How to address recurring doubts about a long-term relationship
October 12, 2008 1:27 PM   Subscribe

In serious, long-term relationships, how have you dealt with nagging doubts? How have you sorted through those doubts and then either set them aside and committed yourself, or decided to end things?

The question is about decision-making, getting out of ruts and cycles, and discerning what's real out of a set of mixed feelings.

I'm 30 and female, and I'm in a four-year relationship that is generally sweet, solid, and good. I love him a lot, we share lots of values, and sometimes I daydream about us getting married and having children. But I also have this nagging feeling that though things aren't bad, they're not good either -- that we're not close in certain ways I want to be, that I might be happier in another situation, and that because of being with him, I might be unhappy and lonely in low-grade ways.

Here's how the cycle of doubt looks. We'll be going along happily until something small will happen that sets off some doubts.1 For two or three days I'll try to suppress them as my internal worries grow.2 I'll feel increasingly afraid that I've been living in denial about problems. I'll have a heart-sinking feeling that maybe we shouldn't be together and think "how can I be serious about this relationship when _____?"3 Then I'll talk to him about the issue,4 and we'll resolve to try to improve it somehow. With that out in the open and hopefully on the road to improvement, I'll feel closer to him, and we'll get back into our daily groove for the next three weeks or so, until this happens again.
1. eg, at a wedding, I’ll enjoy talking with the other people more than with him
2. eg, I’ll think about the frustrations I know I have with our conversations (interruptions, him not really paying attention), and then I'll start to think about what all that might add up to
3. “…when we don’t even have good conversation? That’s a huge part of everyday life!”
4. say, the next time he responds distractedly, I’ll let on that it really annoyed me, and that will lead to a conversation about the bigger concern

I want to stop this cycle of doubt somehow and be more constant and happy. I realize relationships have ups and downs, but I'd like to keep them from rattling me so much. I don't like feeling so unsettled, and I don't like unsettling him. I'd like to stop this cycle of doubt and either really commit to this relationship or move on.

I almost posted a list of what is working well and what issues I think about when I'm freaking out (there are a few that recur). But I'd rather hear how you have sorted through doubts in your own relationships. How have you decided you could live with things as they were, solved the problems somehow, or decided to break up? I realize it's tempting to tell me what to do ("eg, you get unstuck from this cycle by breaking up"), but what I'm really asking is how to figure this out for myself, how to decide to break up, or on the other hand, about how to address these doubts or leave them behind. Thank you for reading this long question.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 71 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have some sort of overarching goal for your relationship together? I've been in a relationship for about two years now that was having similar problems. We discovered that a big part of it was that we were both pretty stagnant in our lives and it was causing us to focus on how the little things in our relationship were bugging us. Since we've come up with a plan for the next few years and we're putting all of our energies into making that happen, I find that the communication just flows more naturally and I feel completely confident that I am where I want to be.
posted by youcancallmeal at 1:46 PM on October 12, 2008 [13 favorites]

Wow norabarnacl3, what a profoundly rude and unhelpful comment.

I wish I could answer your question as I have the same thoughts myself. It sounds as though you have tried talking to him about it, but have you tried couples counseling? I think that even when two people really want to make a relationship work, it can be very difficult as sometimes they don't know how to change their bad habits or act differently and sometimes it helps to have someone unbiased to act as a bit of a mediator and guide conversations/discussions away from the same ruts that we sometimes seem to fall into.

Anyway, I wish you luck and hope you find something that works for you.
posted by triggerfinger at 2:02 PM on October 12, 2008

I mean this kindly, and not unhelpfully. But I am an old lady (by most people's standards) so in my defense I will say that it has helped many people, male and female, for many years.

Just because you love someone doesn't mean you have to marry them, or stay with them forever.

It is difficult in our society to walk away from a relationship that *isn't bad*. We're not good at looking at where we are and asking ourselves if this person is our soul mate, or the person we're meant to be with (or want to be with). It is okay to say, "this person is totally great but he's absolutely not the one for me and this is as far as this relationship is going to go." You might not want to be in a relationship with anyone right now. This might be a time for you to circle the wagons and dig in for yourself.

You could try and throw it out there and talk to him about it but there is a real risk there because you can't unring this bell in most cases. You have to be reasonably sure that he will either be able to listen and work through it with you, or you will cause a break that can't be mended.

