Lately, I’ve been seeing a very concerning trend on social media, particularly Twitter. A seemingly increasing number of single people (mostly women, but sometimes men too) seem to think that being in a relationship will solve all of their problems and automatically improve their life. I’ve seen this mentality range from people all across the spectrum of past relationship experience — from people who have never been in a serious relationship, to people who have been in one serious relationship, to people who have been in many.
So, this seems like a good time to talk about something that I feel like deep down everybody knows, but not enough people talk about. I don’t just mean not enough people on Twitter talk about it — I mean not enough people in SOCIETY talk about it. And that something is: RELATIONSHIPS ARE HARD. A person who says their relationship isn’t hard is lying 99.999% of the time (there is always an exception to every rule). We grow up hearing about the magic of love, how when “you know you know,” and generally just being lead to believe that relationships enhance our lives and finding one and getting married is the ultimate goal. The thing is, love IS amazing. But love is different than a relationship, and relationships are HARD.
I’m by no means a relationship expert. I have had what I would consider three serious relationships, all of which lasted at least a year. Two were when I was a fair bit younger, and the last one in more recent adulthood, and included several years together and living together. But, along with my own experiences, I have had enough friends and family members level with me about their relationships (both past and present) that I don’t live in a naive world of rainbows and butterflies where relationships are always positive and always good. There’s a few thing I think we all need to keep in mind as we search for our next partner.
Fairytales aren’t real.
We are sold this idea that one day we will just magically fall in love, all will be easy, and we can start the next chapter of our lives. And the early stages of a relationship can sometimes feel fairytale-esque. But life is hard, and messy, and complicated. Almost no one has this fairytale feeling throughout a whole relationship, and I am pretty sure anyone who says they do is just hiding the bad parts from their friends, which is honestly really easy to do. Some people might not even be doing it intentionally. I can’t even count the number of times I responded “Good!” when someone would ask me how things were with an ex and I just because I knew it was a polite question and I didn’t feel like getting into how things really were, and for the most part the good did outweigh the bad so “good” didn’t feel like a lie. I have had friends take this to an even further extreme, especially in a world where so many friendships are long-distance; I have had friends extol their relationships to no end via texting, only to find out once we were able to catch up in person how many challenges they were actually having.
Chemistry only gets you so far without work.
Chemistry is really important. The elusive “spark” and how much it matters in early stages of dating is a much-debated topic on Twitter, but I personally think it’s really important. I go on dates with people who are very nice but I just feel NOTHING for, and I don’t think it’s fair to waste their time on further dates. I also go on dates with people who I feel like mayybeeee with another date or two I could feel the spark, so I give them a bit more time. Sometimes stuff like this can blossom into great relationships and that’s awesome. Once in a blue moon, you are hit with the spark right away, and that is even better. But regardless of when you feel it, it is important to feel eventually. And if you don’t ever feel it, it’s not a good sign. If you don’t know what it is, you’ve never felt it.
However, as important as chemistry/spark is, chemistry alone does not a relationship make. Relationships are WORK. Communicating with someone is work. Being vulnerable is work. Taking someone else’s wants and needs into account is work. Compromising is work. Fighting and working through it and learning not to hold a grudge is work. Mismatched sex drives are work. Taking one another into account when choosing where to work or where to live is work. Dealing with each other’s families is work. Spark alone can not carry you through all of these tough times, all the big decisions. Love can motivate you to WANT to put in the work, but it can not replace the work.
Relationships are a CHOICE that we make every day.
All of those things I just listed? All the things that are so much work? We choose to do it. We choose to do it because we love someone, because we feel our lives are better with them than without them. We choose it because we make a commitment, and because we want to walk through life with this other person. But it is a choice nonetheless. There are times you want to leave. So many people do leave, or all relationships that start out well would last forever. A high number of relationships that end probably could have been fixed with the right amount of effort, communication, and potentially professional counseling. Likewise, a high number of relationships that are still going could have ended a million times and it would have been totally reasonable and understandable for them to end. We choose to put in the work, and sadly sometimes we are willing to work when the other person is not. Conversely, sometimes we reach our breaking point and the other person wants to keep working but we just can’t do it any longer. But this idea that long term relationships are just cozying up on the couch after a nice dinner that someone cooked and talking about our day and then having sex and going to bed, and then waking up the next morning to fresh breakfast and loving snuggles is just not real. Sure, some days are like that. But many days are not. Most days are not. And you choose to get through the regular days because those great days mean that much to you.
