Happily ever after - how?
February 1, 2010 5:03 PM   Subscribe

At what point in a relationship do you realize that conflicts are pretty much just a result of mismatching personalities as opposed to things that can always be worked out and changed?

My boyfriend and I have had many misunderstandings which lead to disputes ever since the start of our 5 month relationship. We always work them out however when we explain our sides but the misunderstandings continue. They are mostly a result of differences in expectations that aren't met by the other party (of no one's fault, we just don't think the same way).

He seems to be of the opinion that pretty much anything can be worked out as long as both are willing to change and submit to each other.

I agree but only to a certain extent. After a point, it doesn't even seem ethical anymore to keep changing oneself in order to fit the other person.

What is the correct answer and at what point do you give up on the relationship? At what point do you resign yourself to accepting the fact that this relationship will ultimately never be the best a relationship could be? To what degree of compromise is reasonable to sustain a relationship?

I would appreciate answers especially from those who have had enough serious relationships to have formulated an opinion. I.e. - answers based on experience not so much on idea/ideal/belief.

Thank you in advance.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
If it's truly just a matter of misunderstandings, after a while you run out of things to misunderstand -- you have the fight on each issue once, figure out how each other thinks, and keep that in mind the next time the issue comes up.

If you keep fighting about the same things over and over, that's more concerning.
posted by Jacqueline at 5:07 PM on February 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

Jacqueline has a very good point, but to that I'll add: it's exhausting being misunderstood all the time. If you've never had that flow where you just 'get' each other right off the bat, you're not only missing out but will likely run into heaps of trouble come the day of marriage and kids. Stop wasting each others time.
posted by dabitch at 5:11 PM on February 1, 2010 [14 favorites]

With anything good, it's going to require some work and maintenance; but it should never feel like a job.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 5:13 PM on February 1, 2010

I was once in your shoes, and I'd say for me, the moment I grew tired of the constant misunderstandings is when I gave up. So the only reasonable answer would be: if YOU feel like the relationship isn't going anywhere, well, then it's not going anywhere. If, on the other hand, you're willing to compromise and discuss your respective points of view, then not all is lost - because your motivation is what makes the difference.
posted by wet-raspberry at 5:16 PM on February 1, 2010

i use to give these sorts of relationships three years...until i found someone that i didn't feel misunderstood by. now i realize that some people are just better apart and trying to force things into working makes both people lesser at the end. don't get sucked into conversations about the ethics of relationships. are you happy? no? then why bother?

i say it too much these days, but here it goes again - relationships should be work, but they shouldn't be hard work.
posted by nadawi at 5:17 PM on February 1, 2010 [9 favorites]

He seems to be of the opinion that pretty much anything can be worked out as long as both are willing to change and submit to each other.

I agree but only to a certain extent. After a point, it doesn't even seem ethical anymore to keep changing oneself in order to fit the other person.

Largely, I agree with you.

I've been with my husband seven years. We fought a lot more at the beginning of our relationship. Somewhere around the four year mark or so, we both--separately, though fairly simultaneously--realized that we could not change the things we didn't like about the other. We could change ourselves to adapt to the other person if we wanted to, and if that aligned with our own goals, but we'd have to stop trying to force the other person into an unrealistic mold based on ideals rather than the actual person we were with.

This meant that I had to expect him to never be the sort of guy who wrote me love letters. This meant that he had to deal with the fact that, when stressed, I get whiny and overly emotive. This doesn't mean that we don't compromise, but compromise comes more in the form of practical things (say, chores) than it does in major personality change.

In some ways, this was hard. It meant forgoing our ideas about what relationships should be for the real, flawed person in front of us. We were lucky in that none of our differences constituted deal breakers. I realized that love letters, while nice, aren't something totally necessary for me to be in a happy relationship; he could deal with my kvetching while stressed.

You can't change another person, though, no matter how hard you try--and efforts to do so are likely to just frustrate both of you. Having a relationship where you don't try to change the other person means you really have to take a long, hard look at yourself and your needs (rather than your wants). Figure out what's a deal breaker for you. Then look at your partner. If he never changed--if he never became your ideal, and instead remained the person he is today, would you want to be with him? Can the person he is fulfill your needs? Can you fulfill his? Then you guys have a fighting chance. But if you keep fighting each other because you don't both match the pictures in your heads, then it might be smarter to cut your losses--on both sides--and move on.

