How Hard Should You Try to Stay In a Relationship?

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Sure, relationships take work…but how much is too much?

My parents split up when I was twelve. Like all family separations, it was a huge upheaval—the kind that shifts your perspectives on love and relationships. In the wake of his divorce, my dad gave me one very clear message about relationships: they are hard.

There’s no such thing as a fairy-tale romance, I was repeatedly told. Relationships take work. You need to make a commitment to your partner, and then you need work to keep that commitment, no matter what it takes. The only exceptions are made for adulterous or abusive relationships.

As a teen, I readily absorbed this message. I couldn’t wait to be in a serious relationship. I felt so ready to put in the work. When I was nineteen, I got my chance. I started seeing my first boyfriend. Things got very serious, very fast, and I was so excited to be in love with someone. And, just like I’d been told, it was hard.

Three months into our relationship, we started to argue. I don’t even remember what kinds of things we argued about. I just remember that our arguing seemed constant. Something always felt wrong. I looked to my friends for advice. “Is it always this hard?” I asked a friend who’d been dating her then-boyfriend for over a year. She nodded. “Oh yeah, it gets hard at three months, and again at six months, and then at a year. You just need to push through.”

Huh, I thought, that’s how it works. So we kept going, and after a while, our issues faded away.

Then, sure enough, six months in, things got hard again. We were back to arguing all the time about small, insignificant things. We never seemed to be on the same page. I struggled to remember what I found attractive about him in the first place. I just need to push through this, I told myself.

We kept going, but things only got harder and harder. Of course, there were lots of good moments. Lots of moments when we felt happy and in love. But there were also so many bad moments, moments when I found it so hard to stay in the relationship. I was relieved to go home to my family over the winter holidays, because it meant being away from him.

While I was away, I avoided his texts and got frustrated whenever he tried to call me. And when my dad and step-mom announced that they were taking the entire family, significant others included, on a vacation as their Christmas present to us, I excused myself to the washroom and had a very quiet panic attack. Still, this didn’t strike me as abnormal. I just needed to try harder.

We stayed in the relationship for two years, and things only got worse. I resented him when he came along on vacation with my family and me. Every time I flew home to my family, it felt like a reprieve. And every time I had to leave my family and go back to the city my boyfriend lived in, I felt a growing sense of panic. I fantasized constantly about being with other people.

One of the biggest clues that our relationship was failing came a few months before we broke up. I was walking across the campus of the university we both attended to visit him at his dorm. The spring term was almost over, and it was warm out. Students were outside in shorts and skirts, drinking iced coffee, sitting by the outdoor fountains. As I walked past a group of couples holding hands, I felt a pang of sadness. Why I can’t be with someone I love? I thought, before catching myself. I am with someone I love, I corrected. But the feeling didn’t go away.

I confided all of my relationship troubles in one of my best friends. Subtly, at first, and then with growing intensity, she encouraged me to leave him. But I couldn’t think of a valid reason to break up. He was kind, handsome, smart, hardworking. He got along great with my family. Objectively speaking, there was nothing wrong with him. He was, and still is, a totally good guy. Besides, I’d made a commitment to be with him.

Finally, on a random day in August, two months before we ended things, my step-mom and I were talking about relationships. “You know,” she said, “when you’re young, relationships aren’t supposed to be hard. They’re supposed to be easy.” We had been talking about someone else, but she gave me a meaningful look as she said this. This was a novel concept. Relationships could be easy?

That was what I need to hear. After six relatively good months, and eighteen relatively shitty months, my boyfriend and I finally agreed to call it quits. I was sad. But I was also so relieved. I felt a lightness that I hadn’t felt in years.

I’m in a different relationship now, with a partner I love without resentment or reservation. Of course, there have difficult times in our relationship, like when we spent eight months apart while I was completing my master’s degree in Toronto and he was finishing school in Alberta. Or when I was working twelve-hour days at my job and he was working nights and weekends at his, and it felt like we never got to see each other. Or when I began struggling with my mental health issues, and I had to lean on him for support.

These kinds of challenges are normal and healthy; they’re how relationships mature and grow and strengthen. But the decision to be with my current partner has never been a challenge. Knowing that I wanted to be with him was easy from the very beginning. I’ve learned that it should be easy to love the person you’re with.

Header image edited by Marcy Gooberman

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