Developing healthy relationship skills
July 27, 2017 8:30 PM   Subscribe

What did you do to have a good relationship, after one or many bad ones? How much of that was about meeting the right person vs working at improving old patterns?

Obviously, having insight into any unhelpful habits you may have is useful. It's one thing, though, to have an understanding of these after the fact, while you're single, and quite another to live and communicate in a healthy way with a new partner.

(I don't believe you can really completely work these things out while you're on your own, therapist or no. It's only theoretical at that point. I think you have to learn these things in situ, in a real life dynamic with someone else to really groove them in.)

It takes mindfulness, for sure. Willingness to admit error and work on changing faulty perceptions.

But can it be easier than that? Is it possible that just being with the right person means you're less likely to feel the wrong buttons being pushed? Can a relationship actually be easy and smooth if you're simply compatible? I think that's been my operating assumption. Attachment theory talks about looking for secure partners, for instance. (Hiring well, basically...) But how easy and smooth is it reasonable to expect a relationship to be (in general and if you've got a few battle scars etc.)?

The problem with this assumption is that no one's actually perfect. There are conflicts, there's friction. No one's perception or emotional state is always *exactly* aligned with another's. Using this assumption, you might also idealize how relationships should go, and miss out on good but imperfect people in the search for any hint of red flags. (Especially if you've had a history of not great relationships and are afraid of making more mistakes.) You might end up alone that way.

So you have to know how to negotiate things in a respectful way and call yourself out when you need to. Ok...

Question is, basically, if you're carrying a little extra baggage (and are maybe a little anxious), how much of making a relationship work should be down to choice of partner vs effort? (Bearing in mind that of course relationships take daily effort to maintain. Of course. But how much is *too* much? Or how much is necessary, if e.g. your most recent relationship was awful and you've e.g. been alone since, like for years?)

Have you been burned, and then had a sweet relationship with little sweat? Or did you have to work at it, and if so, how hard?
posted by cotton dress sock to Human Relations (28 answers total) 74 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know. Lately I have being really digging in to the "You might end up alone that way" part of this puzzle. I have been writing a lot privately about what my ideal life would look like if it didn't have a partner in it, and honestly? It sounds pretty amazing, and it's all actually totally possible. And none of it would be unworkable with a partner, so... if that happens, they can be integrated. But I am working hard on building and living the life I want, and enjoying it, and enjoying the process. It's nice to have a buddy, but it's not necessary.

The other thing is, yes, I do fundamentally believe that if you find someone that it works with, it will work much more easily. But there are still always going to be tensions and problems in any truly intimate relationship. A partner becomes family, and you know what they say about families.... So understanding and recognizing that yes, there will be inconsistencies, and you will not agree on everything, even some things that seem very core and fundamental to your very existence and identity (or to theirs), is key to success. But more importantly it is how you both manage those tensions and issues that arise from them that matters: if one of you always argues the other out of their position, or doesn't respect where the other person is coming from, or is petty, or stonewalls, or is contemptuous or over-critical or defensive... if that is the dynamic that occurs when you disagree, y'all are toast. It will not work.

I have a history of not great relationships and I am afraid of making the same mistakes, but... many of those mistakes were well in my control, things like "don't let them walk all over you" and "don't suffer fools" and "be discerning before you get seriously involved" and each relationship is better than the last. I'm single right now, but I am also surrounded by plants and have a cat on my feet and a bowl of ice cream next to me and I feel at peace, and... I don't need to call myself out. I'll apologize when I get into a bad row with someone I care for the next time it happens, and I will mean it, and I will work hard not to do the hurtful thing again. I do this with friends all the time and feel pretty good about the way that goes. I am ready to do the work in a romantic context. It sounds like you are ready to do the work. We just need to make sure we find partners who are also ready, which means being careful when we choose someone to potentially build a life with.
posted by sockermom at 8:56 PM on July 27, 2017 [6 favorites]

Best answer: My husband was easily the easiest person I've ever dated. He played zero games and was honest and vulnerable with me. Of course we do both have baggage and I often read the statements about all the qualities a suitable partner should have on here and think...lucky for both of us that we let each other just sort some stuff out together.

We did have some arguments and stuff early on, which is meant to be a big ol red flag according to many posts on this site. I think it was us working out how to communicate and kind of get each other's groove. We were both really into it, so I guess we were willing to work stuff out.

