Skip

When should I stop working and start looking in a relationship?
May 16, 2012 2:54 PM   Subscribe

Relationship-filter: I am willing to work on my relationship with a S.O. This leads to the problem that I have a hard time assessing if the relationship is working through. Let me explain more:

First, I am not asking about a specific relationship but about relationships in general. I am a late-blooming straight male in his late 20s who is starting to get into romantic relationships. This question is primarily focused on the context of the early phases of dating—after each person has expressed interest in pursuing the relationship but before long-term commitments have been made.

In terms of fixed- vs. growth-mindsets, I strongly view relationships in growth terms: I understand that relationships require effort to maintain, that they develop, and hence that I as a partner in a relationship can remake how I participate in a relationship. (And likewise my partner can do the same, and the two of us can together remake what our relationship looks like—assuming she's on board with the growth mindset perspective as well.)

The challenge that I have is that I have a hard time identifying the category of issues that could be worked through, but wouldn't be worth it. I am pretty clear on my absolutes and dealbreakers. But, there's a lot of things in any given relationship that could be different and could be worked through. I struggle with determining which of these things are legitimate reasons to end a relationship, and which are just issues that need to be worked through.

Asking the question from the other direction: I have a hard time identifying what are the key elements that make a relationship worth growing in, since almost all of the obstacles I see are things that could be worked through given sufficient time and effort. I suspect that part of this uncertainty stems from being a late bloomer romantically and so not having an extensive history of past relationships to learn from.

TL;DR, or: What Is Your Question Anyway? How does someone who is open to working through issues in a relationship determine whether the relationship itself is worth working through or whether it's better to keep looking for another relationship?
posted by philosophygeek to Human Relations (12 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
I have a hard time identifying what are the key elements that make a relationship worth growing in, since almost all of the obstacles I see are things that could be worked through given sufficient time and effort.

I think the part of that sentence after the comma is very mistaken. For instance, two people with dramatically different personalities might never be able to reconcile them, no matter how long they're willing to spend trying. When people disagree over potentially life-changing issues like whether to get married, have children, or be monogamous, it is not a given that one person will acquiesce to the other's view after enough time has passed. This is something you might just have to learn through more relationship experience.

Without a single specific example of which kinds of relationship issues you're thinking about (even hypothetically), I'm not sure how much help we'll be able to give.
posted by John Cohen at 3:04 PM on May 16, 2012


I have a hard time identifying what are the key elements that make a relationship worth growing in, since almost all of the obstacles I see are things that could be worked through given sufficient time and effort.

Sometimes, one or both people just won't feel like putting in that time and effort. It's not even that there's necessarily a single incident of makes you not want to - it's cumulative.

Each of you may have very different ideas of what constitutes "working through" and "sufficient time and effort."

Mostly, though, a lot of it is just non-quantifiable emotional stuff. What might be a dealbreaker for you in a relationship with Person A might not be with Person B, because they're different people and you yourself will have changed because of and between those relationships.

I have no idea if I answered your question adequately, or at all. Please flag it if I haven't.
posted by rtha at 3:07 PM on May 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


Interesting question, and the answer will probably be different for everyone. For me, the key deciding factor is how well you and your partner work together on working through issues in a relationship. I have been in long term relationships with people whose communication style just did not mesh with mine. For the first couple of years, that can be okay. You want so badly to make it work that you overlook the fact that your arguments leave you feeling exhausted and lonely, that you don't ever end up feeling like your concerns were fully heard, and that you don't precisely know how to make the other person feel heard, either. In my experience...this dynamic never evolves. Better to get out sooner rather than later.

Conversely, in a relationship based on good chemistry and compatibility, you bring up Issue X because it's really bothering you. Maybe you feel anxious or uncomfortable when doing so. But your partner doesn't add to that anxiety. S/he listens carefully. Maybe s/he has some counterpoints to make. But s/he hears what you're saying and responds to that rather than some preconceived script or grudge s/he's been nursing. And what transpires is a real conversation, which leaves you both more hopeful about the relationship (rather than less so). And what follows afterward is real action on both your parts, based on what you learned during the conflict.

I wish love always went hand in hand with this kind of compatibility. Things would be so much easier!

As a closing thought, I'd recommend exploring this answer by considering its reverse: what are the signs that a relationship is NOT likely to grow into something great? The oft-recommended John Gottman and his Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work is a good outline of the toxins that will drive a relationship into the ground. I found it fascinating reading, as do many Mefites, judging by how often it's mentioned here.
posted by artemisia at 3:11 PM on May 16, 2012 [13 favorites]


How does someone who is open to working through issues in a relationship determine whether the relationship itself is worth working through or whether it's better to keep looking for another relationship?

