In my opinion, there are approximately five kinds of persistent relationship problems. I’m going to be using the word “partner”, but none of this is limited to romantic relationships.
First, there are stupid problems. A stupid problem is a problem with some sort of no-shit obvious fix that, for some reason, neither you nor your partner seem to have come up with. Every relationship can be expected to have some quantity of stupid problems in it, because no one is perfect at relationships and everyone is missing some relationship skills.
Here are some examples of fixes to stupid problems:
- When you and your partner are having a fight over nothing for no reason, notice this and stop doing that.
- When you are angry, go someplace else to calm down until you can talk about it like adults.
- Talk about what you want instead of trying to send your needs to your partner telepathically.
- Think about what’s really important to you and what you can compromise on.
- Ask whether your partner wants support or problem-solving.
- Ask your partner questions about how their day went.
- Schedule regular time together.
- Try out things your partner likes instead of dismissing them out of hand.
- Say ‘thank you’ when your partner does something you like.
- Do things that make your partner feel loved instead of things that make you feel loved.
Second, there are basic incompatibilities. A basic incompatibility is when one person has a need, desire, preference, or want, and the other person is for whatever reason basically incapable of fulfilling it. One of you is monogamous, the other one is polyamorous. One of you wants sex all the time, the other one never wants sex. One of you needs a tidy house, the other one has ADHD and can never put things back in the same place. One of you has expensive tastes, the other one wants to save money. One of you wants kids, the other one doesn’t. One of you wants to live in a big city, the other one wants to live in a small town. One of you loves movies, the other one doesn’t. One of you craves adventure, the other one is a homebody.
There are basically three approaches for dealing with basic incompatibilities. First, one of you sucks it up. You accept that you’re just going to live in a messy house forever or do an unfair share of the chores. Second, you manage the problem. For example, you might hire a house cleaner. Third, you break up. Next time, you know that this is important to you and you will find someone who will keep the house in the state that you prefer.
Every relationship has certain basic incompatibilities, because no two people ever mesh perfectly together. You’re never going to find anyone who satisfies every single desire you have in a relationship. So you have to figure out what’s most important to you and what you’re willing to compromise on.
Third, there are problems that are actually a different kind of problem. Your cat died. You’re stressed at work. You’re sleep-deprived. You have a newborn baby. You have depression. You have cancer. Any of these things is instead true of your partner. In any of these situations, you can wind up persistently unhappy in your relationship. This has nothing to do with your relationship, it has to do with the rest of your life circumstances.
To fix this sort of problem, you can fix the underlying issue– such as by getting enough sleep. You can also try to both be aware and understanding of the situation and approach it as a team. A reframe from “I’m sleep-deprived and also my relationship is a mess” to “I’m sleep-deprived and that’s stressful, but my partner and I are approaching it together” can help.
Fourth, there are horrifying soul-sucking messes. A problem of one of the previous three types was badly managed, perhaps for years. Now, every time you have a minor argument, you bring in everything wrong that happened for your entire relationship. You don’t feel like you can trust your partner. All the quirks you used to find charming drive you up the wall. You hate even your partner’s most innocuous actions. You avoid every topic that leads to a fight, and rapidly find that you can’t discuss anything except Marvel movies and the weather. You’re defensive whenever your partner says anything that sounds like even a minor criticism. You’re sarcastic and you call them names. Somehow, when you remember good things about the past– the time you saw Hamilton together or your birthday present or being the best man at their wedding– all you can remember is the long lines at intermission, the poor wrapping job, and their incredibly rude drunk aunt. If asked to name a good trait of theirs, you draw a blank, but you can go on for hours about their flaws.
I guess it might be in theory possible to fix a horrifying soul-sucking mess with a lot of hard work, but to be honest every time I’ve seen a person in one of those relationships they were a lot better and happier and stronger as people as soon as they ended it.
Fifth, there are terrible people. One or both of you just sucks. This category includes abuse, but it certainly isn’t limited to it. This is the category from which advice columnists get all their pageviews: we love viewing a train wreck. Your partner has had a suicidal crisis every night at 3am for the last month, and you’re up all night comforting them, and they refuse to find anyone else to talk to or ride out their suicidal crisis on their own. Your partner cheats on you constantly. Your baby is eighteen months old and your partner has never changed a single diaper. Your partner has demanded that you keep your relationship secret from everyone. You asked your partner to clean up dog poo from the floor, and it is three days later, and the dog poo is still there.
If you have found yourself in a committed relationship with a terrible person, you should DUMP THEM. If you regularly are in committed relationships with terrible people, you should think about why you do that, and do appropriate countermeasures (such as talking to a wise friend). If your relationship is one where you can scale back the relationship until the terribleness stops affecting you, you can decide whether to do that or to dump them, depending on your values. (Setting boundaries will be an important skill, if you try this.)
If you are concerned that you yourself might be a terrible person, the solution is probably a long and difficult and painful process of personal growth.