My client “Claire” spent more than a decade in a relationship with “Mark” before she finally realized something was wrong. Things just weren’t the same.

They had met in college, and back in those days things were hot and heavy, but as the years went by everything cooled. They had kids and went through the motions, but Claire felt unfulfilled.

“I felt like a piece of furniture sometimes,” she told me. “It was like he would just walk past me some days and not even see me.”

There was nothing inherently wrong with the relationship. Mark didn’t yell at her, he didn’t hit her. If she needed his help or needed him to show up, he always did. Yet still, as their children got older, she realized that something was missing.

They never crossed paths if they didn’t have to. They didn’t share any common interests. Even though he wasn’t mean to her and didn’t cheat, Claire got the distinct feeling that her husband just didn’t like her very much.

In the end, Claire found the courage to walk away, but a similar pattern repeated in her next 2 relationships. Why?

Claire was prone to the trap that so many of us are prone to — getting too familiar and comfortable in a relationship that’s not the right fit. It’s a bit like putting blinders on. We get so used to a relationship that we can’t see the truth for what it is.

Do you have a bad habit of staying for familiarity’s sake?

When a relationship slides into a zone of familiarity like Claire’s did, it can be difficult to see it for what it is. If we’re not paying attention, we can mistake that level of “comfort” with love. We can tell ourselves that we’re content because we think that the safety of predictability is better than the unknown. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. For you to figure out the truth, you have to look at what’s happening.

Mistaking love for familiarity

Being in a predictable place is nice. It feels safe. That’s what familiarity offers in a relationship. We get used to our partner’s follies and foibles and get used to the routine of our life with them. However, we have to ask ourselves if that’s love. In reality, it sounds like going through the motions.

That’s what happens when you’re stuck in something that isn’t working for familiarity’s sake. Because things are comfortable, because you know what’s going to happen next, you think you’re safer or happier than being out there in the wilds, looking for the right fit.

It’s a distortion in perception.

Because you feel safe in a familiar relationship, you think that you’re in love or being loved. That’s not always the case. If emotional walls are too high, if your core needs aren’t being met, if you’re not getting the chance to grow as a person, then you may be taking part in a partnership that’s more unhealthy than you realize.

Believing contentment is good enough

One thing about being in a familiar relationship is that it can feel like contentment. You can look around and think, this is good enough. But is good enough really good enough? Not always. Sometimes being content leads to a world of frustration and what-ifs. Should those what-ifs grow too big, conflict is around the corner.

How do you tell the difference? How do you know if being content is the path that will lead to long-term happiness for you? Make no mistake, for some people being content with the familiar is enough. They don’t question what’s beyond that.

That’s the marker you have to pay attention to most. Questioning. Are you questioning your relationship? Do you endlessly fantasize about a new partner? A new relationship? Being single? Moving across the world? Surrounding yourself with new people?

Sometimes, this is just natural curiosity or growing pains. For some, though, it’s a sign that being “good enough” isn’t good enough. Core needs, perhaps, aren’t being met and new horizons are ready to be explored.

Do you truly want to keep your relationship together? Or are you ready for a change?

Where are you on the spectrum? Have you stuck around longer than you wanted, because things felt familiar or comfortable? Have you tuned out, numbed yourself, lied to yourself to avoid the truth? These are answers that take time to figure out. They require some digging.

To get to the root of the truth of your relationship, you have to ask yourself a few detailed questions first.

1. Do you make time together?

When we look at a familiar relationship, it’s often helpful to look at the obvious things first. These partnerships are much like a good dress coat. You bring them out every once in a while and flash them about, but there’s not a lot of time you spend together outside of the odd night out.

Look at your relationship. Do you make time together? Or, is the time you spend together more superficial? If you and your partner only come together to do things that are expected but spend the rest of your time separated, it could be important to take note of.

Happy couples spend quality time together, not because it’s expected, but because they are genuinely interested in one another. They want to hang out, talk, and share interests, emotions, and stories. There’s no forcing to it. Solid couples growing together make quality time together.

