontaneous, sexual, and more comfortable taking on new risks and challenges.
There are specific strategies that will help you to take a clear-eyed look at the health of your relationship. If you are in a relationship, but can’t quite accept that it’s not working, consider reading my workbook, Breaking Up and Divorce-5 Steps. Often when you examine a situation from a new angle, breaking up becomes slightly less painful, because you learn to trust that you are doing the right thing for yourself.
Jill Weber, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice in Washington, D.C., and the author of The Relationship Formula Workbook Series, including Toxic Love — 5 Steps: How to Identify Toxic Love Patterns and Find Fulfilling Attachments, Breaking Up and Divorce — 5 Steps: How to Heal and be Comfortable Alone and Building Self-Esteem — 5 Steps: How to Feel 'Good Enough.' Follow her on Twitter @DrJillWeber and on Facebook, or visit drjillweber.com.