I feel like I'm flip flopping on you here. I think we did have conflict and some things to work out but on the other hand he was not manipulative in any way which was fresh air. I guess I realised how much that meant to me, and how much it had been lacking previously. It was (and continues to be, 10 yrs later) very grounding for me, and I feel that I've matured a lot S a result.
posted by jojobobo at 9:48 PM on July 27, 2017 [11 favorites]

I'm on team the right relationship isn't hard work. Too be honest, I usually don't feel like it's work at all. I'm with jojobobo that we fought a bit at first... but we haven't really fought in years. Been together around 11 years, 2 kids. There are other really hard things in my life, but my marriage isn't one of them. And honestly? I don't think we're that unique. Happy couples are boring, but I think there's a lot of them.
posted by Valancy Rachel at 10:09 PM on July 27, 2017 [12 favorites]

Best answer: I think that a relationship has to be based on your own personality. I believe that in any relationship personal "red flags" come up and you must be willing to listen to them. Half the battle of a good relationship is being able to say "this is a deal breaker" and then act on that.

And back to your question - an ideal partner would hear your deal breakers and concerns and either address/solve them or refuse to do anything.

Your baggage doesn't matter - the partner does and it's their willingness/ability/comfort with dealing with it that matters.
posted by bendy at 11:02 PM on July 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It is both, in my experience.

Yes, with the "right" person, difficult things may come up rarely, if at all; that makes the relationship easy but potentially shallow and short term.

However, with a different kind of "right" person, difficult things come up a lot, but they are easy to navigate because you support and provide safety for each other as you work through them; that makes the relationship deep with long term potential but potentially complicated.

In a perfect partner, you start easy, and as you go deeper with inevitable problems and struggles, you discover you can support each other to resolve them. Over time it becomes an easy, deep relationship.

Trouble comes when difficult things come up and you can't safely navigate them, or if things are easy because any difficult things are glossed over and avoided. All good, healthy relationships must become deep in order to last.
posted by davejay at 11:11 PM on July 27, 2017 [16 favorites]

I've had two wonderful relationships that lasted 14 years and 15 years. My second partner died, that is why we are not together, and the first one is my best friend still, though he lives in another state.

Not saying it was all roses, but it was never work. When you just adore someone without reservations, you don't care enough about the things you argued about to stay mad. Whatever anger came out of a disagreement just doesn't last. Of course, I wish I had argued less and had been kinder and more forgiving in the first place. But I never had to work at it, or make compromises, or do anything else that people usually say marriage or relationships are about. I just want my partner to be my sweetie. I require nothing else.

I don't know if this is helpful. Maybe I was just lucky.
posted by Vispa Teresa at 11:19 PM on July 27, 2017 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Really wonderful answers, thank you. Just a small point to clarify - I'm always happy to hear about good relationships in general, but here, am most interested in hearing from those with the experience of having gone from bad relationships/habits to better ones. And the mechanics of how that happened, if people want to speak to that. (Super great to hear about the early stages, too.) Thanks again, all.
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:41 PM on July 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think it's really hard, maybe impossible, to be in a bad relationship and change it into a good one. I've been in more than a few, and the bad ones were always bad, and the good ones were always good.

When it's good, it really isn't work. Everything just gets gradually washed away in the love you have for each other. When it's bad, all the little (or big) things build up until they are a great pile of awfulness.

You have to work on yourself to get from one to the other - take time to sort yourself out after a breakup. I didn't do this for years and I wish I had. It's very hard to change yourself when you are caught in the paradigm of a relationship that isn't working.
posted by ananci at 12:41 AM on July 28, 2017 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I came out of a lengthy bad relationship and am now in the process of seeing if I can be in a good one. The repercussions of the bad one are still there and every now and then I feel them affecting me, and it pisses me off.

Old Relationship was very unbalanced, and to summarize- I did all the work. It was decimating over time, how that dynamic messed with my self-esteem. So now, every time I do anything- initiate sex, call first, suggest a date, anything- I feel like old patterns are taking hold again and I'm back where I was before.

