Relationships are confusing much of the time. You may have grown up thinking you’ll meet your perfect partner in your early to mid-twenties, get married in your later twenties, start a family by your early thirties, then spend the rest of your lives loving one another, more every day than the day before. How romantic! But if we could graph life, it wouldn’t quite be as simple as a linear or even exponential function. No, life follows it’s own path, choosing its coordinates without much pattern. And relationships have to either fit in parallel to life’s curves and slopes, or else they may meet only at specific points, but end up going their separate ways.
Unfortunately, however, unlike graphing equations, there is no set law for relationships. There are no textbooks to guide you step-by-step to a perfect relationship. There aren’t really any correct or incorrect ways to go about interacting with other people. So, when something goes wrong in your relationship, it can be hard to find a solution. Fortunately, social sciences do study patterns in relationships to guide you, but overall the combination of interactions between two people varies too greatly to form one single answer to the question of how to create a successful and long-lasting relationship. But, through these patterns, we can establish generally what helps and what doesn’t.
One common issue people tend to have with certain partners is losing their spark, so to speak. Due to one thing or another, may it be work problems or personal pressures outside of the relationship, some partners may find themselves drifting away from each other until both are wading in a shallow pool of memories, wondering where things went wrong. There are three common conclusions to this type of problem.
Whichever current you decide to flow with should start with a conversation between you and your partner. Communication is key to any strong relationship. What to include in the conversation depends entirely on the partnership and the main issues at hand, but some good starting points include...
Assessing the foundation: Asking questions like “Can I count on you?”; “Do you really care about me?”; “Am I worthy of your love?”; “What do I need to do to get your affection?” are all good foundational questions. The answers that either partner gives can give insight into why they act the way they do in relationships as well as determine how strong the relationship is even without any other issues. It’s pointless and dangerous to build on a shaky foundation so talking possible solutions can help manage other issues along the way.
Determine your ideals, but stay grounded and realistic: Talk about what a good, healthy relationship looks and feels like to you. Then talk about what your current relationship looks and feels like, then try to see if you can connect the two. Everyone has their own ideals and often times they can be unrealistic. Communicate what specific areas you’d like to see each other improve, but keep your expectations rational. No one can change overnight. No one can become superhuman. Another thing to ask is what the future of your relationship looks like. Where would you like to see it go? Does either of you foresee an end?
Analyze your own behavior: It’s easy to blame all your problems on another person, but in a healthy relationship you have to accept that you may be aiding in some of the partnership’s issues. Partnership means teamwork, and teamwork sometimes means splitting the blame. Ask yourself how committed you are to the relationship. Are you putting in as much as you expect to get out?
Throughout your discussion, some harder topics may come up. One possible solution that may be hard to swallow is maybe it is better for both of you to go solo. Some people don’t and can’t last in a relationship forever, and at some point, you have to ask if the work you’re both putting in is worth it. Relationship researcher Dr. John Gottman has discovered a “golden ratio” for long-lasting relationships. He observed that pairings must have a 5:1 ratio of positive interactions to negative interactions for their relationship to be successful. Try tracking your ratio. Positive interactions don’t necessarily need to be overwhelming acts of love, but instead could be laughing together during a funny movie. Negative interactions also don’t have to be extreme. They could be something like a simple passive-aggressive remark that made the other upset. If you notice your ratio is skewed toward the negative side, try discussing that, identify if your negative interactions follow any patterns, and try to see if they can be avoided or turned into positive interactions. If not, it may be in both your interests to end the relationship.
Another important thing to understand is that relationships, even healthy ones, wax and wane much like the moon. However, if you notice that the phases of your relationship last long enough that they feel like climbing mountains and hiking valleys, rather than dips and heights of a rollercoaster, or that the declines go far deeper than the inclines rise, that’s when there are underlying issues.
One common way to deal with these issues is by “taking a break.” Sounds like a perfect solution: you both spend time away from each other without officially saying goodbye; you get to find yourself again, and you come back together stronger than ever. However, oftentimes taking breaks is just a prelude to breaking up. Sometimes breaks can work. Other times, you come back with something of a relationship zombie: a relationship back from the dead, but not as alive and well as it once was. This could be because taking a break is essentially training yourself to become independent again. It could also be because none of the underlying issues were truly resolved during the break, just brushed under the rug. For a break to be successful, you may want to discuss things like the purpose, the length, and the details of the break. Are you allowed to see other people? Are you allowed to contact each other at all?
As a final resort, making small changes in your relationship could be beneficial. Some age-old advice from those who made it in their relationships includes going to bed at the same time. Studies show that after about 3.5 years of being together, couples tend to stop going to bed at the same time, however, syncing your sleep cycles can help you both wake up happier and provide more together-time for healthy, positive conversations or other interactions.
Relationships that have lost their spark can be stressful and damaging to your mental health. So, when something goes awry in your partnership, it’s important to deal with the issues as they come, instead of letting them linger. Talking things over with your partner is an excellent way to build up a good foundation of kindling to let that spark turn back into fire.