7 Relationship Reality Checks (That Are Only Slightly Depressing)

Relationships take work.

Relationships take work.

Give yourself the gift of acknowledging your needs and figuring out how to meet them in a way that honors your unique spirit and your relationship.

The other day my friend and I were talking about romantic relationships, as we often do. Hers is at the 5-year mark; mine is at the 11-year mark. We’ve both been through high points and rough patches in recent years. We’ve both seen other friends’ relationships fall apart recently. We got to talking about the expectations and illusions everyone brings to their romantic relationships. “I just want to give everyone a list of reality checks,” I said. “Hard truths about long-term relationships that might be tough to swallow but are so important to understand.” 

So after I hung up the phone, I sat down and wrote out seven of them — things I’ve learned over the years in my own relationship, observations I’ve gathered from others, and wisdom gleaned from failures and successs. Seven inescapable, undeniable truths about relationships. Here they are:

1. Relationships are work. Hard work. Like, real, actual work.

This is such a cliche, but it’s one of those cliches that exist for a reason: because it’s true. Being in a relationship is fun, inspiring, fulfilling, magical, and amazing. It’s also really hard work. Some of this work is fun (“Hey, let’s build intimacy by having sex every day for a month!”) and some of it is extraordinarily difficult. Things like taking the high road when your partner won’t. Buckling down and mucking through complicated, painful conflicts. Admitting you fucked up.

This work often involves cracking your heart wide open and letting someone see the real you. Nothing is harder than that. For a relationship to function and grow, both partners have to be equally willing to do this work. A good relationship requires effort. It takes time and energy. This work can be exhausting, but it’s also rewarding. It will make you stronger and deeper and better. But you have to do it; there are no shortcuts.

2. To be the best partner you can be, you have to be the best individual you can be.

So all that relationship work I mentioned above? A big chunk of that workload actually takes place on the individual level. To be a good partner you have to be willing to look within — to see your own shortcomings, to acknowledge your own bad habits, and to try to be better. Maybe the most important piece of this equation is WANTING to be better.

Nobody’s perfect, and no relationship is perfect, but if two people come to the table consistently wanting to be better partners and better individuals, they’ve got a much better shot at lasting happiness. Again, this work is difficult and daunting and scary, but it’s worth it.

3. You can compromise on pretty much everything except your sense of self.

You’ve heard it before: compromise is essential to a successful relationship. And it’s true...up to a point. To share a home and a schedule and a life with someone requires compromise. You will probably have to change the way you load the dishwasher, your proclivity for taking up the entire bed, and the pace at which you consume Netflix shows. Compromise is great until it starts infringing on the things that make you YOU.

Things like quality time with friends, expressing yourself genuinely and openly, pursuing your own creative hobbies, having meaningful alone time, and being true to your own dreams, needs, and emotions. It’s easy for relationship compromises to creep into these sacred parts of our individual lives and to chip away at our autonomy and sense of self. Know yourself well enough to know where to draw the line.

4. Magic doesn’t always happen naturally. You have to create it.

How rad would it be if every single day of your relationship contained a dramatic kissing-in-the-rain-underneath-the-Eiffel-Tower moment? Or a conversation so deep you feel like you know the other person’s SOUL? Or spontaneous sex so mind-blowing you reach another plane of consciousness?

Unfortunately, the tedium of day-to-day life tends to dull and drown out moments like these. How do you keep the magic alive in the face of bills and stressful jobs and dirty dishes? You keep intentionally creating it, or at the very least, creating space for it. Put down your phone and really listen when your partner is talking. Break out of your routine. Give yourself permission (and time!) to follow whims of spontaneity and silliness and see where they lead. The magic is still there, I swear, but it’s up to you to make room for it in your daily life.

5. No one person can meet all your needs.

Expecting your partner to meet all your needs is a recipe for disaster. There is no one person on earth who can singlehandedly meet all your social, intellectual, sexual, physical, and emotional needs. That’s just a fact. Find someone who meets your key needs — the ones you prioritize in your romantic relationships — and whose needs are compatible with your own, and be grateful for that. Then empower yourself to create a rich, vivid life that meets your other needs.

Maybe you love taking death-defying hikes, but your partner is more of a “read and drink tea at home” type. You could sit at home and resent your partner for not meeting your need for adventure, or you could go, in the words of Jack Kerouac, “climb that goddamn mountain.” Give yourself and your partner the gift of realistic expectations. Give yourself the gift of acknowledging your needs and figuring out how to meet them in a way that honors your unique spirit and your relationship.

6. You have to own your own stories.

Every person brings their own stories to their relationship. By “stories” here, I mean the narratives we carry around about ourselves, our motivations, and our worth. Stories like “I’m not good with money,” or “I’m not worth loving,” or “My relationships always fail.” These stories affect our actions every day, whether we acknowledge them or not, which is why owning up to them is such a powerful thing.

Brene Brown has a great habit that she practices when she’s having a conflict with her husband. She will stop arguing for a moment to say, “The story I’m telling myself right now is _____.” Maybe she’s telling herself that she’s the victim, or that she’s a bad mother and wife. But whatever story it is, bringing it out in the open is such an important act — it takes away the story’s invisible hold on the situation, and allows each partner to understand the underlying motivations for the conflict. By owning your stories, you refuse to allow them to control you.

7. You also have to say “sorry.” A lot.

Saying “sorry” is the worst, isn’t it? You have to acknowledge you were wrong, set aside stubbornness, and show vulnerability. But alas, I’m sorry to say (see what I did there?) that within the context of your relationship, you’re going to need to say it a lot. Both of you are. Because we all fuck up a lot. And 99% of fuck-ups are understandable and overcomeable, but ONLY if you’re willing to apologize and take accountability. An unwillingness to apologize is an unwillingness to grow. It’s one word. Two syllables. And it can change everything.

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