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How to use these common relationship conflicts to strengthen your bond

Despite what our carefully curated social media feeds tell us, no relationship is perfect. These struggles aren’t just normal, they can actually be productive to work through.
Cropped Hand Against Wall
Conflicts provide an opportunity to learn about your partner, and should be seen as part of the process for building a stronger relationship. Suparat Malipoom / EyeEm / Getty Images/EyeEm Premium

Comparing your relationship to other couples, real or fictional, is nothing new, but today’s digital world — which broadcasts only the absolute best highlights of our lives — breeds a certain piercing ache. One that makes us feel subpar, even when we’re posting big-grin pictures and gushy updates just like everyone else.

“I think we compare ourselves to other couples because of the inherent vulnerabilities of being in an intimate relationship. We want to ‘succeed’ in love and we are afraid of crashing and burning,” says Dr. Alexandra Solomon, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of “Loving Bravely.” “Social media turns the volume way up on this tendency.”

The problem with comparing your relationship to others on social media — or even to rom-coms and classic romantic literature — is that those depictions aren’t an actual representation of reality. It’s not that they’re necessarily inaccurate, but we’re looking at an incomplete picture; one that doesn’t include the inevitable struggles that come with sharing your life with someone.

The truth is that all relationships must be worked at, and even healthy relationships have conflict and differences that must be managed.

The truth is that all relationships must be worked at, and even healthy relationships have conflict and differences that must be managed.

“I’ve worked with many couples over the years where they said their closest friends and families would be shocked to hear that they are having problems because they are considered the model couple,” says Dr. Anthony Chambers, clinical professor of psychology and director of the Center for Applied Psychological and Family Studies at Northwestern University. “The truth is that all relationships must be worked at, and even healthy relationships have conflict and differences that must be managed.”

These common relationship setbacks that are completely normal

Not only are encountering certain setbacks expected, but you may just come out the other side of conflict better than you entered it. While we may not commemorate them with a photo and lengthy caption, all couples navigate conflict and experts say that these speed bumps — including the five common ones below — aren’t a reason to throw in the towel. Much to the contrary, they provide opportunity to learn about your partner, and ought to be considered part of the process for building a stronger and healthier partnership.

Struggling With the 'I to We' Shift

Dr. Chambers says that newlyweds and freshly committed couples often struggle with going from an “I” to a “we” mindset. This is a drastic change that requires each person to wholly understand that their actions now affect not just themselves but their partner, as well.

Similar to sports, the rules for being successful at singles tennis is different than the rules for being successful at doubles.

“Similar to sports, the rules for being successful at singles tennis is different than the rules for being successful at doubles,” says Chambers. “When couples experience setbacks during that transition because they are trying to embrace an interdependent mindset, it is actually a sign of health.”

One way to manage this transition is to be intentional about making conjoint decisions. Metaphorically speaking, conjoint decision making is like having a shared lock that requires two keys to unlock it. Both parties need to participate in the unlocking, particularly when major decisions are being made.

Another way to make the “we” shift is to merge finances.

“Money is the number one reason that couples get divorced, and it is not about how much money a couple has as much as it is about what money represents,” says Chambers. “One of the most important things that money represents is a sense of ‘us’ as it is the most tangible way to feel and see that we are a team.”

Fighting Over Social Media Interactions

Commenting on an ex’s photograph or “liking” a picture of an attractive stranger are just two examples of online interactions that can lead to an embittered spat. Neither party is inherently wrong or right, but it does mean that it’s time for a conversation.

“This couple’s challenge is to use that setback as an indicator that they need to work together to create relationship boundaries that help them feel both safe and independent,” says Dr. Solomon. “Different couples have different boundaries around this stuff so the only way to figure it out is by working together.”

Experiencing a Decrease in Sexual Desire

“Early months of a relationship are fueled by sexual desire that feels effortless and organic. One of the most destructive romantic myths in our culture is that if sexual chemistry changes for a couple, it means their relationship is bad, wrong or doomed,” warns Solomon. “It is normal and expected for sexual desire to slow and shift as a couple settles in to commitment and routine.”

She says that part of the work for sexually monogamous couples is to figure out ways to stoke an ongoing sexual connection, and to learn how to tolerate expected dry spells. If couples can approach this setback together, they can deepen their sexual enjoyment and closeness.

Feeling Like You’re Too Different for Each Other

Even though the “opposites attract” mantra is oft repeated, couples sometimes lose sight of just how exciting, and important, their differences are. “Decrease the urgency for sameness. Don’t try to get your partner be just like you,” urges Chambers. “The central task of any relationship is the management of differences; it is important to accept and embrace them.”

He says that an effective way to manage and embrace differences is to write down a list of all the traits that are different from you that you admire in your partner.

“It is also important to be humble when discussing differences with your partner. You may prefer doing something a certain way but that is all it is — a preference,” he says. “I like to have couples use the newspaper test, meaning if you put this argument on the front page of the [paper] you would find thousands of people who agree with partner A, thousands who agree with partner B, and thousands who disagree with both. Remembering that can help you approach your partner with more humility and avoid the ‘right and wrong’ argument.”

Like a bank account, you want to have enough relationship points in your account to handle the inevitable withdrawals,

Trying to Stay Afloat in The Unfamiliar Waters of New Parenthood

The transition into parenthood is arguably one of the most difficult times a couple will ever experience. Chambers says this phase typically lasts until your first child is about six, though it tapers around age three.

“Relationship satisfaction goes down for all couples during the transition to parenthood. Most divorces happen during [this time], so have realistic expectations and seek help to learn strategies to cope,” he advises. “Like a bank account, you want to have enough relationship points in your account to handle the inevitable withdrawals.”

You can gather those points by communicating more clearly than you ever have before and by truly adjusting your expectations.

“Because having a child is one of the few true miracles of life, there is the assumption that having kids will be nothing but joy. Although the moments of joy are profound, it is also true that it is not easy raising another human being,” says Chambers. “Expect to be exhausted and to feel that things are unfair at times.”

Have conversations about how you’ll tackle and split household chores, how you’ll approach tending to baby (especially at inconvenient times), what adjustments you’ll both make to your work and social life, and how you’ll remain intimate.

“Disappointment is the difference between our expectations and reality. The more we have our expectations in line with reality, the easier it is to manage,” says Chambers.

Bottom Line: There’s no such thing as a perfect couple, despite the story your newsfeed may try to tell. Remember that setbacks are normal, and that navigating those unavoidable moments of frustration, confusion, or disappointment can actually create a healthier and more meaningful partnership in the long run.


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