“Jack’s relationship basically fell apart at the beginning of his holiday,” my boyfriend told me about his friend. “Lucy told him she doesn’t know if she still loves him.” I sighed. Over the last years many relationships around me fell apart and the stories behind the break-ups were surprisingly similar.
“Let me guess…” I ventured, “She’s been keeping a lot of irritations to herself for the longest time and it’s been eating at her love for him and now it’s too late to fix things?” My boyfriend’s eyebrows shot up: “How do you know? Jack said he wished she would have told him about the problems earlier!”
Jack and Lucy’s relationship is no exception. Assuming there is no abuse or cheating involved, many relationships follow this exact same path: fall in love, build a life, one partner assumes everything is okay — despite minor issues — while the other one is building resentment and slowly losing their sense of affection. Until ignoring the issues becomes impossible and the whole thing blows up.
I remember my ex-husband once remarked, somewhat resentfully: “Our break-up came out of the blue!”
No, it didn’t.
Sam, Alex and The Road That Leads Nowhere
In many relationships with two partners there’s a dynamic: one partner, let’s call them Sam, goes about doing their own thing, while the other, let’s call them Alex, tries to accommodate. Often, Sam is a man and Alex is a woman, but I’ve seen it the other way around as well.
(For the sake of clarity I’ll refer to Sam as a him and Alex as a her, but feel free to apply your own set of genders.)
Let’s start with Sam.
Sam isn’t exactly selfish. Sam just assumes that they have a stable haven, a place where he can root and from which he can still do what he wants to do. He doesn’t really consider the possibility of the relationship being in a rough place, not even when Sam and Alex have a fight. To Sam, the fight is just a moment, a storm that will pass so he can get back to the life he loves.
Alex is different. First of all, Alex is not a big fan of conflict. For her, fights are a big thing. They leave small marks. In fact, she tries to avoid them as much as possible. That’s why she tries to accommodate Sam and their relationship. She’ll make small sacrifices. Subtly build her life around the relationship. Oh, she will still have all the other important things in life, but.. the relationship comes first.
As time progresses, so does their relationship.
Sam doesn’t see all the compromises and sacrifices Alex is making. He assumes that — as he — she lives her life the way she wants to.
On the other hand, for Alex little annoyances start creeping in. Maybe it’s a lack of quality time. Maybe she feels underappreciated for her — often bigger — part of household chores. Maybe she would like to take her life into a direction that wouldn’t align with Sam’s plans.
She keeps wondering: if she’s making such an effort for Sam, why doesn’t he return the favor? Why doesn’t he care about her enough to take care of her needs? And with every annoyance and every fight she loses just a tiny speckle of her love for Sam. Until one day she wakes up and she realizes she no longer feels the connection that made it all worthwhile.
Alex will eventually bring up the big issue with Sam and he will listen, but despite their best efforts it won’t be enough and eventually they’ll separate.
Assuming Alex and Sam really love each other and want to make an effort to be together… What could they have done differently?
Alex, Speak Up
As my partner remarked:
“There is no fun in playing hide and seek if you’re hiding, but nobody’s seeking.”
Dear Alex, if you notice Sam is not seeking (not picking up on your subtle or not-so-subtle cues), it’s time for you to stop hiding.
I’m not saying you have to keep complaining about every little thing until you drive Sam completely crazy. That won’t do any good to either of you.
But you do have to be ultra clear about what’s bothering you.
I don’t know why the Sams of this world don’t pick up on (honestly less than subtle) signals, but they usually don’t.
If you tell them something is bothering you, they hear that something is bothering you. At most. Sometimes, not even that.
If you are even more subtle, they simply ignore it.
My ex-husband? Mere weeks before we broke up I told him I was unhappy about our lack of time together and about his driving while intoxicated. I thought I was clear, but to him I was simply stating my feeling without any need for change.
I thought it was just him and me, but then I watched the same scenario play out in multiple friends and realized it was a common pattern.
Luckily, Alex can do things differently.
She needs to get over her fear of being too much and too demanding and ask for whatever it is she wants and be very clear about it.
