3 Early Indicators That Your Relationship is Going to Be Hard

I can’t count how many times I’ve turned to the internet to help me solve my relationship problems. Probably the most common question I’ve posed to google is this: signs my relationship is over. Anyone else turned to google to confirm something they already knew?

Sometimes my truth was buried deep beneath my fears and expectations—but if I were able to be uncomfortably honest with myself—my intuition always knew what was best for me. Looking back, although I can’t pinpoint the early signs the relationship was doomed, the signs that it was going to take a lot of work were always there.

Before you read any further I wanted to start with a disclaimer that I am not an expert when it comes to your relationship. You are the expert of your own experience, even though I know for some of us that can be hard to believe. I still struggle with trusting myself, especially when I look back at my many tumultuous and painful relationships. So as always, take what serves you and leave the rest.

1. There is a push/pull quality to the relationship

If you’ve been in a relationship where there is a push/pull force at play, you’ll know what I am talking about. They pull away, so you push for closeness. Maybe they push to open up or you feel yourself growing too close, so you pull back in some way to feel safe. Although it may not become problematic for many months, I’ve found that the signs of this dynamic —although at times subtle, like an undercurrent — don’t take long to emerge.

Dr. Sue Johnson describes the common and damaging patterns many of us find ourselves consumed by in her book Hold Me Tight. Although it may feel as though you are losing your mind when you are in the midst of a push-pull dynamic, it is actually completely normal and something that many couples struggle with.

The most common of what Sue refers to as the “Demon Dialogues” is the Protest Polka. Polka may imply there is something upbeat and fun about it but trust me, it is mostly infuriating. John Gottman found that couples stuck in this pattern early in their relationships have more than an 80% chance of divorce within 4–5 years.

The pattern, in Johnson’s words, can be described like this:

“One partner reaches out, albeit in a negative way, and the other steps back, and the pattern repeats.”

I can say from experience it is possible to move past this dynamic, but it is most likely not going to happen without conscious effort and care. I tend to be the pusher, so let me tell you, the need to push when I feel someone pulling away from me—physically or emotionally —is almost unbearable. In addition to addressing the reasons why I push, I also needed to learn to respect my partners’ needs for space and autonomy.

Having two people who want to work on this aspect of the relationship is ideal, but I have found that focusing solely on my role has often been enough to create a shift. When you are stuck in a pattern sometimes a shift is all you need to create space for a new way of being. A push/pull dynamic might mean you have some work ahead, but it does not mean your relationship is doomed.

2. You don’t know how to fight

In the early days, there may not be an actual fight so this one may be best answered by honestly checking in with yourself — do you know how to fight? Or rather, do you know how to avoid the kind of fights that can do irreparable damage to a relationship? If you have only ever had relationships where these types of conflicts are the norm, it may be unrealistic to expect because you’ve met this incredible human that this will just disappear.

With my current partner, I thought we were home free. We’d both been in therapy for years, we were aware of our attachment wounds and were ready for love. Things were all fine until the first time we both became activated (or triggered). He pulled away coldly, his tone of voice harsh and unforgiving. I would cut him deep with my words and threaten the relationship. Here we go again, I thought.

I used to dream of a relationship where my partner and I never fought and were in a perpetual state of bliss. I now see that as unrealistic and that conflict can actually lead to growth and deeper connection, if done right. As Stan Tatkin says in his booked Wired for Love:

“A successful partnership doesn’t indicate that a couple have figured out how to avoid all fights; rather, it shows that they have undertaken any necessary rewiring and become adept at the art of fighting well.”

Like most things, learning to fight fair takes practice. Unfortunately, with practice, comes many failed attempts. If you don’t know how to fight well and are expecting that when you meet the right person, the fighting will become a non-issue, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment. Early signs that neither of you knows how to fight fair doesn’t have to mean the relationship is destined to fail —it just means you both have some work to do.

3. You are an imperfect human

For most of us, love is hard. Finding a way to create and sustain a life with another person is complicated, messy, and at times, downright maddening. I like how love is positioned as “The Great Challenge” in the book Chop Wood, Carry Water by Rick Fields.

Fields talks about how the qualities necessary for a fulfilling relationship are the same that contribute to our spiritual growth. For example, the practice of love, commitment, forgiveness, and surrender. He goes on to say that our relationships can act as a mirror to our spiritual lives, reflecting them back to us.

Maybe when looked at in this way, an early sign that a relationship is going to be hard is thinking that it should be easy. If we see every hardship as indicative of something being wrong with us, or our relationship, we may end up in a place that makes it hard to love and forgive ourselves.

I’m reading Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection by Sharon Salzberg and she touches on the idea of perfection and I thought it was worth sharing:

“This is why clinging to our ideas of perfection isolates us from life and is a barrier to real love for ourselves. Perfection is a brittle state that generates a lot of anxiety, because achieving and maintaining unwavering standards — whether they’re internal or external — means we’re always under threat. We become focused on avoiding failure, and love for the self cannot be a refuge because it has become too conditional, too dependent on performance. As Oscar Wilde said in his play An Ideal Husband, “It is not the perfect, but the imperfect, who have need of love.” And that means every last one of us.”

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