2. Can you imagine your life without them?

Quality time can be a mark of a relationship that’s caught up in a familiarity loop, but so can the way we think of our relationships. It’s not all about action. When we look inside and analyze our emotions and our visions of the future, important patterns begin to stand out.

For example, picture your ideal 20 years from now. You’ve done everything you wanted to do, and seen everything you wanted to see. Imagine you have all the money in the world, a big house you love, and a family all around you. Who is in that family? Is your partner there? If they are, imagine they are removed. How do you feel now?

Being able to picture your future without your partner (consistently) is another one of those internal markers we have to pay attention to. While it could mean nothing at all, it could also be an early indicator that you are lacking some kind of fulfillment in your partner.

3. Do you work on problems together?

As you dig deeper beneath the cloak of familiarity that hangs over your relationship, you have to look at the practicalities between you and your partner. Specifically, you have to consider what happens when things go wrong. These are important chokepoints for relationships, and a chance for partners to grow together.

What happens when things go wrong in your marriage or partnership? What happens when someone lies? Messes up? Gets it wrong or lets something fall through the cracks?

In a relationship that’s bound by familiarity alone (versus love or meaningful connection), there is a tendency to gloss things over. Partners will ignore major issues, address fights with silence, and bury the problems that should otherwise be worked on together or with the help of a professional.

It’s not that good partners fight for the sake of fighting. Nor do they glaze over the truth for the sake of peace alone. When partners genuinely care about each other, they know that hardships have to be faced head-on.

4. Do you have complementary life goals?

What’s odd about the familiar relationship is how ill-fitting some of them can be. Two partners who are complete and total opposites in every facet of their lives will cling together, despite their misery, because they are used to being there. They are used to wallowing in that misery. In most cases, they aren’t thinking about the bigger picture. They’re not asking themselves, what’s the goal here?

Make no mistake, every relationship should have a goal. That’s a part of the glue that keeps good partnerships and marriages together. Two people who have complementary life goals come together as a team to work and make those dreams a reality for one another.

For example, a woman who wants a big family might thrive with a man who wants to be a stay-at-home dad. Two CEOs with big career dreams and unlimited airline miles might do well together traveling the world on those rare weeks off.

Whatever you ultimately want from your life, your partner should share the same goal or one that complements it (ie someone who is happy being a SAHP getting together with someone who has a stable job and is willing and able to provide for a large family). Knowing each other well isn’t enough. When times get tough you need to be aiming for the same finish line.

5. Are you excited about the future?

The simplest questions are often the most powerful when we’re looking inward at ourselves and our relationships. That’s certainly the case when we’re trying to peel back the layers of familiarity that have kept us with someone who doesn’t feel quite right.

You can ask yourself one simple question that breaks through the noise, that points to the truth of what is going on in your relationship as it is right now. What is that question? It’s this…

Are you excited about the future?

When you think about standing next to your partner or spouse in 20 years, how does that make you feel? Are you happy to imagine the house you’ll live in? The trips do you take? The family do you have? The money you’ll save? Does it make your heart beat faster? Does it make you smile? Do you feel relief or at least some kind of joy when you imagine holding their hand in that moment?

You should be excited about the future you’re building with your partner, even if it’s tough. Familiarity isn’t enough. You have to be passionate about their place in your life and passionate about the future you’re creating together.

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Where does your relationship stand? Have you become familiar with something that doesn’t fit? Are you making yourself content to settle for something predictable when you should be seeking something healthy? Not all familiarity is bad. Finding someone we can be comfortable and safe with is important, but not at the cost of our other core needs and goals.

Be honest with yourself and be honest with your partner. Are you sticking around because it’s what you know best? Would either of you be happier with someone else who fulfills those parts of you lacking?

Take your time finding the answer. Reach out to your partner and have a conversation. Try to reconnect and break the monotony of your familiarity so that you can realize the truth. Are you meant to be together? Or are you meant for someone else? Only the two of you can decide on those answers together over time.

© E.B. Johnson 2024

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