“I need us to go on a date night at least twice a month. Meaning we get dinner together and then do something fun.”
“I’m doing more than half of the household and I don’t want to do that any longer. We need to sit down and redivide the tasks.”
And for the love of god, don’t be afraid to be clear about deal-breakers:
“Having sex only once a month doesn’t work for me in a relationship.”
What’s more — Sam’s assumption is that he takes care of his needs and Alex will do the same. While Alex might feel like Sam doesn’t love her because he doesn’t put in the effort, in truth it just don’t cross Sam’s mind to do something he isn’t asked to do.
If Alex wants Sam to take her to Paris and she says: “I would love to go to Paris with you sometime” then that’s what Sam will hear.
It’s not that he doesn’t want to go to Paris with Alex.
It’s not even that he doesn’t want to organize the entire trip.
But if Alex wants him to do that, she’ll have to be as clear as possible:
“I want the two of us to go to Paris this summer. Are you okay with that?” and if a “Yes” follows she can follow up with: “I would like you to arrange the trip, can you do that?”
I can’t state this enough: be very, very, very explicit about your needs and desires, and also your worries and concerns.
Don’t think you’re nagging.
Don’t think that if you have to ask it means less.
Dare to be vulnerable to show what bothers you.
Trust me, it will pay off (and if it doesn’t — best that you find out sooner than later).
A few months back my boyfriend and I had a fight and I very explicitly voiced a concern about his communication.
He got annoyed: “You always get upset over small things.”
A few hours later, after both of us cooled down, he admitted: “I’m not happy about it, but I know that you never just ignoring issues is keeping our relationship clean. Everything that used to be an issue is truly resolved and we’re not carrying all this baggage with us.”
And that’s exactly what you do when you start speaking up.
A final note here: just because you speak up it doesn’t follow that you get what you want. Sam is not a minion. Just because you choose to live your life around him, doesn’t mean he should do the same. So yes, there will be times when you’ll hear a ‘no’. In the end, you’ll have to decide whether all the no’s are a deal-breaker.
Sam, Start Paying Attention
I’m all up for personal responsibility, so yes, I do believe that those of us who would like our partners to make a change should speak up and keep talking until we’re finally listened to (or until we’ve come to the conclusion that the relationship isn’t working).
But Sam too can make a change. What he can do is start paying attention.
In order to do that, he needs to realize that many small things amount to one big thing that’s incredibly hard to unravel, so it’s best not to let it get this far.
So what can Sam do?
First, he can look for cues that Alex wants something differently. Things like “I wish…”, “I would love…” and all “We always …”, “We never…”, “You always…” and “You never…” are clear indications that something’s up. Don’t think that just because Alex isn’t confronting you — everything is fine. Trust me, once she gets to the point where she’s willing to truly confront you, things have gone way further than you’d like them to.
Second, Sam can speak up too. Or rather, ask. Why not plan a moment — say every week or few weeks or month — to evaluate how things are going? “Hey love, are there any things we need to talk about, anything that’s bothering you or that you’d love to see differently?” I promise you that you’ll score points just by asking this question.
Note of caution though: occasionally your partner’s frustration will have progressed to a point where you’ll get a passive-aggressive answer, such as “Oh, now you suddenly want to know?” or “Gee, I wonder what could possibly be wrong!” or even “Why do you care, anyway?”. These are usually an indication that the frustration underneath is reaching a boiling point. If you want to make your relationship work, I suggest staying calm and positive and trying to get to the bottom of the matter. Any other approach is likely to only make matters worse.
In Love and War…
Just one more thing.
As many dynamics, in the end this ‘hiding-without-seeking’ dynamic is a power struggle. Alex tries to establish her power by making Sam express his love for her. Sam tries to establish his autonomy by doing his own thing and ignoring subtle cues.
Usually, at some point one of both will decide to call it quits. But even if they don’t…
Even if Sam wins, doing his own thing while Alex resigns to feeling unloved… Even if Alex wins and Sam walks on his toes to keep her satisfied. It doesn’t matter. They as a couple will lose.
So before you turn your relationship into a battlefield… Please don’t forget that you’re on the same team.
Previously published on medium
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