(Oh, and five months in? This should really be the honeymoon period of a relationship still. Things aren't going to get easier from here on out--in most relationships that I've seen, partners are on their best behavior for the first few months; it's only after the first year or so that you even get to know a person for who they really are. I hate to say it, but such a proliferation of disagreement five months in is a little ominous.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:35 PM on February 1, 2010 [24 favorites]

once i was honest with myself that certain relationship failings were not the result of my or my partner's failings but with basic incompatibilities, life became a lot easier. so did forgiveness.

think of it in terms of your family and friend relationships. maybe you have a sister who just gets you and a mom who doesn't. maybe you have a friend who understands what makes you uncomfortable and another friend who constantly puts you out of your comfort zone just because they don't really understand you. it's not their fault or yours. it's just who they are, and who you are.

expectations are higher in romantic relationships which is why misunderstandings are that much worse. but they're common. i do think though that there's a point at which it feels like you're trying to walk upstream a current that feels like it's going to consume and drown you and it should never feel like that. you pick who your romantic partner is, and it's one of the most important life decisions you end up making. in a world filled with people who get you and people who don't, isn't it just easier and more good for you to pick a person who gets you? of course there's no magic bullet- like the example of the sister who gets you, sometimes you'll probably still fight with her over dumb shit. but she's still the "sister who gets you".

for me, when the arguments and misunderstandings constantly take the same shape and don't get better over the months and years, that's a pretty big sign that it isn't working.
posted by raw sugar at 5:37 PM on February 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

Oh, and of course: my husband and I find the benefits of being with one another to outweigh any drawbacks. I could probably find a dude to write me love letters; I couldn't find anyone who makes me laugh like he does, or who is as psyched about watching entire seasons of Doctor Who with me in one evening. If you're constantly focusing on the bad over the good--and if the bad eclipses the good--it might not be worth realigning your desires with your expectations, anyway.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:43 PM on February 1, 2010

Nadwi and PhoBwanKenobi have it.

If your goals are aligned, there usually isn't that much to argue about. This is when reasonable misunderstandings happen - i.e, you both agree to go out to dinner, but you disagree on where to go or how to get there.

Nadwi is right - it should never feel like hard work.

And I'll add one more anecdata point: some people (like you, your bf, or both!) are contrarian by nature. They just can't get along peacefully. They are sometimes conditioned to intimacy based on drama (maybe the household they grew up in was angsty?) or they're just like that on their own.

You can't have a gentle relationship with these folks.

If you are like this yourself, stop it. Once the drama dies down you'll be able to assess whether or not this relationship is fulfilling for you.

If your bf is the offender here... it'll be a tough slog. Most people don't see themselves when they're being quarrelsome because it feels so "normal" for them to be that way. In which case, press the "Dump" button and start again.

My ex-husband (nice guy, btw) was super quarrelsome and this eventually lead me to divorce him (and wonder why I waited so damn long to do it!!)

Mr. Jbenben is exactly the opposite type of partner. And that was by design, because I now know better.
posted by jbenben at 5:51 PM on February 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

Listen to the soup Jedi. It's all there.
posted by felix betachat at 5:53 PM on February 1, 2010

You should not have to change yourself to get along with another person. Change your behaviors, perhaps - your ways of communicating, sometimes - but never who you are and what you value. Jacqueline has it right, issues will come up but they shouldn't be continual. Fighting isn't bad, but fighting again and again over who you are is a deal breaker.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 6:09 PM on February 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Since my first long term relationship died because neither of us realized you had to work at a relationship, I was determined that the next would not fail. So I persevered through 5 years of arguing about the same things, of communication errors that were acknowledged but could not be changed, of non-stop unending work. Once I realized we were just so very different and could not get on the same page, it was downhill from there. At the 5 month point we argued just as much as we did at the 5 year point, the only difference was that I actually thought we could fix it.

Some people just don't fit, and you really need to examine how you don't fit to make sure it's fixable or not. It would have saved me an assload of time and drama.
posted by teleri025 at 6:53 PM on February 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I could have written this AskMe a while ago, about myself and my then-boyfriend, except that I was not at that point even questioning whether we should be trying to change ourselves to make the relationship work. I was really unhappy in the relationship, but I had heard that "relationships are hard work," and I thought well, I guess we need to keep doing that work. I thought we were going through a phase, and if we could just come to enough compromises and solve all the problems, then we could recapture the thrill and the affection and the sexiness that we had experienced in the first few weeks of the relationship, and find our way to that "happily ever after."