Your free time isn’t really yours anymore.
When you are in a relationship, your free time no longer solely belongs to you. You have another person to take into account and it involves so much compromise. You have to do things with their family, their friends. And when you love someone, you are willing to do this, but no one ever really talks about the amount of personal sacrifice that goes into a relationship. No matter how independent you are, no matter how many of your own activities and your own friends you have (and you should have many of both of those things — they make you a better person and a better partner), and no matter how much time you spend doing your own thing separately from your partner (and it should be a fair amount of time), a relationship still requires a TON of compromise and sacrifice and doing things you otherwise would not be doing.
It also can mean making decisions based on another person, and living with the consequences of those decisions no matter what. For example, I gave up a spot in a much more prestigious doctorate program than the one I ended up choosing because the money I would have earned in that program would not have been enough for my ex and I to continue living in our current house or maintaining our current lifestyle, whereas in the program I ended up choosing I could still work full time and maintain my existing salary. And even though once we broke up it was easy to feel a bit bitter about that, and I may always have a tinge of “what if” when I think about it, at the time it was the choice I WANTED to make. I loved him, and I loved our life. I didn’t want to uproot us or make him sacrifice even more for me than he already had (and he had, admittedly, already sacrificed a lot). I made the choice that was best for US, not for ME. He didn’t pressure me strongly one way or the other, the choice was mine, but now I have to live with that choice even though it is no longer the best one for me. I can’t say I regret it because it was right at the time, but no one talks to you about the challenges of navigating when to put the relationship first versus when to put yourself first.
Ultimately, a relationship isn’t going to fix you
(and a baby isn’t going to fix a relationship)
Whatever issues you have going on in your life, a relationship will not solve them. It might make them worse. Whatever issues you have going on in your relationship, a baby will not solve them. It will probably make them worse. This isn’t to say that you should try to make yourself perfect before dating — no one is perfect. And it’s not to say you should wait for the perfect “right” time to have a baby, because no time is ever “right” for such a major life change. But we get it in our heads that these major life changes will somehow drastically improve our lives and that is just not true. We can not truly be happy in a relationship without first being happy with ourselves. Relationships are so hard and so much work, and in order to make the work worth it, we need to not only be so fully and completely in love with a person, we also need to be fully and completely in love with ourselves. We need to have convictions, but we also need to know when to fight for something and when to compromise. We need to know when to have an all-out brawl and when to just shut up and silently roll our eyes and let something go. We need to have the type of emotional intelligence that can only come from being fully sure of ourselves.
I’m not saying people shouldn’t want to be in relationships. Relationships are wonderful. I hope to be in another one one day. Having a person who knows you so well and so deeply, who loves you because of and in spite of all your good and bad characteristics, who will support you in all the best and worst times of your life, it’s all amazing. I am very content being alone 95% of the time, but sometimes even I experience a bit of loneliness during that other 5%. And it’s usually not even when things are bad — it’s when things are good. When I get good news at work, when I pass a milestone in my doctorate program — I miss having someone I love to come home to and celebrate with, even if “celebrating” is just opening a beer and ordering our favorite takeout and laughing at our favorite TV show. Relationships are great, love is great. We should all keep seeking it.
But, we shouldn’t lie to ourselves or each other about what relationships ACTUALLY entail. We need to be ready for the work, and in order to get ready for that work, we need to work on ourselves. So, do things you enjoy. Travel. Read. Learn new skills. Do things you’re bad at. Do things you’re good at. Have a full life, do what it takes to be happy on your own, because as much as people hate to admit it to your face, you might never actually find someone worth putting in the work with. But if you do, it can be the greatest thing. Just remember that nothing great ever happens without an unbelievable amount of work.