In a nutshell, boundaries.

almost all of the obstacles I see are things that could be worked through given sufficient time and effort

Money, sex, career goals, affection styles, parenting styles, risk tolerance: just a few things that are individual traits that might be compromised upon, but are high-stakes enough that individuals are going to have strong aversions to changing for the sake of change.

But I think your beginning assumption is kind of incorrect. It takes effort to be in a relationship as opposed to serving only your own needs and interests, but the initial growth phase shouldn't actually require much work. That's where compatibility comes in.

There is no amount of time and effort that could keep me comfortably in a working relationship with a deeply-religious big-family-wanting serial killer who dislikes dogs and good food and great action films. Life's too short. Growth is good, growth is necessary to bob and weave with the challenges of life and the world and two people maturing in their own ways, but it's not a formula that can make any two people in the world compatible and happy if they just work hard enough. It shouldn't be that much work.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:20 PM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


How does someone who is open to working through issues in a relationship determine whether the relationship itself is worth working through or whether it's better to keep looking for another relationship?

You sound like someone who is planning to be in relationships, rather than someone who has been in one. The thing is, relationships don't follow logical rules like this; "worth" can be tangible, quantifiable things like "always does the dishes", or they can be feelings of happiness that you simply can't explain, but they only happen when she's around. And sometimes -- often! -- these things are in conflict.

So, really, the best answer I can give you after twenty-seven years of dating/marriage is this: you'll know the relationship is worth working through because you'll want to work through it. It isn't a very helpful answer, but it is an honest one.
posted by davejay at 3:56 PM on May 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


I guess I have a pretty radical view of this. Namely, I completely reject the entire concept of "relationship/marriage" work. Yes, I know almost the entire pop psychology field is invested in the concept of "work" when it comes to this, but I think it's bizarre and wrongheaded.

Imagine that you just won the lottery, or are about to eat a delicious piece of cake/fruit/ice cream, or are cured of a life-threatening disease, or are in some other way confronted with an unalloyed blessing. How would you react to someone dolefully droning on and on about the work and hardships involved in accepting that money, accepting good health, consuming that delicacy? You'd think they're off their rocker.

Same here. You are in a relationship with the love of your life, your soulmate, your bliss. What WORK?? Aren't you pleased and happy that you can do something for your love? She doesn't like pancakes, you love 'em, and for breakfast you suggest anything BUT pancakes, because you want to see her smile, it delights you, it makes you happy - there is no WORK involved here, NONE. It's pure bliss, being able to make her happy, never mind your silly pancakes. OH BUT --

"But my life is PANCAKES!" or in adult terms "Fundamentals - Kids! Work! Ethics! etc." - gee Louise, you just aren't compatible. Abort! Bail! Scram! Jet Away! Abandon!

Easy peasy. You are more than happy to abandon your petty preferences in favor of hers. It's not work. Although, I'd note, that in a truly well-paired relationship, it goes both ways. While you are looking for all the ways in which you can make her happy, she's looking to do the exact same thing for you. Sample real life conversation:

She: "Oh, I made it, because I know you like this kind of pastry..."

He: "But I didn't want it, because I know you don't like it, I want this other kind!"

She: "But I didn't make this other kind, because I know you don't like it!"

He: "But you should have made what you like - I want the best for you!"

She: "But I want the best for YOU".

Etc. See? When both parties are looking to please the other, not because it's WORK, but because it delights them, and warms their heart to see the other person happy, well, this relationship cannot help but be a resounding success. And it's no WORK at all!

How do you know the relationship is no good? When you have to WORK at it - at all. Your giving up pancakes is no work, because you love her. When giving up something starts hurting, it's because it's not merely pancakes, it's something deep - say, kids - then it demands WORK to overcome. At which point I say, if it demands WORK, it's broken - I don't want it.

A happy, successful relationship/marriage doesn't mean you'll always get your way in everything large and small. There will be tons of things you give up, but because you love her/him, it won't feel like WORK to give them up - it will just be yet another way in which you can make her/him happy. But a successful relationship/marriage, in my view, will not be built on you giving up something that is vital to you. Because that, WILL hurt, it will take WORK to control that hurt, and you will be uhappy.

So how will you be able to tell which is which? Easy. If it's a delight to give up, compromise, if there is no discomfort, only joy in such a sacrifice - it's worth it, and the relationship is a success - go with it (though in my experience, given that both parties strive to please the other, it will be a rare occasion when you need to do that, ha!); if it's not easy, if it hurts, if it demands WORK, it's not worth it. There!

The concept of WORK in a relationship doesn't make any sense to me whatsoever. I read about these torturous slugfests, the parties circling each other, looking for painful compromises, just how much pain they can take before they simply can't take anymore and explode, the WORK aspect, as if instead of being with the love of your life, you are instead headed into the salt mines to do yeoman's "work" on the relationship - sounds painful, dirty, tiring and... idiotic.