I would also say that trusting yourself and listening to yourself is an important thing here. Going with your gut. I would also suggest that it's not couple's therapy you need, but perhaps a short-term session with a therapist for yourself. An objective professional outsider can help you think through things in a more organized way.

I have been in your shoes so I do not say anything lightly. Good luck.
posted by micawber at 2:22 PM on October 12, 2008 [33 favorites]

In one very doubt-filled relationship (in hindsight only did I realize this) a huge problem was the central question in my mind was whether we should break up. When really I should have looked at actual problems in the relationship (passive agressiveness instead of communication, etc), and tried to address them. If that didn't work, then I should have looked at whether that issue was a dealbreaker.

The "dealbreaker meter" for me now is whether the relationship is healthy for me, & beneficial for us both, long-term. There's shades of gray there too, but it shoos the doubt away from the superficial stuff (in my current situation).

But, (on preview) it only really works if you feel good about the relationship in your gut. Very likely wouldn't worked in my previous situation, as I was just plain unhappy.
posted by ejaned8 at 2:36 PM on October 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

If I'm having doubts about an issue that I feel is being directly caused by my boyfriend I try to talk it out with him. We have lots of conversations about it, both in the heat of an argument and not, that focus on explaining why we're unhappy about the situation, what changes we'd like to see, and small steps that can help us get better. I used to just assume that explaining why I was unhappy would fix the issue, but then the problems just kept coming up. It was adding the second two steps into the conversation that really helped assuage most of my doubts about a situation. Also, I think learning that things weren't going to change immediately helped my doubts about something not spiral out of control. Problems need to be addressed multiple times before they can really be fixed. Reminding myself about this helps quiet the "we're having the same argument over and over again! Something's wrong with this relationship!" alarms.

I also have more generalized doubts about the relationship that I can't tie to a certain issue. Sometimes I just start worrying about whether I'm as happy as I could be or what would life be like if I wasn't in a relationship right now. Sometimes they're symptoms of a specific problem, and as soon as I figure it out I talk to him about it. Other times it's just me worrying for no reason. My general approach is to acknowledge that I'm often an excessive worrier and when I'm being negative all my conclusions are going to be somewhat suspect. So I let myself worry for a few days, look for patterns or causes, and then force myself to put it aside. In a few months I revisit the issue from a different state of mind, and then repeat the process. When I come to the same conclusion from a bunch of different emotional states, then I feel like I can be sure.

It's a slow and conservative process, I admit, and probably weighted in favor of staying in the relationship. But I can be very negative and pessimistic, so it stops me from letting myself spiral out of control and doing something I'll regret later.
posted by lilac girl at 3:35 PM on October 12, 2008 [6 favorites]

I don't have a direct answer for you, but it strikes me that you're looking at relationships in a very binary, Mr Right or Mr. Wrong kind of way, as if the fact that problems crop up and have to be dealt with indicates that your relationship is somehow substandard. I would say that problems are totally normal, and the fact that you can talk about them openly and work through them suggests your relationship has a good bit going for it. I don't like the term "soulmate" because it sounds, to me, like a unisex version of "Prince Charming;" the idea that we're all supposed to find some prefab perfect mate who will make life easy and sweet forever is just wrong. You don't find a soulmate; you find soulmate raw material, and then you have work to do.

I'm not saying you should suck it up and learn to love the status quo. You may be in a rut, you may have gotten out of the habit of talking intimately with each other, you may have gotten scared of certain issues and avoided dealing with them -- I don't know. Every long-term relationship will run into roadblocks. It's legitimate to not like every aspect of the situation, and to want some sort of change, but 'end it' is not the only way.
posted by jon1270 at 3:39 PM on October 12, 2008 [10 favorites]

Some things you've described can definitely be changed. You're reluctant to bring up little things that are bothering you. Possibly, he doesn't listen well, or you're afraid he wouldn't listen well if you did bring up the little things. The two of you can go to a therapist or separate therapists (or maybe read a book) and learn how to talk to each other about conflicts and fears. The jargony name for the technique is active listening, and it works in all relationships, not just romantic ones. You could even start by going to a therapist on your own and talking about how you and your guy communicate. Not feeling free to talk about problems can make you feel like your relationship is extremely shakey, and it really doesn't take long to make it better.

