Is it common to have second thoughts in a relationship? How can you tell if it's just a temporary doubt, or something more?
Relationships grow and change over time. It is normal to pause and question your relationship. Taking time to reflect on your relationship gives you the opportunity to examine your values and needs, and what you need in a relationship to get your needs met and live in alignment with your values.
It is absolutely common and in fact natural to have second thoughts or relationship doubts. This typically happens after the “honeymoon” period starts to wind down, or when there are big life changes or points of self-reflection. Especially now with COVID, relationships are in a place no one could have predicted. Most people are now at home most of the day, everyday. There are 2 important pieces with this change:
- With this new dynamic many are now turning to their partner to be their pillar for everything – or at least much more than before. This means your partner is potentially your go-to for frustrations with work, discussions of the news, your social life, even your work-out buddy. When this happens, it is hard to feel like you have space from your partner, and it can put a lot of pressure on each other. Which brings us to…
- We need time apart from our partner. It’s easy to feel like the relationship is “stale” when you’re in this space. Your partner might not be able to give you the conversation about football or the Great British Baking Show that your friends do. And then, in turn, this might give you feelings of doubt. Ex: “Why are we even together if they can’t appreciate …” when before, this wouldn’t have been an issue because you were having that conversation with your friend. A healthy relationship does not mean you need to like everything your partner likes, but spending all of your time with one person can make these differences feel glaring.
It’s also important to note that now, with COVID and staying at home more often, it is easy to misattribute negative feelings to your partner. I’ve seen this come up in many relationship, admittedly including my own. It’s okay! It’s a learning experience that’s new for everyone. When the stress of life and the added stress of COVID (the virus itself, the financial impact, the social impact, etc.) is bringing you down, but the one consistent thing is your partner, it is easy to blame the negative feelings on them. This is done on a subconscious level so it takes paying attention to yourself and your feelings to combat this. When you notice yourself feeling irritated or short, take a step back and give yourself a break.
So when is it a problem?
This takes self-reflection and being real with yourself. What is it that you are seeing as a problem? Is it really an issue or is it circumstantial? For example, are you truly feeling disconnected from your partner, or are you feeling lonely from social distancing? Do they “never listen” or are you trying to talk about a topic they are either not interested in or know nothing about? On the other hand, is it truly okay that they are working over-time most days or do you need to spend time connecting in the evening? Is it truly okay that you do all the cleaning or do you need to feel more balanced in household chores?
Ask yourself: How much of you is committed to staying and how much is committed to leaving? Is it that you really want this to work but there are a few things that need changing? Or is it that you want to leave but are afraid of what happens next? Living life on the fence of a relationship can be draining and leave you feeling unfulfilled.
It is also important to note how often these thoughts are occurring and the circumstances surrounding them. Everyday? Once a week? That’s a strong signal that you need change. Whether that is a change within your relationship, or the change of ending a relationship. Again, circumstance: pay attention to what else is going on when these thoughts come up. Don’t ignore or downplay these feelings. Honor your emotions and reflect on these relationship doubts.
Tune in to what you are feeling and your automatic thoughts. Your body tells you a lot. What do you feel when you think of your partner? Does your chest feel lighter, maybe you can’t help but smile… this is typically a sign of positive feelings. On the other hand, do you feel a weight in the pit of your stomach? Heavy? Or even a bit numb? This is a sign that there is a problem in your relationship. Your automatic thoughts are the knee-jerk thoughts you have to a situation. When you see your partner after you’ve been apart, is the thought more “yay” or “ugh?”
I’m still not sure… What are some signs this is normal relationship doubts and not something more?
- When something happens, you first think to share it with your partner. This is a sign that your partner is one of your pillars of support. While you don’t want them to be your only pillar, you do want them to be a pillar. This is both when something exciting happens and when something upsetting happens. Turning to your partner signals that they are important to you. (Check out this article to tune into your relationship.)
- When you think of your future together, there are no major stipulations. When you think of your future together what feelings do you get in your body? What thoughts do you have? Are you excited or does it feel exhausting to picture your future together? If you are excited without the stipulation of your partner needing to change XYZ, then that’s a good sign. “No stipulations” doesn’t mean no growth or change. But if the stipulation is a lifestyle or character change, that’s a big ask and often does not happen. (These big ask changes would be something like if you expect your partner to become “outdoorsy” or extraverted, if that’s not something they want to change.)
- You want to put in the work. This is one of the biggest signs that you want to stay. When putting in the work still feels worth it (because relationships are always work). When you stop feeling like putting in the work, part of you has already left the relationship – but that doesn’t mean there is no getting it back.
- You can talk to and confide in your partner. When you can talk to your partner about what’s going on in your life and in your mind, it’s a sign that you feel safe. It is with safety in relationships that we can be vulnerable, take chances, and explore not only the relationship but ourselves individually.
- You think about your partner during sex. Sex is an integral part of most relationships and intimacy. But the intimacy aspect only comes when you are being present – which means you are thinking of this moment, this sex with your partner, not fantasizing about someone else. When you are feeling connected and having fun being intimate and having sex with your partner, that’s a sign that this connection is working. If you need to think of someone else to get in the mood, it’s a sign there is a problem.
Ultimately, you are the only who decides if you want to stay in the relationship or leave. Relationship doubts are normal. But you need to tune in to yourself to know if this is a temporary doubt, or something more substantial. Couples counseling is a great way to learn how to have tough conversations, reconnect, and work through relationship doubts. Individual counseling can help you work through your thoughts and feelings; and if you decide to breakup, through that transition and process your grief.
Article by Sarah O’Leary, AMFT#123449 (supervised by Erin C. Falvey-Hogue, Ph.D. LMFT#45322)
About Sarah O'Leary
I am captivated most by the importance of relationships and emotions and their impact on our everyday lives. Both relationships and our emotions help shape who we are as a person. "Relationship" doesn't just mean partner, but rather connections of all kinds. This means everything from strangers, to friends, to partners, and most importantly, the relationship you have with yourself. Emotions are what underlies our thoughts and behaviors, they are the key to understanding ourselves.