Is It Normal To Be Unhappy In A Relationship At Times? A Therapist's Thoughts
Unhappiness in a relationship can look like a lot of things: Maybe you've been feeling distant and disconnected from each other lately. Maybe you've been fighting a lot. Or maybe nothing's really "wrong," but things just feel a little…dull.
Many people are quick to exit a relationship as soon as these feelings crop up, assuming they're signs the relationship has run its course.
However, according to one therapist, feeling unhappy in a relationship doesn't necessarily mean it's time to jump ship.
Every relationship goes through cycles.
According to licensed couples' counselor and sex therapist Jessa Zimmerman, M.A., it's actually completely normal to be unhappy in a relationship from time to time.
"We won't be [happy] 100% of the time anywhere in our lives," she points out. For example, you might be working your absolute dream job, but that doesn't mean there won't be some days or some periods when the work is stressful or mundane.
Romantic relationships, in particular, tend to go through comfort cycles and growth cycles, Zimmerman says.
Comfort cycles are those periods in which the relationship is feeling positive, steady, and like it's almost on autopilot. "We enjoy what's happening and get the benefit of whatever work we've done. We can coast, in a way," she explains.
Growth cycles, on the other hand, are those periods when one or both partners are unhappy with something in the relationship. "This is when we are called on to work, to grow, to change. To care about what our partner needs and for them to care about us," she says.
In other words, feeling like something isn't working in your relationship isn't always a sign that you need to break up. On the contrary, Zimmerman argues that basically all couples will inevitably go through periods of discontent, when they'll need to work through challenges and malaise—but if they do put in that work, another period of comfort and joy follows.
"This is a natural flow through our life together," she says.
How to know when it's truly not working.
Now, none of this is to say unhappiness in a relationship should be an accepted status quo, nor should unhappiness be allowed to fester or be left unchecked.
The whole point of being in a relationship is adding joy, camaraderie, and support to each other's lives—and so when that isn't happening, it's important to figure out why and how to get back to that happy place if possible. If not, it's important to give yourself the freedom to walk away.
The question is, how do you know if a period of unhappiness is just part of the natural ebbs and flows of a relationship or if the relationship is truly not working?
"If your partner consistently won't come to the table to work things out so you can both be happy, if they diminish your concerns, if they shame you, if they always turn it back on you, if they show no sign of care and concern for your well-being, that is not a situation where you can likely get what you need," says Zimmerman.
She recommends starting off with having an open conversation with your partner about how you're feeling and what's not working for you, sharing your concerns without blame and with an earnest desire to listen and problem-solve together. From there, you can identify what changes you both are willing to commit to and observe whether things change after time with that mutual effort—or, as Zimmerman notes, if one person proves to be unwilling or unable to do their part.
"Don't make this decision after one conversation, but if you cannot get their attention over time, it's a problem," she says, adding, "And before you end the relationship, it's worth making sure you've done everything well on your side of the court. That you have expressed yourself well, without attacking your partner. That you've tried repeatedly to express your concerns. That you're equally interested in your partner's happiness."
Most of us are probably aware that conflict is inevitable in any relationship. Put any two people together and ask them to share their lives in any meaningful capacity, and they'll eventually find areas where they disagree or little quirks one person has that rub the other the wrong way (and vice versa).
Likewise, as Zimmerman notes, periods of unhappiness in a relationship are bound to happen from time to time. It's simply part of the natural flow of a relationship over time.
What you'll need to figure out from there is why you're unhappy at any given time—and whether each of you is willing to put in the work to get back to a better place.
Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach helping people figure out how to create dating and sex lives that actually feel good — more open, more optimistic, and more pleasurable. In addition to working with individuals in her private practice, Kelly serves as the Sex & Relationships Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and she’s been trained and certified by leading sex and relationship institutions such as The Gottman Institute and Everyone Deserves Sex Ed, among others. Her work has been featured at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
With her warm, playful approach to coaching and facilitation, Kelly creates refreshingly candid spaces for processing and healing challenges around dating, sexuality, identity, body image, and relationships. She’s particularly enthusiastic about helping softhearted women get re-energized around the dating experience and find joy in the process of connecting with others. She believes relationships should be easy—and that, with room for self-reflection and the right toolkit, they can be.
You can stay in the loop about her latest programs, gatherings, and other projects through her newsletter: kellygonsalves.com/newsletter