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Relationships

Couples: Who Says, 'It Shouldn’t Be This Hard'?

Embracing love’s bold adventure.

Key points

  • The bold adventure of being a couple offers excitement and joy—and also risk, uncertainty, mistakes, and pain.
  • Couples’ difficulties are an inevitable aspect of our movement toward strength, resilience, and wisdom. They are valuable.
  • When we expect that relationships should not, at times, be hard, we cause ourselves extra suffering.
ArtistGNDphotography/iStock
Source: Credit:ArtistGNDphotography/iStock

People in relationships often say, "It shouldn't be this hard."

There is, actually, one way in which it shouldn’t, needn’t, be quite so hard. Paradoxically, that has to do with the extra suffering we experience when we tell ourselves it shouldn’t be so hard.

I often find that couples seem surprised, dismayed, and even embarrassed by the amount of difficulty they’re having. They take their difficulties to mean that they are failing in this partnership. Or perhaps they have chosen the wrong person. Perhaps they are the wrong person. This is a serious misunderstanding and underestimation of the undertaking.

Relationships in general, and couples especially, are, like life itself, a bold adventure. Bold adventures involve—in addition to excitement and joy—risk, uncertainty, mistakes, and pain. They are bold adventures because the outcomes are far from certain, far from usual, and require more of us than we know we have. When we make the mistake of failing to understand this, we end up misinterpreting the times that we struggle, or even fail, to solidify loving connections.

But when we understand the enormity of what it is we are trying to do, the difficulties seem less surprising—and certainly less of a cause for feeling that we’re failing versus feeling proud of undertaking so grand an endeavor.

There are, in fact, lots of very good reasons why relationships are consistently harder than we want them to be, and harder than we expected. Before we look at why it is so hard, let’s look at how we end up with the impression that being a couple should be easier than it is.

The Fireworks and Flowers of Falling in Love Set Unrealistic Expectations

You’re a couple because when you encountered each other in the vast sea of others, something clicked. You opened to each other in a way that felt special, unusual, and maybe even magical. You may have said to yourself or to each other, “Let’s do this more … again … next Friday … a lot … forever.” Everything in your body, heart, and mind tells you this should be the most natural and wonderful thing in the world.

Coupling Seems So Normal

We humans are social beings. We rely on other people for our health and happiness and all cultures reflect a certain preference for coupling. The 2021 U.S. Census found that 90% of adults over 60 had been married at least once in their lives. So it can seem that this is natural and should just happen, right? And yet, what we also know is that the number of marriages that dissolve hovers consistently around 50% (and these are just the formal marriage dissolutions). So, actually, couples coming apart is also quite normal.

The Stories of Couples Are Hidden

Learning about being a couple from watching other couples is like watching a magic show: the important stuff is kept out of sight. Much of what other couples do to create or destroy love, trust, and understanding happens behind closed doors. The extreme privacy around the inner workings of couples leaves everyone feeling that their difficulties are unusual.

We Get Confused About Learning

Success as a couple is ongoing learning, but we labor under the idea that we are, or should be, fully formed. Even the learning of young children is often experienced with shame about what they don’t already know. And certainly, we imagine that by the time we reach young adulthood, about the time we start to mate, we should already know how to be a couple.

Carol Dweck talks about the difference between a “fixed mindset” and a “growth mindset.” She says, “The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives” (Dweck, 2006). We need to understand that life is an ongoing process of learning and developing—especially for the most important things, like how to conduct our relationships.

So, let’s draw aside the curtain on the magic show and look at why it’s so hard. We will look at three challenging aspects of this bold adventure.

1. Solving the Big Riddle of Life: More Connection, Less Injury

As part of a couple, you discover that this special connection has another side: an increased vulnerability to feeling hurt, ignored, betrayed, disappointed, and frustrated. These injuries, large and small, cause you to close, pull away, or even slam the door to your heart. You’re now more protected, but also more cut off from love and companionship. With the “end of the honeymoon,” you’re launched into the full mind-bending puzzle: open, you have the potential pain of being emotionally injured; closed, you suffer the loss of connection that you want and need.

2. Integration: The Next Big Riddle

A couple is not just two individuals who live in close proximity to each other. A couple is a system in the ongoing process of integrating. It’s often hard just to get our own emotions, thoughts, and actions connected and integrated. It’s even harder to connect and integrate our experience with our partner’s experience so that we can think together, decide together, and act and move through the world together. Dialogue, as described by William Isaacs, Michael Kahn, and others, is the conversational process where two people get to something larger than what either of them understands (Isaacs, 1999) (Kahn, 1995). Couples are in an ongoing process to solve this complex puzzle: how to simultaneously develop as individuals and also as this integrating entity, the couple. Integration requires more of us than we anticipated. More time, more energy, more learning.

3. Learning Can Be Hard

Our brains are designed for continuous learning throughout life, but they also have a very strong bias toward wanting to be certain and wanting to be right—tendencies that make learning hard and painful. Learning requires that we move from feeling humiliated by not knowing or being wrong to feeling humility. Openness to being wrong and to not knowing is essential to learning. This openness itself must be learned.

Our Western culture makes it hard for couples to experience their difficulties this way. We over-value romantic love and undervalue the hard-earned learning that is inseparable from life and love. Relationship difficulties are, in fact, the doorways to the learning that is necessary, for both the health of the relationship, and the health of the individuals. Turning problems into learning is the difference between couples who are struggling and couples who are thriving.

Honoring Your Bold Adventure

The difficulties of couples are an inevitable aspect of our lifelong movement toward strength, resilience, and wisdom. They are not only normal; they are valuable. To expect that relationships should not, at times, be hard, is to misunderstand the scope and the value of this endeavor. In all the moments when you struggle, in small ways or large, to create the relationship you want, remember to value your sustained commitment to this bold adventure of love.

References

Dweck, Carol S. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.

Isaacs, William.(1999). Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together. New York: Doubleday.

Kahn, Michael. (1995). The Tao of Conversation. Oakland: New Harbinger.

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