So I have to remember that Current Relationship is NOT Old Relationship. But man, is that difficult. Undoing that conditioning is very hard, but anything else is unfair. I have to let New Guy be who he is, and not allow that old pattern to influence my thinking. It's still a work in progress. I struggle frequently with way too many thoughts of "what does this MEAN?" when all I really need to do is... nothing. And just let things evolve, and be as honest as I can be with myself and with him.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 2:32 AM on July 28, 2017 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I've been in a bad relationship. I'm now in a good one. The diference is not in me or my habits; the difference is that my current partner is a genuinely good guy who I'm very compatible with. In my experience, partner choice is key.

No tension, no troubles. No conflicts, no friction. No therapy was needed either. The old issues did rear their ugly heads now and then, but we dealt with that when it happened, and they melted away over time (several years).

It really can be easy and smooth. It doesn't mean that either of us is perfect; we surely aren't. Not even close. But we work really well together. And no, it does not at all feel like our relationship takes daily effort to maintain. I'm not sure why you assume that this is 'of course' going to be the case.

You seem to have some assumptions about relationships that may be holding you back. I would gently suggest looking into those. You, too, deserve that feeling of smooth sailing because you're with someone who gets you, and wants you to be happy, and you feel the same way about them.
posted by Too-Ticky at 3:14 AM on July 28, 2017 [16 favorites]

I disagree that working on oneself while single won't help future relationships. I went through therapy to help me deal with the breakup of a bad relationship, which gave me the tools to be self-confident enough not to start off my next relationship with the same things that had damaged my previous two relationships. I could only do that work while single. I had to start from a place of fullness and worth single before I could approach a relationship with the mindfulness and presence needed to be a full partner.

I think that is more the reason that my subsequent relationship doesn't feel like work. It wasn't about him or I being the "right person" for each other, but us both being full, whole, conscious people in a relationship together.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 4:39 AM on July 28, 2017 [6 favorites]

Best answer: So the one thing that I think is really important to remember is that while you can find relationships that are super easy from the start after a string of bad relationships, they are rarely as good as they appear on the tin.

I had one of those - I was so excited and would talk incessantly about how wonderful it was and how finding the right person would make everything easy. Turns out my partner was making everything easy because they weren't telling me the truth about anything that might cause conflict! And they were only being so easygoing with me, in turn, because I wasn't having conflict with them. As soon as I found out things, it became a huge problem.

So while I think you can get good relationships after bad, I think the too-easy relationship is more often red flaggy than not.
posted by corb at 5:01 AM on July 28, 2017 [13 favorites]

Best answer: I've been in two long-term relationships. The first was with someone I met when I was in high school, although we broke up for periods before eventually marrying. With that person, I put a great deal of emphasis on romantic love-- mine for them, and theirs for me. With my current partner, I felt a powerful "click" when we met, but I wasn't swept away like in my first relationship. That probably just sounds like me getting older and outgrowing the drama, and it probably was to some extent. But I gave my first partner too much power. When my current partner and I met, we both had a lot of stuff going on. He stopped contacting me for a while and I'm pretty sure was seeing other people, and I was surprised at how OK I was with that. I wouldn't be that OK if he met someone else right now, but I think I could proceed based on a genuine desire for him to be happy. So, I'm different now, but I also think my first partner wanted an unsustainable level of intensity.
posted by BibiRose at 5:16 AM on July 28, 2017 [5 favorites]

Best answer: The thing that did the most damage to my first marriage, and therefore the thing I've been the most careful to avoid entirely in my second, was scorekeeping. Everything -- everything -- was a negotiation and a balancing of the books:
"It's your turn to put the baby back to sleep."
"No, I washed the dishes."
"That doesn't count, because you asked for spaghetti for dinner and that required an extra pot."
"You're the one who suggested spaghetti."
"But you didn't have to say yes."
It was so fucking draining, and of course, we never really agreed on who was "ahead". So in my second marriage, we take time every week or so to say, "Hey, am I doing enough around the house? How about if I cook an extra dinner this week?" "Oh, that would be nice, thanks. And I've been working really late, so I'll try to do more to get the baby back to sleep in the middle of the night."

My shorthand is that every time I find myself thinking "FINE", I stop, I take a breath, and I remember, We're in this together. I am not lazy. My spouse is not lazy. We love each other and want each other to succeed, and this is a small thing that is not creating an inviolable precedent. I can afford to put the baby back to sleep.
posted by Etrigan at 6:35 AM on July 28, 2017 [30 favorites]

Best answer: I was a shitty boyfriend in high school & college because I didn't know how not to be. After seeing a couple of my relationships fail because I made a Bad Move (e.g., withdrawing instead of discussing an annoying habit, or inattention), something started to dawn on me.