I was becoming conscious, though, that when I was in his presence, I was holding back from really expressing myself freely. I felt like I was playing the role of The Girlfriend. I tried to cheerfully accommodate all the ways that his approach to life differed from mine, but secretly, I was resentful. He probably didn't feel very free to be himself, either.

When he finally broke up with me about half a year after we had started dating, I was sad for two hours, and then a great sense of liberation washed over me. I was free! And within a few weeks, I was so excited to dive back into the dating world with a greatly improved sense of what I was looking for in a partner.

It was funny: I had started that relationship thinking, based on only a little previous experience, that breakups are terrible, sad, emotionally bruising events, and I really wanted to avoid a breakup, so I held on way longer than I should have to the notion that this relationship just had to last. But in the end, that breakup was one of the best things to happen to me. The relationship involved months of unhappiness, but I learned a ton about myself and what I need in a partner, and the breakup set me free to make use of that knowledge. The happy ending, or at least the happy "to be continued . . .", is that I'm now with someone who is a much better fit for me—and it was surprisingly easy to find him, once I knew what I was looking for.
posted by LBS at 8:10 PM on February 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

When the hassle outweighs the enjoyment, it is time to bail. Everyone has misunderstandings, and nothing and no one is perfect, but there's no reason to maintain a relationship that makes one or both people unhappy.
posted by emd3737 at 8:37 PM on February 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

I was going to write something similar to PhoBWanKenobi, but she's done a better job.

I will say this - it's not about changing each other, it's not even really about compromise. We both have a take-it-or-leave-it kind of attitude about core personality traits. We've both chosen the "take it" route. I'm this way, he's that way, we've been this or that way for decades, and neither of us are likely to change in a significant way. I love him anyway, not "in spite of" his "faults" but in part because our differences challenge me to become a better person.

We've been together for over five years and we have misunderstandings on probably a weekly basis. They get resolved pretty quickly when we give each other the benefit of the doubt. You have to give the other person space to screw up, and he/she has to give you that same space. You have to give YOURSELF space to screw up. Communication takes work, and the bulk of that work involves developing patience and compassion, not the words you actually say.

If it starts feeling like work and not a challenge, there's your tipping point.
posted by desjardins at 11:29 PM on February 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

my best friend, who is now happily divorced, realized that habits and personality traits are two very different things. habits can be changed or compromised. people can condition themselves to not leave wet towels on the floor or dirty dishes in the sink. a personality trait, like being forgetful or selfish, is something that cannot be changed. if this misunderstanding situation happens constantly, you should both be aware of it and be able to keep an eye on it, not continue to inherently follow the same cycle. in terms of giving up on someone...you have to ask yourself if they are worth it and do not change, will you be happy knowing this is how your relationship will always be.
posted by penguingrl at 1:13 AM on February 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

I dated a guy for about a year before I met my now-husband, and after the honeymoon phase wore off, the relationship was a constant struggle. I thought that we were being so adult and putting so much work into it by having the Big Discussions after fights, but after a while I realized the Big Discussions were always about the same things, more or less, and no amount of arguing was ever going to fix these things, we were just fundamentally incompatible. Because I was so fixated on the idea that relationships=work, I really struggled with the decision to break up, because I thought I was just being immature by not wanting to keep working away at something that wasn't fun anymore. Being married now, I've got to say, it shouldn't be -that- hard, it shouldn't be -that- much work. Our relationship is fun and enjoyable, it's not a battlefield.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 8:15 AM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

PhoBi nailed it. Strangely, I was in (I guess on) the toilet last night reading an issue of Oprah magazine my wife had and it seems like this book deals with this issue quite a bit.

Of note, the excerpt and the interview with the offer read very similar to PhoBi's reponse.

With that said, I don't know if that book is of any value.
posted by teg4rvn at 10:16 AM on February 2, 2010

Well, in my experience, you can love someone but be totally unsuited for each other.

One thing that I need in a partner is someone who has similar life goals as me, i.e., someone who values education and knowledge. I had to break up with someone who didn't understand that, who only valued money and couldn't understand why I wanted to be in school, or take the highest-paying job instead of the one I enjoyed most.

My husband and I understand the world in much the same way. We have lots of differences of opinion, but at the end of the day, we really have the same picture of what life should be like. I think that's why it works.

So, for me, the #1 myth is, "Love will conquer all." While love is a big part of a relationship, it is not sufficient unto itself.
posted by Knowyournuts at 10:56 AM on February 2, 2010

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