It sounds like you might have a fair amount of anxiety, generally. You ruminate on negative things and your worry grows. Then the relief you feel after talking things out feels really good... that's part of why you feel closer to your mate afterwards. Anxiety isn't something you can completely banish, but therapy can help you tolerate it in important situations. Therapy also gives you a place to bring out all the conflicting thoughts and feelings and to sort through them without dread. And he can learn how to listen without feeling like you're criticizing him.

He might be the right guy for you or he might not... but you're going to have to communicate and tolerate anxiety in any future relationship, so you might as well start getting a handle on them. :-) I predict that the listening thing will make a huge difference. It did for my husband and me.
posted by wryly at 4:00 PM on October 12, 2008 [4 favorites]

Do you fantasize about being single?
Do you imagine sex/dating with other people?
Do you question whether there are things you should do with your life, and this relationship is preventing you from attempting/doing them?
If yes to the last question, do you blame your significant other, whether he even realizes this is happening or not?

If any of these things are true, do you live together? I can't tell or not by your posting, but if you do, perhaps it would be a good time to take separate vacations/take a break from living together.

Frankly, I have been in relationships where stuff seemed moderately annoying, then tolerable for a few days/weeks, in waves, like what you're talking about... the fights got us into a rut, because nothing changed... and eventually, one of us acted out from pure frustration rather than addressing whatever was wrong with us individually or as a couple. This led to unnecessary cruelty on both of our parts; it's so much easier to break up when one of you has done something REALLY wrong (cheating, drugs, stealing, lying, etc.) than just admitting that you are not in a nurturing relationship.

It is possible to fall in and out of love. Couples do it all the time. Romance isn't daily reality; also, you're at an age where you may expect or feel pressure from others to make a decision about your relationship status or risk missing out on The One you're supposed to be with. You can love each other without being IN love, and be best friends who live together. This happens to a lot of couples, too. It's not uncommon to feel you're in a gray zone, and a good therapist could help you get to the bottom of these feelings.

What you do NOT want to do is either of the following:

1. Decide that, screw it, it's not going to get better, you DO love each other, and get married. Work through any problems you might have personally, or he might have, or the two of you might have as a couple before it comes to that. Some people get married in order to feel like they "completed the process", i.e., took the relationship to 11. Then when it's done, and the reality sets in that you possibly married someone who is going to hold you back or frustrate you for life, you divorce, and honey, divorce SUCKS.

2. Begin to act out in passive-aggressive ways. Don't disappear, say hurtful things, be self-destructive, or do anything that could be construed as sabotaging the relationship. Don't start a pattern of things that will force him to break up with you; it'll make you feel worse, even though technically he will be "the bad guy". It's not satisfying, and it could drag out over a long period of time, which leads to the kind of bitter breakup that you want to avoid at all costs.

If you feel something is wrong, address it in a way you haven't tried yet. Sometimes taking this discussion to a counselor helps you hear each other in a way you can't do on your own, you know? But do trust your gut, as others have said. You get one life. Only you can decide what's best for you.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 4:20 PM on October 12, 2008 [13 favorites]

I've been in this "cycle of doubt" situation before, and am sort of in it again at the moment. What has helped me have more peace of mind this time around, is realising that I don't have to make a definitive decision about where this relationship is going right now. As micawber said, just because you love someone in the present, doesn't mean you have to stay together long term.

Practicing mindfulness about the relationship has helped me to be less anxious and fight less with my current partner. This means I have a clearer, more rational approach to thinking about whether I want to make future plans with him. Last time, by comparison, I really let these doubts take over. My myriad resentments caused me to pick fights that I now see were really about creating excuses to be angry at him, so this could reinforce my secret feeling that I didn't want to be with him, etc... all pretty immature I admit!

At the moment I feel that the good in my present relationship vastly outweighs the bad. I also acknowledge that there may in the next year or two, be a time when the balance tips the other way, because I will be moving onto a different stage of my life then. I worry occasionally that I'm somehow deceiving him by staying together while not being 100% certain that it will last, but of course you never really can be.

So in answer to your question, maybe just try to be patient and trust that if and when the time comes, those "nagging feelings" will reveal themselves to be stronger in favour of one course of action than another. Living with a certain amount of doubt and uncertainty is a pretty normal part of human existence really. Sometimes the hardest thing is just to wait and do nothing at all! If you give yourself permission not to have to decide anything right at this moment, it might take the pressure off, and you find that you enjoy the time you have together more without having to put a time limit on it. (Hope this doesn't sound preachy by the way.)

