Sometimes a relationship just isn’t the right fit, no matter how much you strain to make it work. But sometimes, relationships run into problems because couples (and throuples, and polycules) simply lack the skills necessary to create harmony. Without the right tools for healthy relationships, even people who seem made for each other are bound to run into problems.
The good news is, relationship skills are built and developed, not innate. They’re shaped by your environment, but you can also learn them through reading, practicing, and therapy. If you’re in a relationship, and you think things could be going better, you can make a difference. Here are three important strategies that can help you sort out nearly any relationship challenge.
Communication is challenging in many relationships, in large part because everyone has different ideas about how to do it. For example, many people socialized as women are taught to talk through conflict and do their best to appease their partners. But people socialized as men are taught to avoid conflict, pull away, and take time to themselves.
When people in a relationship have different ideas about how to communicate, it’s easy for things to fall apart. One partner gets upset and needs increased conversational closeness with their partner, while another feels suffocated by all that talking. These mismatched needs can cause even minor conflicts to escalate, and make them harder to resolve.
Different communication styles or misunderstood intentions can also negatively impact relationships. For instance, one partner may prefer verbal communication while the other is much better at communicating through writing. If a couple gets into an argument over text, it could get overwhelming for the more verbal partner. Or information could be misconstrued because one mode of communication is harder for another to interpret.
To improve communication in a relationship, start by sharing what does and doesn’t work for each of you. Be receptive and open to how much and what type of communication works best for your partner(s). Consider which subjects — like sex, birth control, finances, or religion — were taboo in your childhood home. You might need to do some practice and self-work to get comfortable talking through these tough subjects with your partner(s).
Trust is fundamental for any relationship to last and remain healthy over time. To develop other important relationship skills, you first and foremost need to respect and believe in what your partner says. This only works if all partners approach the relationship with the intent to be honest, genuine, and truthful.
But trusting your partner can come with a lot of challenges, especially if you’re grappling with emotions like jealousy or insecurity. Even if your partner has never lied to you, you might be dealing with a history of dishonest, emotionally abusive relationships. In addition to being honest yourself, you might have to re-learn how to believe when other people are doing it.
One caveat: forming trust doesn’t always require absolute openness and total honesty. For instance, some people in relationships mutually prefer to keep some things to themselves. In polyamorous relationships, some people don’t share the specifics of what they do with other partners. As long as all partners are comfortable with that arrangement, there can still be plenty of trust.
On that note, trust definitely doesn’t always mean adhering to traditional relationship norms like monogamy. Again, it all depends on what works for you and your partner(s) and what you all agree on. In some couples, the act of sleeping with another person would be considered cheating and a huge breach of trust. In others, ethical and mutually agreeable non-monogamy can actually lead to more trust between partners.
Perhaps one of the most frequent — and preventable — causes of relationship challenges are unmet expectations. When you expect the world from your partner, it can be painful and disappointing when they don’t measure up. On the flipside, trying to live up to someone’s expectations can feel like an impossible weight.
Many people go into relationships with lots of fixed ideas about how things “should” be. Maybe they want their partner(s) to spend all their time with them or be 24/7 romantics. Or maybe they want tons of independence and space to pursue their own passions, alone. This becomes a problem when partners have wildly different ideas about what they want.
Relationship problems are a lot easier to confront when partners approach them with realistic expectations. This means developing an understanding of which wants and needs are fair to ask of their partner. For instance, if you need a lot of closeness, it’s fair to ask your partner to spend many of their weekends with you. But you can’t demand they spend all their waking free time with you, and get angry if they make other plans.
Either way, things tend to go better when everyone’s mature enough to understand what’s reasonable to ask of your partner. But this can take a lot of emotional work, and in some cases, therapy to resolve anxiety and attachment issues. Even with healthy expectations, partners still may not be able to give each other everything they want, no matter how much they try. The best you can do is be willing to give your partner(s) your very best effort.
When to Get Help — Or Call It Quits
In some cases, no amount of communication or conflict resolution skills can resolve the relationship challenges at hand. In some cases, the better — and safer — option may be to end the relationship. Or, if you want to stay, you may need to seek out counseling from a licensed professional.
If there’s been infidelity, a significant trauma or illness, or a major loss, one or more partners may need to leave or seek therapeutic intervention. And if your partner ever gets violent with you, or shows signs of potential abuse, make a safety plan.