N.b.: my parents are wholly devoted to each other, and so my model growing up was patience, acceptance, romance, thoughtfulness, and politeness for your partner: my dad told me, "Marriage isn't 50/50, it's 90/90" -- and I think about that idea very often. Finding out that the real world has more bumps than that, and every relationship wouldn't be so perfect, took me some time to turn into lessons that I could use.

After that I took almost a year off from dating. My next relationship I tried really hard not to repeat the mistakes of selfishness, non-communication, etc., like corb, above. (Reader, I married her!) After twenty years of this, I have started to loosen my tongue and speak up when I disagree -- and since I'm Guess and she is Ask, she's taken the increased assertiveness in stride. It's working for us, and it feels more healthy.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:49 AM on July 28, 2017 [6 favorites]

Someone on MetaFilter once wrote that choosing someone to make a family with should be like finding someone to help you found and operate a small non-profit: the hours are bad, there isn't much money in it, things will be hard -- so you really have to be close to make it work.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:52 AM on July 28, 2017 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I am in the easiest relationship of my life now, after several hard/bad relationships where there were disagreements, frequent outright fights, hurt feelings on both ends, or in milder cases things were pretty good but not great, maybe the sex was really good but the communication was mismatched, maybe the daily life was really nice and easy but the sex not so great, maybe misalignment on how we like to spend our free time.

I agree it is about compatibility with the caveat that both people have to be aligned in terms of wanting the same things from the relationship and need self-awareness and a desire to make the other person happy. If you have a lot of baggage and aren't aware of it that will cause some problems, it can be resolved but there has to be willingness to take ownership there.

I feel like I grew up a lot in my late-20's/early 30's in terms of understanding myself, my past, what I want from life, how I like to spend my daily life, so it became easier to identify compatibility and recognize when something wasn't going to work. For the past few years I've still been lonely when not in a relationship but I directed my free time in healthy ways and wasn't willing to stay in bad relationships to avoid being alone (something I did in the past). I also spent time teaching myself what good relationships look like by paying attention to others - what I liked, what I didn't, what qualities I wanted in a partner, how people make longterm relationships work when there are differences like one person wants another kid or one person wants to travel more, to gauge what my boundaries were for those things.

I tend towards anxious attachment and my current partner likes to be in contact with me as much as I like being in contact with him, and we just get each other's sense of humor and communication style, so I've had little to no anxiousness with him, he's very consistent and we both prioritize spending time together (while still having lives). We're both mid-30's and have similar backgrounds in terms of prior relationships, we both want a longterm relationship, we both value each other and are kind to each other. The special thing though that I've been waiting for is that we both think the other person is awesome/fascinating, not in spite of each other's quirks but because of them. I've always felt the guys that really loved me were the ones who appreciated me as me. The couple of times I've had that in the past things didn't work out for situational reasons, but the relationships were as easy as the current one, it took a while to realize that that's the secret sauce for me, hopefully this is helpful for you.
posted by lafemma at 7:14 AM on July 28, 2017 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I am an anxious person and I am working on this actively right now. I love my partners so much and while it's really, really scary as hell to do this work, it feels so worth it.

I think a lot of it for me is setting out safe spaces. Establishing, and having it be real, that there are safe spaces for conversation about what is and isn't working - and having those conversations regularly and doing them even if it's terrifying. I also have to tell myself -- "Partner is not an asshole, so it's not going to be bad for me to say this. AND EVEN IF PARTNER WERE AN ASSHOLE, it would be okay for me to say this, and if the reaction is bad and crappy and mean, THEN THIS IS NOT A GOOD RELATIONSHIP, not a failure on my part, and it's okay to know that would be a deal breaker." We're wired to avoid the hurt of breaking up or finding out our partner is, in fact, an asshole. But I've been through that and as it happens, I didn't die. So knowing that, gayly forward it is.