Good luck!
posted by Weng at 4:41 PM on October 12, 2008 [3 favorites]

Maybe I'm reading wrong, but it sounds like the cycle of "doubt" goes: 1. problem comes up, 2. you avoid talking about the problem and worry that merely having having this problem spells doom for your relationship, 3. you finally talk about the problem, 4. you resolve the issue together. I don't want to be insensitive, but that sounds like a typical functioning relationship. If it's the same problem over and over, then that's certainly cause for concern, but the cycle you describe looks really healthy as I read it. Maybe you could cut out the step where you avoid talking about it, and maybe whenever you feel like "oh no--doomed!" because of whatever has come up, you can take that as a trigger for conversation rather than as a trigger for thoughts of "should we break up?"

A good relationship counselor may be able to give both of you better tools for streamlining the process, but it seems like you have the right pattern of identifying and solving problems. Of course it's just frustrating that years into a strong and loving relationship, problems still come up, but it's natural and unless I'm reading your post wrong, you seem to have the right idea.
posted by Meg_Murry at 5:24 PM on October 12, 2008 [5 favorites]

Do you fantasize about being single?
Do you imagine sex/dating with other people?

I think these are just part of being a normal person, rather than warning signs of imminent relationship collapse. Even Jimmy Carter admitted to having a roving eye and an active imagination.

Doubts are normal. What you want to address are more fundamental questions, like what ejaned8 says:

whether the relationship is healthy for me, & beneficial for us both, long-term

There are a lot of ways to rephrase this, specific to each person. Are you happier than you would be otherwise? Does your day get better or worse when you interact? Is your partner supportive of your goals and dreams, or not? The point being, you need to be honest with yourself about how you feel and how this person fits (or doesn't fit) in your life, rather than getting knotted up over small details.

sometimes I daydream about us getting married and having children

Why -- honestly, to yourself (no need to tell us) -- are you not doing those things with this person? Relationships should develop and move forward in ways good for both people; stagnation is bad. A lot (but hardly all) of heterosexual couples follow a very defined relationship script. We've all seen the movie, right? Chatting leads to dating leads to humping leads to monogamy leads to cohabitation leads to engagement leads to marriage leads to kids and so on.

Now, real life is more complicated, and even if that is the platonic model for some people, their actual practice varies a lot. They have the kid, then get married. Or dating leads to humping leads to cheating leads to tears. But what matters is that there is a model in their head of how a relationship should progress, and (in theory at least) a relationship that doesn't progress can be worked on or discarded.

So, what is your model for how a relationship should progress? If you want marriage and 2.3 kids, how do you get there from where you are sitting now? Or, if you model involves flying around the world and petting sea otters, what's the plan for making that happen?

Doubt is normal and ok. Commitment is really scary, and the future is unknown. It can feel a lot safer to break up (because hey, in a year things could fall apart and then you'd be just as unhappy, right?), even if there aren't immediate problems. And conversely, it can be easy to stay on when you shouldn't, because at least you have something.

But if you check where things are now -- the way they really are, not the way the movie version of your life will portray them -- against your vision of how your relationship should be developing, that will probably tell you something.

Personally, I have doubts every day. And if things don't work out, I'll be devastated. But this relationship makes my life so much better, every day, in big things and small, that I'd be not just foolish but outright stupid to end it because of my doubts and fears. Don't ignore or suppress your doubts -- confront them directly, and use them to take an honest look at your life and make sure it is one that you can be proud of.
posted by Forktine at 5:25 PM on October 12, 2008 [13 favorites]

You DON'T want to be stuck having the same arguments over and over because the two of you are diametrically opposed on issues that are important to you. I'm not talking little pet peeves, because you can work on those. But if either one of you feels devalued, like your point is falling on deaf ears, there's your real problem.

First, make sure you aren't just idealizing what you THINK other couples have. "Wow, I was at this wedding and this couple seemed to communicate so much better than us!" is not a real complaint about your own relationship. For all you know, that couple might usually be at each other's throats. You saw them at their best behavior, in a public forum. If you are happy until you run into other people who *seem* happier, that's not really discontent with your relationship. You're falling into the "it should be just like in the movies" trap. Stop romanticizing other couple's relationships and focus on your own.

