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Is Your Relationship Not What You Thought It Was?

Most relationships begin with abundant sparkle: the connection is electric, the laughter deep, the sex fantastic and plentiful. In the beginning stages, both partners on their best behavior -- and it seems unfathomable that you might ever be irritated, hurt, disappointed by, or angry with your beloved. You won't be like all those other couples who seem unhappy half the time (or more!)

Eventually, usually, something changes: sometimes in a single disillusioning moment and sometimes through an imperceptible creep. Suddenly you realize that you're not connecting much anymore, or fighting most of the time, or not having much sex. Perhaps you've discovered aspects of your partner that you find reprehensible: they are financially irresponsible, unclean, and don't pull their weight around the house. They, in turn, accuse you of not listening to them and think you're married to your smartphone. (For example.)

Does this mean you two aren't right for one another? Or that the relationship has run its course? Does it mean that you're a bad person, or your partner is a bad person?

No. Welcome to being in a long-term relationship. If you are unhappy in your partnership and are trying to get clarity on what to do about it, read on.

Conscious Vs. Unconscious Expectations

Most of us enter into relationships with three levels of hopes/expectations:

(1) Conscious expectations -- those we are aware of -- that we communicate to our partner (i.e., We'll spend a lot of time together or We'll always split the bill.)

(2) Conscious expectations that we don't communicate to our partner, usually because we assume we don't have to (i.e., I want you to bring me flowers to make me feel special and loved, or We'll spend lots of time with each other's friends and families, or We'll always be up for having sex.)

(3) Unconscious expectations (those we didn't even know we had) that we obviously haven't communicated to our partner or even to ourselves. Unsconscious expectations are usually formed through our past experiences, and incorporate the models we had of coupledom/marriage while growing up. Usually we become conscious of these through conflict, hurt, or disappointment with our partner, and this happens farther along in a relationship (6 months to one year, though of course this varies.) Examples of this may be something like It's unsafe to talk about how I really feel or If I get too close you'll leave me.

Most couples start having trouble when (2) and (3) begin to show up, for two main reasons: Each partner's set of hopes, needs and expectations is bound to be different or even opposite from the other's, and most people aren't sure how to get the clarity they need to communicate effectively about what's happening. Typically when one partner becomes unhappy, they will assign blame to the other. This leads to a cycle of accusations and defensiveness, and arguments about surface-level differences. Sound familiar?

How To Dig Yourself Out Of The Hole

So where do you go from here? Talking to friends and family can be helpful, although they will inevitably view your situation through their own distorted lenses. There are a variety of workbooks that couples can use to cut through some of the noise and get to the heart of the issue(s), but be warned that navigating this territory on your own may trigger a lot of difficult feelings and more unproductive conversations.

Most couples come to therapy when the relationship has deteriorated to a point at which salvaging it is far from certain. I am a big proponent of prophylactic couples counseling, which means learning about yourself, your partner, and how to effectively listen to and support one another before the years of anger, disappointment and resentment have rotted the relationship from the inside out.

Many people think that going to couples counseling means they're in serious trouble. This is only true because most people wait too long, and those are the stories you hear about. Investing in your relationship sooner rather than later will save you a tremendous amount of suffering (not to mention money spent on therapy bills!) It's also an opportunity to grow personally, become more self-aware, and take care of yourself. So whatever you decide to do, please do it with kindness and compassion toward yourself and the one you love - because love is what this is all about.

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