When we try to figure out what’s not working in a relationship, we typically look at it directly.
Who’s done or said what? Where is communication breaking down? Whose feelings are hurt, and for what reasons?
What we don’t often consider are the factors separate from the relationship itself that led us to this moment in the first place.
Because there are certain underlying conditions that compel us to seek out (and get stuck in) relationships that are mediocre in some way.
These conditions distort our perception -- of ourselves, of our partners, of the quality of our lives in general, and of the relationship itself -- to such a degree that they cause us to make choices that aren’t really right for us in the long run.
Even if they look pretty darn good right now.
These conditions distort our perception by inserting hidden motivations into our personal relationship calculus that don’t really belong there. They tip the scales in the “Yeah, let’s do this”, “This feels good”, and “This is what I want” direction -- even if deeper down those statements aren’t as true.
We’re going to take a closer look at these conditions in a moment, but first let’s cover a few ground rules:
What makes a relationship mediocre will differ from person to person, so we’ll each have to come up with our own definition of what that looks like based on our personality, preferences, dreams, and desires.
Next, there’s nothing wrong with seeking or sustaining a relationship while you deepen your understanding of how these factors influence your decision making. You don’t have to wait to be in a relationship when being in a relationship is a great a way to identify which of these conditions might be in the mix for you.
Many of these factors can be found in any relationship. Their presence alone isn’t something to worry about. What we want to pay attention to is the degree to which and the regularity with which they influence the choices we make, and if they limit our ability to pursue the kinds of relationships we’re really looking for.
Here’s the rub too: sometimes we won’t even know we’re in a mediocre relationship until we directly address the impact these conditions have on us. When we do, our perception is no longer distorted and the mediocrity reveals itself.
Other times we’ll look at our relationship history and we’ll know that something’s not quite working out the way we want it to.
There’s a silver lining to all of this though.
Thankfully all of the conditions that make mediocre relationships more appealing live in us -- and we therefore have complete control over them should we wish to do something about them.
This is our “work”, as the saying goes.
And it has incredible potential to transform the way we feel in our relationships.
Because when you sift through and unravel the influence these conditions have, you’ll know you’re engaging in relationships for the right reasons -- the deepest and truest, to you.
It’s in this spirit that we now take a look at the underlying conditions that make mediocre relationships so appealing:
Sometimes you pursue a relationship because your life lacks a certain spark.
Dating becomes “something to do”.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with dating to bring a little excitement to your life.
It’s just if you come to depend on another person to feel this way -- when you see them as the source of that inspiration, and you build a relationship on that premise -- that this innocent motivation morphs into something different.
Because (as is true of any of the conditions listed here) if you don’t think you’ll be able to feel the way you want to without your partner, you’ll be more likely to look past, excuse, or deny aspects of the relationship that might actually be hurting you.
We all want to feel connected to other people, and that we belong to something larger than ourselves.
If we feel cut off from those around us it’s natural to feel a little lonely.
In the ebb and flow of life, some periodic loneliness is only human. Extended loneliness leads to despair. It’s the feeling of emptiness and unease that lends itself to thinking that being with someone, anyone, would be better than being alone.
This underlying angst can easily drive us into the arms of someone who might not ultimately be good for us.
If you’re insecure, you’re unsure of yourself. You’re less likely to know what you want in a relationship -- and you’re less likely to know what you’ve got. You overthink things. You second-guess yourself. Because you habitually talk yourself out of what you know, you’re more likely to end up in situations that don’t feel all that good to you -- if only because they aren’t true to who you really are.
If you’re insecure you’re also more likely to defer to other people’s needs, desires, and opinions of how things should be done. Even if being with a decisive partner is appealing on the surface, a pattern may develop where you don’t feel comfortable speaking up about what’s important to you.
There’s no denying it -- it’s nice having someone there. Someone in your life who cares about you, and who you care about. Even if the relationship has its downsides, that cozy connection still accounts for something.
Feeling comfortable can be really good at masking mediocrity though.
While we’d all want to feel at ease around our partners, the comfort we feel could just be a sense of inertia -- that we’re in the relationship because we’ve been in it.
Even if it’s gone stale.
Comfort also stifles our inclination to grow.
Sure, the relationship is comfortable, but does it inspire you? Does it motivate you? Does it challenge you in the expansive ways that relationships can be so good at?
Or is what you’re really comfortable with just the status quo?
Relationships (even mediocre ones) bring so many practical benefits to our lives.
You divide and conquer, splitting bills, errands, and chores. You have a readily available hang-out buddy, and someone to support you when you’re having a hard time.
You have a partner in the true sense of the word for any of the many demands that come along with managing a modern life.
Not only are relationships convenient, but breaking relationships off can be decidedly inconvenient.
Especially if you’ve been together for some time and are living together, share finances, pets, cars, and other belongings, are close with one another’s families, run in the same social circle, are members of the same religious or community groups, and so on.
The hassle of untangling yourself in these areas can be enough to keep you stuck in relationships you know aren’t right for you anymore.
6. Fear of being single.
There’s a cultural stigma about being single for too long, especially for women. As the months fly by, so too can the pressure mount to find that special someone.
Do you really want to show up to another wedding or family holiday without an S.O. in tow?
Finding the right person can take time, it can take patience. As our anxiety grows, both of these resources can be in short supply -- and the temptation to lower our standards can be fierce.
A similar fear can cause us to remain in relationships that are well past their expiration date. We hear horror stories about the dating scene, something we may not have had to navigate in years, and we don’t want to face the perils of being single again.
7. Low self-esteem.
If you don’t think very highly of yourself as a person or as a partner, you might doubt that you can find something better than a mediocre relationship.
You’re getting some attention, and it feels good. And that goodness is good enough. Maybe it doesn’t even feel that good -- but you don’t think you deserve to feel any better than you do.
Low self-esteem might also cause you to think you deserve the parts of the relationship that hurt you, and it won’t be until you claim your inherent worth that you’ll see just how misguided this impression truly is.
8. Good sex.
Sometimes a partner doesn’t give you a whole lot besides being dynamite in the sack. While there’s very much something to be said about getting your sexual needs met, being satisfied in the bedroom might cause you to discount aspects of the relationship that aren’t right for you -- or to ignore the fact that there’s not much else holding your attention there.
While it may be fun and exciting, a strong sexual connection on its own usually isn’t enough to sustain a relationship in the long run.
When you’re struggling with the pain of a past relationship, a new relationship can look extra appealing -- either as a way to distract yourself from turbulent emotions or to soothe them directly.
This only puts a band-aid on the actual issue though. You get affection and attention, which feel good, but is the relationship something you actually want? And more importantly where mediocrity is concerned, is it something you feel like you’re able to evaluate on its own merits aside from the stability it’s giving you?
No one would blame you for seeking out this kind of relationship. You’ll just want to pay close attention to the role your pain is playing in it. Because when you do find the next right partner for you, your sadness won’t play a central role in the relationship. It’ll be something you’re processing alongside it.