So, about your own relationship, here's the filter you're looking for: if you have issues and you make progress, that's a HUGE positive. You really want to aim for that--progress, not perfection. That's realistic and doable, healthy and mature. But if you have the same issues over and over and go nowhere, and you only table the issue because you get tired of arguing and not because either of you have budged an inch, that's a huge red flag, and I'd say it's a good indication you need to move on.
posted by misha at 5:36 PM on October 12, 2008 [6 favorites]

We've just had our five year anniversary, but constantly throughout the first four I had these same nagging doubts in my head. Added to the mess is the fact that he's my first real boyfriend, and me thinking "shouldn't I see if something else out there is a better fit?"

I tried various things to get over the recurring problems. One that seemed to stick was the realization that he never saw it as bad as I did. Here I was, thinking these things for days on end, and passively taking my frustrations out on him (before things came to a head and I let it out), and meanwhile he was just living happily, content to be in a wonderful relationship, but a bit worried about me being so withdrawn. For him, the other person in the relationship, everything was fine. He wouldn't have even dreamed about breaking up with me. And so I began to wonder a bit more if the problems weren't all in my head - how can he be having such a good relationship, and me not?

And so I tried to think of things from his perspective, and give him the benefit of the doubt. Plus, I realized that I've got a temper, and a problem with over analyzing things. When I see things from his side, I see how completely he loves me, and that he doesn't mean any harm in any of the things he does, or forgets to do, whatever the case may be.

In the end, that's pretty great. To be loved like that, and to have what is for the most part a completely fantastic partner. And maybe some things could be better with someone else, but I'd be giving up the most wonderful thing that's happened to me just to see if I could get as good again. I finally gave up on thinking that we should break up when I tried to break up with him last year. I was in tears, thinking "this is it!" before I realized that that my reasons were just idiotic. In that moment I knew that the breakup option was off the table - I'd finally called my own bluff.

Try reading "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" though - the first bit talks about the difficulty in choosing the things we get in life. If we had two lives, we could choose the better path, but as is...

Anyway, good luck :)
posted by Herman Hermanson at 5:44 PM on October 12, 2008 [14 favorites]

Yeah you will totally get through it.

I can add, generally thinking there is a problem, causes a problem.

Id say most of these doubts come from feeling dependent. Its worth noting that the more you become dependent the more independent he will become. you start to think something is wrong.
this makes you even more dependent. Making him more and more independent. adding to the emotion.

By not letting it bother you forces him to fall back into harmony with you.

(i wrote this in another post, but here it makes more sence)

Asop said it best. The goose and the golden egg.

People always fall into these independent and dependent dramas. Its the number one cause for communication break down. You start focusing so hard on your own needs (golden eggs) that you lose sight of the bigger picture, and start demanding these needs. (Beating the crap out of the goose)

Nurture your goose into a fatty,
with his needs.
nurture his independence and watch what happens.

'Walls are really the beginnings of lighthouses for partners lost at sea'.
Let him build it.

and go have coffee with your mates and enjoy yourself.
posted by lacol at 6:36 PM on October 12, 2008 [12 favorites]

(Beating the crap out of the goose) * BEATING THE EGGS OUT OF YOUR GOOSE
posted by lacol at 6:43 PM on October 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

OR.. if it the other way round he is dependent on you,
thats tough. its so hard to nurture the dependent persons needs. because it feels like sacrificing your strength and independence for you partner. Kinda like taking a backward step.

so if thats the case. teach them independence. get them out of the house and buy him a fishing rod or something. Encourage him to interact with his own environment again.

Anyone can be your soul mate, it just takes a little tweaking sometimes.

Youll be fine. keep you chin up
posted by lacol at 7:03 PM on October 12, 2008

If it's about different topics (and not the same one too often) I think of it more as an upward spiral than a circle. With each issue that you discuss and work out you spiral up one circle toward a deeper and more solid relationship. This is a good thing, in my book.
posted by meijusa at 4:27 AM on October 13, 2008 [3 favorites]

I find that in general, people don't change. I'm not a pessimist by any means, however when you're in a relationship and you don't like something about your partner- no amount of arguing and discussion will change things. I truly don't believe you can change a person- only that a person can change if they don't like what they're doing.
posted by razzamatazm at 3:18 PM on October 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

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