A LOT of it is actually individual therapy. How do I react when I'm scared. How do you identify that, how do you deal with it. Some of it is working with your partner -- how can I communicate effectively in emotionally stressful situations? What do you find stressful? How can I communicate about things in a way that is productive versus a way that is destructive.

it is possible to undo your bad habits and learn other ones, but you absolutely have to put in the effort to wear in a new channel, and you also have to be able to forgive yourself and your partner pretty actively, and be aware that (I think anyway) a LOT of people just spend their time reacting and not acting with purpose or intention. Being intentional is a huge part of it.
posted by Medieval Maven at 7:44 AM on July 28, 2017 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I disagree with the premise put forward in some of the above answers that good relationships are the easy ones. I think that very well may be the case for some people--if you're a generally easygoing person, a relationship that takes a lot of work may not be a good one, because it is possible for easygoing people to have easy relationships. If you're a more cantankerous, difficult, anxious person, there are no easy relationships, but that doesn't mean there are no good relationships.

I think there are two kinds of compatibility that are necessary for a good relationship. The first I think of as "thought compatibility." Do you understand each other, do you "get" each other, do you like to talk to each other? The second is "practical compatibility": Do you like to do the same things, have similar energy levels, like similar amounts of contact/attention, live in a similar way? If you are incompatible on the first, there is hardly a reason to have a relationship. If you're incompatible on the second, it's going to be hard to do so.

Question is, basically, if you're carrying a little extra baggage (and are maybe a little anxious), how much of making a relationship work should be down to choice of partner vs effort?

It's a combination. As I said above, if you're a more anxious person, there is no 'easy' relationship. But there are easier relationships, and that depends both on the choice of partner and effort. Also, there is effort in choosing a partner who suits you.

I'm a difficult person and so is my husband (I say this with love). We have a good relationship but I'd never call it an easy relationship--neither one of us could ever have an easy relationship, with anyone, in which easy equals no conflict, no angst, no moods. What makes it easier is that we accept that about each other, and that we accept that it takes work, and we talk about problems. I've had partners in the past who were easier people than my husband (and than me), but the relationships were harder because we didn't match--an easy person doesn't necessarily want to put up with a difficult person, and that in turn caused more angst. In fact, the relationship I had with the 'easiest' (read: most 'laid-back') person was absolutely my worst relationship ever. We simply didn't match styles. He was lackadaisical about contact, and that drove me nuts, and made me more anxious, and it was a terrible cycle, and we could never talk about it because he was too laid back to ever have a conversation about a relationship. He would have fit better with someone equally laid back. I fit better with the intense, cerebral, feelings-talking person I married.

That being said, the work is necessary too. One of my difficulties is a terrible temper. I have done a lot of work on it and now it takes a LOT to make me yell, whereas before, it didn't. That's just one example.
posted by millipede at 7:47 AM on July 28, 2017 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Understanding attachment styles, understanding love languages, figuring out whether each of you are Ask or Guess, and understanding what your own boundaries and how to ask for them to be respected, as well as being able to respect the other person's boundaries; these things all go a long way towards good communication. Good communication makes things so much easier. Respecting boundaries is so important. Being able to agree to disagree. And as Etrigan mentioned, not doing scorekeeping. Scorekeeping goes back to a problem with one or both of you being able to assert your boundaries.

Millipede mentioned anxiety. Taking care of your own mental health (and your partner doing likewise) is so very important. Forcing someone to live with your untreated medical condition (whether it's mental health or physical health) because you refuse to seek treatment puts a tremendous burden on the other person and is completely unfair. It is not participating in a partnership. It trickles into every other issue in your relationship, and you will never really resolve any of those issues until the core issue is resolved. Once the core issue is resolved, many times those other issues resolve without any additional work. So take care of your health in order to take care of your partner.
posted by vignettist at 8:39 AM on July 28, 2017 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I disagree with the premise put forward in some of the above answers that good relationships are the easy ones.

Yeah, this. I put effort into my relationship for the same reason I put effort into working out: Lifting the small stuff helps you lift the big stuff. I've known more than a few couples in easy relationships that shattered on impact.
posted by Etrigan at 8:48 AM on July 28, 2017 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I had a series of relationships -- each of which were more fucked up than the last. I was extremely co-dependent and allowed myself to be manipulated by my partner. The night before I ended the last fucked-up relationship, I read Emotional Blackmail -- that was extremely useful since my partner used every tactic in that book and having just read about those tactics, I knew the counter measure.