A relationship is not a sentence to hard labor. Don't buy into the relationship psychobabble. Your relationship should be a delight, and if it's not, something is very wrong.
posted by VikingSword at 4:03 PM on May 16, 2012 [13 favorites]


Short of (nonconsensual) violence, there are no hard and fast dealbreakers. Everybody goes about it differently and has different ideas about what they want. Your wants and needs can change and evolve. After five years with someone you might be more willing to tolerate something that you wouldn't after five weeks.

Don't borrow trouble by anticipating how you will or should react to anything. Just take it as it comes.
posted by elizeh at 4:20 PM on May 16, 2012


It sounds like you are worried about finding secret deal breakers. Or blithely ignoring things that maybe should probably break the deal.

With my friends, we refer to these not-quite-dealbreakers as "red flags." They are sometimes things that we choose to work on with an SO, but things that we most often have to kick around with friends first to really get a good feeling for.
posted by jph at 4:21 PM on May 16, 2012


Sounds like you're trying to apply logic when you ought to be tuning in to your emotions. When you know what you want emotionally, you'll know if what your partner can offer will satisfy, and you'll know if the lack is a big deal or not. It's really person dependent.

Theoretically it is possible to overhaul a relationship and "remake what our relationship looks like—assuming she's on board with the growth mindset perspective as well". Realistically ... people are who they are, and when you talk about changing a relationship you are talking about changing the people involved. That is a very slippery thing. You're underestimating the difficulty in changing your own pattern, never mind trying to supervise someone else's change. In my experience, assuming the mindset that you can gut a relationship like a house and renovate it is priming yourself for a long confusing spiral of wishful delayed breakup, which results in later facepalming when you later realize you wanted/needed something that particular combination was never going to provide. Sometimes the thing is just broke. The gumball machine will never give you a gumball, no matter how earnestly you break out your toolbox and go to work.

How does someone who is open to working through issues in a relationship determine whether the relationship itself is worth working through or whether it's better to keep looking for another relationship?

Go to a comfortable thinking place and ask yourself if you are happy. Ask yourself what you want. Ask yourself if the situation is good for you. Keep thinking about it until you get clear answers from your gut. Look to your own needs, and not the Relationship, like it's an entity to which you are making sacrifices to keep the Breakup Monsters away. Dear Sugar talks about "magic sparkle glue", and I think she's on to something. Sometimes you can't define exactly why you want to leave one relationship, and why you'll stay with another.

Real world experience will do you loads of good. We all have to work through this. Don't be scared of heartbreak, or missed changes. There are lots of chances.
posted by griselda at 4:31 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'd like to point out that "growth" is a very vague term, often subject to the desires of the person using it.

For example, you might decide one day that you'd like to "open up" the relationship. That's growth, right? I'm sure the person suggesting it would think so. More love = good. How could anyone committed to growing together reject that? Yet ... possibly the other person doesn't agree with your idea about growth in this area.

As a slightly less loaded example, many people would consider joining and becoming very active in a church to be growth. Yet, for me, it would be a deal-breaker. It is a kind of growth, I am not disputing that, it might even be good for you, but it is growth in a direction I don't care to take. It is also one that I wouldn't even be willing to fake for my partner's sake.

With either of the two above growth issues, I would simply disagree that these are things that can be worked through "with sufficient time and effort". The problem is that for other people, they might be just fine.

In short, you're thinking too much, each person with whom you might develop a relationship is going to have different boundaries about what aspects of his or her lifestyle they are willing to change. Sorry.
posted by Invoke at 4:52 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


At the early stages of dating that you're talking about, there should be NO "work" or "issues" involved. Just happiness and excitement. If it feels like work before a year is up, it's the wrong relationship.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:19 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


This question is primarily focused on the context of the early phases of dating—after each person has expressed interest in pursuing the relationship but before long-term commitments have been made.

Well, in that case, my answer is that I don't work on the relationship at all in that stage. Work is reserved for relationships that are already established, that have already proven themselves worth making some compromises for. People are generally on their best behavior and at their most accommodating early on in a relationship. If you're spending all your time negotiating and working out issues, that's a pretty clear sign that things are only going to get worse.

I have a rule about this, actually. It's not a rule I made up, it's more like a rule that I noticed I was following without having put it into words (and so I put it into words once I noticed that). Here it is: if we have more than one tense or uncomfortable conversation about the relationship within the first month of dating, I bail. It's served me pretty well.
posted by Ragged Richard at 7:35 AM on May 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


« Older Attachment and daycare: how do...   |  I'm moving into a new apartmen... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.


Post