Question: "My partner and I have been together since we were teens. We’ve had so many problems over the years but we still love each other. We wonder if we are staying together because we have so much history. How do we figure it out?"
My colleagues and I often discuss the complexities that come along with young love. Whether you’re high school or college sweethearts, or have simply known each other since you were young, the blessing and the curse is that you’ve probably “gown up” with each other. The positive aspect of growing up together is the comfort level you have achieved with each other. Familiarity goes a long way, and it can protect you like a security blanket through some of the harder moments in life.
One of the biggest challenges of growing up together in your relationship is watching each other’s mistakes of youth occur and even being on the receiving end of some of the pain associated with those mistakes. It’s hard to sustain love during your youth because it’s usually a time of exploration and growth. In therapy I pay close attention to a couple’s relationship timeline. I think it’s important to point out what developmental life stage each person was in as the relationship was progressing. For example, if you and your partner met before finishing high school or college, you were most likely developing your sense of self. Success in this area usually leads to an ability to stay true to your self, while failure could lead to role confusion and a weak sense of self. Many couples that meet, fall in love during this developmental phase, and stay together report having difficulty seeing themselves outside of their relationship with each other. On countless occasions I’ve had partners tell me, “Honestly, she’s all I know” or “He’s helped me in so many ways through the years. On one hand you can feel like you’re missing out on what’s out there, but you’re also scared to leave the past behind.
Fear of the unknown is common. However, it is not a good enough reason to stay in a known relationship that you keep doing damage to. You have two good options: Acquire the tools to make your current relationship a healthier, happier one or agree to separate from each other to explore another path. Let’s talk about the first option. All “young loves” are not doomed to fail. Many couples that meet when they are young weather the storms of life together and make it into old age together. How they achieve this is the important piece. If you have role models in your life, such as your parents or grandparents, who are willing to share their personal experiences and really guide you through the special challenges that come along with staying true to a relationship that developed before you became adults then utilize them. However, since you’re asking this question, it’s safe to assume that you need or want more help.
At some point, you’re going to have to look outside of yourself and your partner to learn how to correct the problems that have occurred in the relationship. Young couples often create injuries early because you don’t know the rules governing healthy communication. In other instances, you fail to properly articulate your expectations to each other while you are learning about yourself and what you actually need from a mate. Lack of success in either area can lead to feelings of disappointment. Young relationships can encounter so many growing pains that put a strain on the love you feel for each other. I tell couples who have grown up together, “The most challenging tasks you have to accomplish in therapy are forgiving each other for the mistakes of your youth and seeing each other as the more mature adults you are today. If you can’t accomplish this, then this relationship will continue to feel like an outdated version of itself.” In therapy we begin to look at some of the ways you both may have let each other down, hurt each other’s feelings, and crossed lines that broke trust.
If both of you have learned new ways to handle each other and are willing to stay true to operate within the boundary lines that you’ve set and agreed upon then there is definitely hope for creating a trusting, stable relationship. However, if one or both of you are struggling to leave your partner’s or your own hurtful behaviors in the past, then it’s time for a self-check. Does this relationship currently suit your needs? Are you ready or interested in being committed to your partner at this phase of your life? Do you love your partner enough to let them go regardless of your desire to hold on to the relationship? Depending on your answers to these questions, you may need to move on from each other for now. I have experienced couples that, over time have managed to create an emotional atmosphere that was so toxic that it seemed healthier to separate. If you haven’t approached that point yet please consider leaving before you do irreparable damage.
Breakups and makeups do in fact leave imprints on the relationship and make it harder for partners to trust in the stability of their commitment to each other. Lastly, if your fear of losing your partner is what’s motivating you to hang on to them while still trying to explore what another relationship can offer, please remember that the damage created by a discovered betrayal could be emotionally permanent even if your partner physically sticks around. It’s unfair to have your partner on hold while you decide if you want to be with them. Achieving maturity looks like making a decision to face the unknown versus being a less present version of yourself with your old sweetheart because you’re restless or worried about settling. Being honest with your partner about your inability to give them all of yourself can be tough; especially if they want to stay in the relationship. That’s not about you though. That’s their “stuff” and they are responsible for working through it.
You can’t live your life in the past, and you can’t live your life for your partner. Develop your own healthy identity, be true to yourself, and if you find after experiencing other relationships that your old love is truly the best for you, the decision to enter into a relationship will be a more informed one. You won’t have to wonder if you’re settling because you will finally know that you’re not.