Relationship beginnings are beautiful with that heady mix of attraction and interest, which sometimes becomes a rush of love as we fall. The desire to connect is strong, and we find ourselves reaching out throughout the day just to assure ourselves that the other person is still there. But as much as we love the lightness and the joy at the start of relationships, if we stay in them, we’re likely to eventually encounter the darkness.
We might get a flash of it as we go from that sense of all-encompassing love to a better understanding of their actual imperfect humanity and the challenges that present themselves inside the relationship. There doesn’t have to be trouble in paradise to realize that relationships take work, energy, and attention to even have a chance of maintaining that initial connection.
But what do we do when the darkness that comes in is stronger than the average relationship challenge? How do we sit with each other through grief and loss, through the strain of mental illness, or startling life changes?
My own relationship has had to weather the ups and downs of my mental health. It hasn’t been easy to navigate, but I’ve been fortunate enough to have a partner who holds space for the darker days. I haven’t always been so lucky.
In fact, many of our relationships can feel like a constant performance — having to be up, up, up all the time in order to avoid disappointing. A relationship like that can be exhausting, and it doesn’t allow us to ever relax and just be honest about how we feel.
Relationships aren’t just about being there for the high highs that happen at the start. They aren’t just about falling in love and immersing ourselves in euphoria. When we choose to partner another human, we’re taking all of them — the good days and the bad ones. So, maybe we give them a pass on the occasional bad mood or short temper — because we love them, and we get those, too. But what happens when the bad days get longer or the moods get more difficult to take?
To clarify, I don’t believe we should stay with people are physically or emotionally abusive — regardless of what they’re going through. Our love might be unconditional, but the relationship is not. We get to opt-out of any relationship that abuses our love for any reason, even if we understand that reason.
Hard times will put a strain on any relationship, but how we choose to handle them could make all the difference. We can use them as an opportunity to build greater intimacy, or they can be what brings the relationship to an end. With this in mind, I began to consider how we can better love our partners through their darkness — and how we’d like to be loved through our own.
We can love someone with our whole hearts, but that doesn’t mean they work the same way we do. If we’re going to partner someone, we don’t just need to know how we want to be loved; we also need a basic understanding of how they do. It’s more than learning love languages. We also need to know how they cope with stress and what they need during those times.
I rarely isolate when I am stressed or sad. What I need is the closeness — whether that looks like a long talk on the phone or a hug or just knowing someone is nearby. I want someone to hold space for my experience— but not give me space. But I can’t assume that everyone works the same way. This is why it’s important to understand key differences in how we handle our feelings.
Some people want space — and lots of it. They need to process their feelings for a while before talking about them. Figuring out what each person wants and both making space to accommodate that is part of surviving challenging situations.
Clarify the need.
Even if we think we know our partners, it helps if we can clarify how we can help and what they need. We might feel better to dump advice on them, but that doesn’t mean it’s what they want or need in that moment. Asking shows concern, consideration, and respect for the other person’s experience.
This can actually go both ways. Just as we might want someone to check first to see what we need, we can also ask if they have the space for our experiences. Maybe we need to vent, but they don’t have the emotional bandwidth for it. By each person checking in with the other, we learn how to get our needs met while still practicing healthy boundaries.
Grief, mental health issues, and major life changes can’t be neatly labeled and put into a box. They may come and go over time. We may have to practice patience when our partners struggle rather than trying to make them rush through the experience to ease our own discomfort.
Part of being patient is extending grace to one another when we aren’t at our best. It’s making some allowances because we have empathy. So, if one person has a short temper because they are under an enormous strain, the other person doesn’t use it as an opportunity to start an argument. Instead, we use a little compassion and try not to take it personally.
We can even hold space for those difficult discussions, the kind we have when we need to talk about how we feel even if we know it’s not rational. In relationships, there should be a safe space to share — where each person can speak up and be vulnerable without criticism or judgment. This is another way to practice patience within the relationship when challenges come up.
When one or both partners is struggling, it’s important to keep connecting with each other. The work, energy, and attention required by relationships might seem beyond our capabilities, but it’s important that we keep making an effort. Not only does it let the other person know that we care, but it helps us feel cared about, too. Going through a hard time can be a lonely experience, and having that sense of connection can help us when we need it the most. We can be there, letting them know they are not alone.
Being seen through our struggle is a powerful experience. Being accepted and loved through it? That’s extraordinary.
Like anyone else, I want to return to better days — to laughter and lightness and feeling good about the world around me. Most of my days are like that. But when the dark moods come and I struggle, it helps to have the connection and to know my partner will make space for me to go through it, as I will for him.
Relationships aren’t just about the light days, the ones we move through with ease. They’re about the sum total of our experiences — the good days mixed with the bad, the challenges melding with the incredible experience of love, affection, and attraction.
We cannot love someone out of their darkness, our love alone pushing them through to the other side. But we can be present with them in the dark. It may seem like a small thing, but it’s not. It’s everything.
Previously published on “Hello, Love”, a Medium publication.
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