From modern cinema to classic literature to celebrity culture, we’re constantly inundated with examples of “fairytale romances.” These relationship stories often conclude just when they’re getting started—or they simply leave the gritty stuff out.
We don’t hear about Prince Charming’s struggle finding balance between Cinderella and his demanding work with the kingdom. And rom-coms tend to focus on the initial spark between a couple and seldom their dwindling sex life three years later. The reality is that every relationship experiences “winter seasons,” or periods of time that aren’t all summer breezes and sunshine. With guidance from several relationship experts, I’ve explored some common “shitty scenarios” that relationships endure, as well as some valuable takeaways that can help us work through them.
We can’t all agree on everything, but as the enchantment phase of a new relationship fades, those varying ideologies can become particularly glaring. “She reads Proust and he watches the Kardashians. Or worse, he wanted Clinton to win and she crows about Trump’s victory. Yes, the second will be much harder to overcome than the first, but relational happiness can prevail,” says Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, a licensed marriage and family therapist. This headbutting can creep up in varying forms—politics, finances, religion, hobbies, to name a few—and it can be exhausting. Because it’s such a pain point, you may even find yourself constantly circling back to the topic that causes issues.
“The key to working through these differences is focusing on that which you love, and putting boundaries around that which you don't,” says Dr. Hokemeyer. “You'll also need to avoid the temptation to demean and humiliate your mate for their beliefs. It will take practice and incredible self-regulation, but success in these areas will greatly enhance the quality of your relationship.” He adds that differing ideologies can even make a relationship stronger by stimulating you and your partner’s cognitive and emotional connection. It forces you to think outside of your comfort zone, and when you can do so with compassion and genuine curiosity about your partner’s point-of-view, you can mature both as an individual and couple.
Thinking back to you and your partner’s (intoxicating and delicious) first sexual encounters can make you feel like things have really gone downhill in terms of physical connection and romance. The reality is that sex in a long-term relationship has a tendency to become, well, kind of boring. This happens to many couples. “The truth of the matter is that it's not the sex that gets boring,” says Dr. Hokemeyer. “It’s that life intervenes and presses out the bliss of sex. Success in dealing with this comes from managing expectations around what fulfilling sex looks like.” He says that the best way to manage these expectations is to discuss and calibrate new baseline levels of fulfilling sex. It’s also important to get over your shyness in discussing your sexual needs and open an inclusive dialogue with your partner. That means communicating what you’re missing, what you’d like more of, and perhaps even setting aside a concrete time every week to enjoy each other. Dr. Hokemeyer even goes so far as to recommend a sex schedule that involves a once weekly sex date. “This keeps too much time from passing between sexual interactions,” he explains. “It might not be the most romantic ideal, but it keeps their sex lives lubricated.” This regimented schedule can eventually spark a more organic sex life, as sexual intimacy naturally brings partners closer together.
There are seasons of your relationship when you’ll feel less connected to your partner. Unless it is an ongoing, painful issue that’s never resolved despite your best efforts, a momentary disconnect is normal—not a death signal. Life happens. We get caught up in deadlines and work projects and extended family drama and extracurricular responsibilities. Sometimes children or work can take precedence over our partner, and sometimes we get so wrapped up in our own personal issues that we don’t remember to ask about our partner’s issues. It is the responsibility of both partners to work together when this happens. “It’s an opportunity to talk about what’s going on,” says Dr. Jennifer Howard, a psychotherapist and relationship expert. “When you speak from your heart, it’s a bonding opportunity. It’s a moment to be real with each other. When we’re real with friends, family, partners—anybody—we give them permission to be real, too.” Sometimes disconnect stems from feeling unheard. Sometimes it stems from not spending enough quality time together. Other times it stems from not speaking each other’s love languages. Whatever it is, make it a priority to figure it out and address it immediately.
If you’re the one feeling disconnected, confront your partner gently. Dr. Howard recommends leading with your feelings, using “When you do X, I feel Y” statements. These statements are less intimidating and therefore less likely to trigger a fight compared to statements that start with an attack. If you’re the one being confronted by a partner who’s feeling disconnected, listen. “Learn how to be curious and really hear what the other person is saying,” says Dr. Howard. “You’re not just listening to have a comeback or to make your point, but you’re listening and being genuinely curious.”
Every couple experiences doubt. It is natural, it is unavoidable, it can cycle back more than a few times throughout the course of a healthy relationship, and it’s something you can work through. “Doubt is the other side of certainty,” says Dr. Linda Carroll, a relationship therapist. “When we fall in love, we see all the best. We are also under one of the strongest chemicals known and it’s as though those brain changes and chemical overflows cause us to see only the best of the other.” She says that when this “love drug” (otherwise known as oxytocin) wears off after months or years of dating, couples are introduced to the other side of the person they fell in love with. “I fell in love with my husband because he was so reliable and always did exactly what he said he would, and he fell in love with my spontaneous nature,” says Dr. Carroll. “Then, when we landed in doubt-land, I told him he was rigid, and he said I was impulsive. Same qualities, different lens.”
You may also experience doubt when going through a major life change (cold feet on a wedding day is a prime example), which is your mind’s way of making you verify that you’re making the right decision. It’s also a natural reaction when we’re feeling scared. Talking through it with yourself or with a therapist can be immensely helpful and insightful. “Spend time investigating the deeper aspects of your doubts,” advises Dr. Howard. “Is this doubt based in any reality, or is it a fear of your own commitment? Is the doubt your inner wisdom telling you something's off about this relationship or is it simply tapping into some childhood wound?” She adds that if you notice a pattern in your life where doubt consistently creeps in, you should challenge that pattern. Let reason, not fear, guide you.
Once couples come to terms with that fact that their relationship—and all relationships for that matter—don’t live up to the fairytale standard, this frees them to work together to create a strong and healthy foundation versus throwing their hands up and running away. “These challenges, although stressful on a relationship, are not just reconcilable, they make the relationship stronger,” says Dr. Hokeymeyer. “The very nature of a relationship is that it's able to transcend difficulties. It's based on the principle that two are better than one, and that a problem shared is a problem diminished. Working through these issues enables couples to experience their partner in the fullness of their being.” Carroll agrees, saying, “Love is a feeling. It comes and it goes. A relationship is a long-term commitment, like a walking practice. We don't just go out on the sunny days or when we feel like it if we want a healthy physical body, we go out every day. If we want a healthy relationship, we don't stop our commitment, act out, or stop doing the things which nourish the relationship.” For a healthy relationship, be aware of the things that you do that could be causing issues, train yourself to notice red flags early on and to be very mindful of the green flags when things get difficult, and above all, do things that nourish the partnership, even in the midst of a blizzard.
[Editor’s Note: The above does not apply to every person in every relationship. Relationships are all unique, and there are exceptions to the “work through it” rule. Remember to always take care of yourself. If you are in a situation you feel is unsafe or unhealthy, please seek professional assistance.]