One of the most common concerns both individuals and couples here at Evergreen Counseling may have is wondering whether or not the struggles and changes they are seeing in their long-term relationships mean that the relationship is failing/doomed/signs they need to leave OR whether these changes and struggles are “normal” and if they are “solvable.”
This is such an important question because it gives us therapists an opportunity to help normalize our client’s relationship expectations and help set a more realistic view of what long-term relationship can entail.
Despite what Disney, Rom-Coms, pop songs, and Instagram feeds may lead us all to believe, long-term romantic relationship takes WORK.
All relationships ebb and flow over time, all couples experience conflict, and most relationships encounter challenges with sex, feeling connected, and attracted to one another over the long haul.
So with these expectations in mind, “normal changes” one can expect to happen in your long-term relationship may include:
Changes In Your Sex Life:
In the honeymoon stage at the beginning of a relationship, we’re all flooded with hormones, falling in love, and having sex effortlessly. But when this ends, and the individuation stage of a relationship begins, it’s normal and natural for your sex life to change.
The amount of sex, the spontaneity of sex, your attraction to your partner, how exciting and fulfilling sex feels, all of this may fluctuate and require a greater investment of emotional energy and time to address.
Far from being a “red flag” this is an incredibly common experience, but not one we as a culture do a good job of helping people understand. Which is why some people get scared when their sex life suddenly takes work and makes them wonder if this is a relationship “red flag.”
It definitely doesn’t have to be! In fact, this is a very normal and natural experience and an opportunity to invest more time, energy, and intentionality into this area.
Power struggles and conflict:
Again, after the honeymoon phase of the relationship ends and you begin to see your partner more plainly and clearly for who they actually are versus who you wish they would be or are projecting they would be, the task of all couples is to negotiate the inherent differences that exist between the two of you.
Personal history, temperament, personality, triggers and traumas, needs and wants, all of this creates the potential for conflict – disagreements, disappointments, sometimes fights – between you two.
It’s important to realize that just because conflict is present in your relationship does not mean that this in and of itself is a relationship “red flag.”
Conflict is actually fairly inevitable. It’s how a couple works through their conflicts that can dictate the health and strength of a relationship that really matters. So remember, conflict-free does not equal a necessarily healthy relationship and conflict does not equal a necessary “red flag.”
Falling out of love/attraction to your partner:
Over the course of a long-term romantic relationship, it’s inevitable that on one of those days you’re going to wake up, look over at your partner in bed, and wonder, “What the heck was I thinking?!”
Our attraction and even regard for our partner, like our sex life, can ebb and flow over time leaving some who encounter this to wonder if this is a major “red flag” or if the relationship is doomed. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s time to end your relationship.
A permanent state of attraction/unilaterally positive regard/even feeling in love with your partner is a pretty high and unrealistic standard.
Look: with gardens, orchards, and farm fields, it’s normal and natural for plants to bloom and fade and life fallow across the seasons. It can be helpful to remember that, much like gardens, our relationships are similarly like living things and, as such, have times when our feelings of love and attraction may lie fallow as well. This doesn’t mean your proverbial garden won’t bloom again in time. It just may take a little while and possibly some tending to.
Possible Red Flags
So to that point, if all of the above are “normal” and “natural” changes to experience in a long-term relationship, what are some “abnormal” changes, or shifts that may be more realistic causes for concern and relationship re-evaluation?
Escalating and increasingly destructive fighting patterns, a clear and continuing divergence in values (such as learning one of you wants kids and the other doesn’t), the genesis or rise of infidelity/addiction/or abuse of any kind, as well as a reluctance or refusal to seek help to work through emergent relationship issues are all concerns that warrant a deeper level of reflection and exploration.
These are the kinds of “red flags” people might want to seek out individual or couples counseling to address given how much more impactful and serious they can be.
And, of course, if you want to seek out individual and/or couples counseling for those other relationship issues mentioned, that’s a wonderful idea, too. Please feel free to reach out to us so that we can be of support to you.