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Relationship Challenges

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Some evidence suggests that the ability to form a stable relationship starts to form in infancy, in a child's earliest experiences with a caregiver who reliably meets their needs for food, care, warmth, protection, stimulation, and social contact. Such relationships are not destiny, but they have been theorized to establish deeply ingrained patterns of relating to others.

Adult relationships succeed or fail for many reasons beyond the partners' childhoods, of course. Most people have to work to master the skills necessary to make romantic relationships endure and flourish, and threats to their connection are sources of great psychological anguish.

Resilience in Relationships

For centuries, couples did not tend to spend several decades together as they do now, due to shorter lifespans and greater medical risk. So in a way, the challenges long-term partners face today may be seen as novel. But fundamentally, relationships are challenged because individuals change and their partners are forced to adjust. But many couples face the same types of crossroads moments, when crises arise and threaten their connection, such as the first year together; the arrival of children, and their eventual departure; the declines of old age; and the inevitable tragedies every person faces.

What are the core challenges couples face?

Relationship turbulence theory suggests that ongoing exposure to polarizing experiences such as jealousy, goal-blocking, closed communication, avoidance of difficult topics, and taking conflict personally can cause a couple’s connection to deteriorate. Identifying these potential crises early, and speaking about them openly, can save a relationship.

How do the most successful couples manage challenges?

The most important factor the determines whether a couple can survive challenges to their relationship, research suggests, is simply whether they believe they can. Partners who are confident that they will stay together no matter what conflicts arise, and who believe they have the skills to maintain their connection, are much more likely to stay together for the long term.

Facing Infidelity

For many, breaking the commitment to remain faithful to a spouse or partner is unthinkable. Yet nearly 20 percent of people have had sex with someone else while in a committed relationship. People cheat for a variety of reasons, but whatever the cause, it poses a serious challenge to the offended partner. Infidelity, however, doesn’t always lead a couple to split up. Whether a couple survives the challenge depends on the essential soundness of their connection, and whether the affair involved emotional as well as physical attachment: Research shows that more than 40 percent of men who have had affairs report that it was only about sex, while only 11 percent of women say the same.

For more, see Infidelity.

Does infidelity always mean the end of a relationship?

The discovery that a partner has cheated is devastating, but it does not always mean the end of a relationship. Many couples do find a way to stay together, and research suggests that a prime factor in the wronged partner’s decision to stay or go is their sense of how their personal social network of friends and relatives would advise them, or judge them.

Why do partners cheat?

People stray in relationships for a range of reasons, research has found, but the most common are falling out of love; seeking variety; feeling neglected; taking advantage of a tempting opportunity; boosting self-esteem; anger; lack of commitment; and high sexual desire.

When Partners Are Different

Many couples with different ages, heights, sizes, cultural backgrounds, ethnicities, or religions find significant happiness together, and in surveys they tend to say the same thing: The challenges they face, while real, are primarily external and not internal. The ability to tune out the judgment of others, whether strangers or close relatives, is core to their long-term satisfaction.

How do couples manage a significant age difference when a man is older?

Historically, and even in current surveys, women generally express a preference to be with a slightly older man, and men to be with slightly younger women. But many couples with much larger age gaps thrive, though it’s more common for a man to be the older partner. One key to their success is “perceived age”—women view the older partner as younger than others do, and older partners see themselves as younger than their own biological age as well.

How do couples manage a significant age difference when a woman is older?

Couples in which a woman is the much older partner are less common but less rare, and more successful, than many people think. Often the woman has a higher sex drive than other partners her own age, and seeks someone younger who can keep up, try new things, and allow her to be in control. Some younger men want to date older women because they appreciate their attention and experience. They also may find greater equality in the relationship.

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