After that, I took a year off from getting involved with anyone. I looked at the patterns of how I had started my relationships and realized that I went thru the same stages. First, relief that the nightmare of the previous relationship was over. Then, at about the six month point, starting to feel desperate about being single "forever". I would "fall for" anyone during this phase -- married people, those of the wrong gender for my sexual orientation, etc... I started calling this the "Are You My Lover" phase after the kids book. Eventually, someone would come along and respond to that desperation and then I was in a relationship. I realized that I needed to sit with those feelings of desperation -- that being single was much better than being in a fucked-up relationship. I took vacations while single -- to the Orkney Islands in Scotland and scuba diving in the Caymans rather than putting my life on hold until I got involved with someone.

When I did get involved with someone again, it was a lot different. I took it much more slowly than previous relationships. I discussed it with friends. One of the things I had learned is that relationships take work. (This was a shock to me -- I thought that work was work and at home you should just relax). That first non-fucked-up relationship lasted 6 years (my previous relationships lasted 1-2 years at most). We broke up, but remain friends and co-parents. My wife and I have been together since late 2008 and got married in 2015 after the Supreme Court ruled we could.

For me the keys were:
- Discovering my patterns that led me into fucked-up situations.
- Learning to sit with the pain and desperation of being single.
- Learning how to communicate with my partner, especially when we are mad with each other.
- Learning to say "no" and dealing with my co-dependence.
posted by elmay at 8:58 AM on July 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I have always and will always be willing to put the effort in on a relationship, but have also been in several terrible relationships. I think my current relationship is pretty great, and a large part of that is my choice in partner. Being willing to put in the effort is useless unless your partner is also willing to put in the effort. The biggest thing I had to learn from my divorce is that loving someone doesn't mean they will stay with you forever. Sometimes they leave and that may not be due to your choices at all. It could be their own thing entirely. So picking a partner who is willing to maintain your relationship with you and grow with you is so important, as is picking a partner who can function on their own if you're not there.

The other super important thing in picking a partner for me was compatible fighting styles. My partner and I never yell at each other because we hate yelling in relationships. Being able to work through and resolve conflict is super important. If you don't have compatible fighting styles, in my experience, that can just totally ruin a relationship because you can't communicate about inevitable conflicts.
posted by possibilityleft at 10:03 AM on July 28, 2017 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I'm always happy to hear about good relationships in general, but here, am most interested in hearing from those with the experience of having gone from bad relationships/habits to better ones.

OK well, my relationships up until 30 had one unifying theme and it was DRAMA. So much drama. Looking back, drama ran through everything so much I didn't even realise it was drama at the time. Drama is a connection, but Jesus it is an exhausting connection.

When I was 30 and left my previous partner, I was absolutely clear on why I had left and what I wanted. I committed to being forthright about those things and dropped the drama and all game playing entirely. In other words, I commited to changing my own behaviour. Then I dropped the next guy to come along who brought drama. Then I met my husband who can't even spell drama and it's been pretty smooth sailing ever since.

Everyone in our house uses their grownup words. Nobody expects anyone else to be a mindreader. People state what they need. I can count the number of shouting exchanges we've had in 15 years on one hand with some fingers left over.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:23 AM on July 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: In my previous long-term relationship, which was absolutely awful, I very rarely expressed my true thoughts, feelings, and needs because I thought that my role in life was to take care of and accommodate other people. I was often hurt by that partner because we never talked about/ fought about anything because I never gave specifics about how to treat me or boundaries that I needed. I felt, partly as a result of my own actions, so stifled and silently suffering in that relationship that it ended pretty phenomenally badly, and even thought that was now 10 years ago, I sometimes still feel angry and resentful that it took up so much of my life and I wasn't even happy.

My current relationship (about 10 years in at this point) had its struggles at the beginning as I had to learn how to do all the things that I'd never done in my previous relationship, like expressing my needs, and YET - also had to learn to do them in a way that was appropriate and open and not about over-control of the relationship. I think that now, even though we do very occasionally have whopper-fights, things get TALKED OUT in a way that they never did in my other relationship, and part of that happening was a coming-to-terms for me that I just have to speak my truth...because no one will know what you're thinking if you don't just spit it out.

I think we do work at it, but it was more work earlier in our relationship when we were still figuring one another out, and now it's still work, but a different, more daily, quieter sort of work.
posted by fairlynearlyready at 11:35 AM on July 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I had to marry three times to get a good relationship. And marriage #3 was not particularly happy for the first, oh, decade maybe? But it's been really good for the last 7 years or so.

