Everyone wants romantic relationships to be simple. They’re not.
Instead, relationships are complicated, tricky, and confusing. It’s enough to leave you feeling indecisive and unsure.
And yet, we’ve all seen happy couples who have been together forever. What’s their secret? Those “super couples” don’t avoid complications. They have struggles, just like the rest of us.
Knowing that all couples experience these issues has two key benefits:
you realize that your struggles aren’t unique or a sign your relationship is fatally flawed;
you can “peek around corners” and see the difficulties coming and problem-solve before there’s a real issue, and avoid overreacting when they do occur.
Thinking about these issues now helps minimize problems later.
Here are 10 key dilemmas that every person faces in a relationship. What makes these decisions especially difficult is that both perspectives feel right. You just need to determine what works best for you.
What Do You Want?
1) Are You Better Off Staying Single vs. Being In a Relationship? – This is everyone’s first relationship challenge. Do you want to be in a relationship at all, or do you want to focus more on yourself? Most people decide they want a relationship but then must decide what kind. Something more short-term and fun could fit for now, or it may be time to settle down and find something solid.
2) What Should You Prioritize in Your Partner?: Appearance vs. Personality – Does your partner have to be hot? Do they have to be a good conversationalist? Ultimately we want both, but as you consider partners, how much emphasis are you putting on each? When you scroll through dating apps, you can focus more on the pictures or the profile—knowing if you’re looking for something more short-term or long-term helps. Over the long term, a good personality is going to matter more.
3) What Are Relationships For?: To Provide Excitement vs. Stability – What draws you more, having a good time or someone who will be good for you for a long-time? Exciting partners are fun, but some of those traits (e.g., being mysterious and unpredictable) that make them fun also make it difficult to depend on them. Thinking long term, all of that excitement may be less appealing. In the big picture, qualities like predictability, stability, and dependability become important.
What Do You Have? Defining the Relationship
4) Is This Love? Sparks vs. Slow Burn – We all want to fall in love, but it isn’t always easy to know if what you’re feeling is really love. For some, love is about that instantaneous spark and immediate chemistry. Either you have it, or you don’t. That makes it easier to feel like you’re in love, but those emotions can quickly flame out. For others, love is more of a process where feelings and connection gets built over time as closeness develops. In this case, love is more like an enduring friendship where partners grow closer over time.
5) The Fear of Being Alone vs. The Fear of Settling – A major decision point in relationships is knowing when to commit yourself fully. It can be terrifying because we’re often torn between two very strong influences: we don’t want to be alone, but we also don’t want to be in just any relationship. Our relationship should be special. No one wants to settle. But would you settle if it meant you at least had someone? It’s the predicament of not wanting to stay too long but also not wanting to leave too early.
6) What Do You Deserve? Checking All the Boxes vs. Prioritizing What’s Important – Going into relationships, we all think we know what we want. We have certain expectations for what our partners should be like, and how they should act. We want and feel we deserve a partner who checks every box. Yet, every partner falls short. Perfection is a myth. When they are imperfect, you need to decide which of your expectations are must-haves and which are merely preferences. Prioritize what matters most to you.
How Do You Keep It? Maintaining the Relationship
7) Getting Close vs. Keeping Your Distance – How much are you going to let the other person in? No one wants to get hurt, so it’s natural to want to put up walls. If you keep your distance, the other person can’t hurt you. But those walls also prevent you from getting close and feeling connected. To have that strong bond and emotional connection requires vulnerability and opening up.
8) Asserting Yourself vs. Deferring to Your Partner – Couples are a team who work together. But it’s a team of just two people, which makes it easy to adopt leader and follower roles. Power struggles are common. Early in a relationship, you may have happily deferred to your partner. You wanted to seem easygoing and avoid conflict. Now, you want more of a say and to have more control. Shifts in power create friction. No partner should have most of the power while the other is a doormat. But striking the right balance is important, and equality is best.
9) How Much Work Does It Take? The Best Relationships are Easy vs. They Take Work – There is a lot of love advice out there. Much of it is contradictory. For example, people will say that the sign of a good relationship is that it’s easy. Others say that the best relationships take work, and the work is what makes those relationships so great. The truth is somewhere in between. Strong relationships are mostly easy, but when difficulties inevitably emerge, they require work to make it through. As healthy relationships work to solve problems, they get easier.
10) Stay or Go – We don’t want to stay too long or go too early. It’s easy to wonder, “Is this all there is?” and “Will I find something better?” The fact is, if you want to find problems with your current relationship, you can. But, if you want to find dozens of good qualities, you can find those too. No relationship is 100% great or 100% bad. There’s always a bit of both, which makes it difficult to know for sure what the best decision is.
Relationships are hard. These ten dilemmas are every relationship’s “million dollar questions.” There are no easy answers, and no one emerges unscathed. Some dilemmas will seem easy; others will feel hopelessly impossible. How you problem-solve each challenge is up to you.
To make them a little bit easier, your job is to gather science-based information and learn as much as you can about what makes relationships work, so you can find the strategy that works best for you and your relationship.
Relationships are important. Time is short. Get it right.
Hope this helps,
Gary W. Lewandowski Jr., Ph.D. an award-winning professor, researcher, writer, and relationship expert. His TED talk and relationship programs have been enjoyed by millions worldwide. As a Love Strategies Instructor, he shares insights from 25 years of experience studying the science of relationships to help women build a deeper, more meaningful romantic connection with their partners.