The thing that started the process of turning it around was when I became unhappy enough to start thinking about getting a divorce, and I really, really did not want to get divorced for a third time. Also, in the process of thinking things through, I worked my way through the questions in the book "Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay." My results actually said I'd be happier leaving due to the issues we had, but my gut reaction to that news was something like, "but he's got so many great qualities, and I LOVE him!" And so I stayed.

Turning things around took a fair amount of work on both of our parts. First and foremost, I had to learn to stop being a martyr. I had been building up a ton of resentment because he wasn't doing things I needed him to do, and when I'd ask he'd get irritated and still not do them, and so I became timid of asking because I didn't want to nag, but boy howdy was I pissed off about it. On the inside.

Ironically (because you always think that saving a relationship would necessarily entail being nicer) I needed to learn to be more of a bitch, rather than silently seething. I had to learn to ask for things I wanted. I needed to learn that compromise goes both ways, and I should not always be the one who ended up on the disappointed end of a disagreement. It's ok if we sometimes do the thing I want to do that he doesn't want, and it's ok for me to enjoy the thing even if he's clearly not enthused. Like he does, when the shoe is on the other foot.

I needed to learn to tolerate his irritation when I asked him to do something, and not back down. We needed a good blow-out of a fight whereupon I told him in no uncertain terms he needed to take responsibility for some specific things because I was tired of feeling like his goddamn mother nagging him to take out the trash and suchlike. So he agreed, and has mostly kept up his end of things, and when he slides, I have learned to confront him when necessary and to take the attitude that if it makes him mad, he will just have to get over it. This, of course, after careful consideration of whether what I'm asking is reasonable and fair. If it's fair, then I can tolerate him getting his nose out of joint for me calling him on it.

The thing we had going for us is we are both basically decent people. We fight fair. We are considerate of one another. We are respectful, and there is none of the poisonous contempt that ruins so many relationships beyond repair. I sometimes wonder if I could have salvaged either of my previous marriages had I learned these things sooner, and I don't really think I could. Both of my former partners had some serious issues that I'm not sure could have been resolved into something healthy even with professional help. So I think that is a big consideration right there, when deciding how much work and effort to put in. That basic decency and a reasonable amount of emotional health needs to be evident in both partners.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 2:52 PM on July 28, 2017 [6 favorites]

Oh, and here is one important bit I forgot to mention. Right around the time we started to work on things, I also got treated for depression. Not even therapy, just meds. I'm sure that made a difference in my ability to work on myself, as well as my outlook on the relationship.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 3:26 PM on July 28, 2017

Best answer: My marriage was a difficult one. There were a lot of wonderful things about our relationship, but as we got older and grew up some, the hard parts got harder, the easy parts weren't so easy anymore, and we were processing everything and constantly watching to make sure we weren't hurting each other and then STILL managing to hurt each other. She needed a lot of emotional care-taking, I burnt out, we slogged on and on, went to tons of couple's and individual therapy, and ultimately we stayed together longer than we should have. Still, I wouldn't qualify it as a bad relationship overall; I learned a lot and there were lovely parts. The end was awful, though.

I am now in an easy, wonderful relationship. We have very similar communication patterns, we're both pretty easy-going, there's just... so little conflict and drama. We've been together for 6 years and we have had a couple of big conflicts, which we resolved over the course of a few days, but it didn't shatter us and it brought us closer together afterwards. We occasionally get irritated with each other and will have minor spats, but I am just continually struck by how simple things are. I am conscious of being a good partner to him, I pay attention to making our connection grow, but it doesn't feel like effort or work. We are still very playful and enjoy each other's company immensely. To paraphrase Dear Sugar/Cheryl Strayed, there's just some magic sparkle glue that was lacking in all my other relationships. When we do have conflict, we're fighting on the same team against the conflict, not against each other.

I think I have definitely brought lessons I learned from my marriage into this relationship, but it doesn't feel like I did a lot of personal work to be in this better relationship. I think the chemistry and the connection are a large part of why this one is so good, so while I think everyone can benefit from some therapy and some personal work, I don't think it's the primary thing that makes a good relationship. I think the choice of a partner who just clicks with you is the most important thing.
posted by Illuminated Clocks at 3:47 PM on July 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

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