In Hump Day, award-winning psychotherapist and TV host Dr. Jenn Mann answers your sexiest questions — unjudged and unfiltered.

By Dr. Jenn Mann
Updated Mar 13, 2019 @ 6:27 pm
Eva Hill

DEAR DR. JENN,

Most of my relationships last about a year to 18 months. I can’t seem to get past this point. I look around at my girl squad and so many of them are experiencing the same thing. What is going on and what can we do about it? —Petering Out

DEAR PETERING,

It is easy to get along in the honeymoon phase of a relationship. During the early stages, when we are falling in love, all we see is how alike we are and how wonderful our new partner is. We see our commonalities, not our differences. “You like pizza. I like pizza! We are so alike! We are perfect for each other!” We are merged. We feel like one person, a unit, a “we.”

The first time we see our differences, it may feel like a huge betrayal (“What do you mean you voted for him?”), because it marks the moment when we are thrown back into the reality of being two separate people with different thoughts and beliefs. This realization can be jolting. It is not uncommon for this experience to be the trigger for a couple’s first fight. And sometimes a first big fight is all it takes to really unravel a relationship that seemed like it was on the right path. If you’re stuck in a short-term relationship rut, where no one seems to stick it out long term, read on to see what might be going wrong.

Our Judgement Is All F—d Up

So much of the early stages of falling for someone is about projection, dopamine, and, later, oxytocin: all these hormones firing around and making us feel in love. It takes a while to truly know and love someone, flaws and all. And falling in love has actually been compared to being on drugs: It can impair our judgment, affect our perception, and make us more impulsive. To make matters worse, a University College London study found that falling in love actually impairs our critical thinking. Literally, once we get romantically close to someone, our brain suppresses our ability to assess their character and personality. But that blindness to the truth can’t last forever.

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We Unconsciously Pick Our Parents

Our brain seeks to re-create the conditions of our childhood, so that we can correct them. This requires our romantic partners to have our caregivers' negative traits, which means they are bound to reopen our most sensitive wounds. In order for this unconscious process to play out, the person we pick has to be someone who stirs a deep sense of recognition within us, someone who makes our unconscious believe they can make up for the wounds of the past.

Our unconscious mind does not know the difference between past, present and future. It is always trying to heal old wounds in current time. When our lover triggers old hurt, disappointment or trauma from our past, our reactions tend to be intense and emotional. In order to have a long-term relationship, we have to work together with our partner in a very conscious way to help each other heal. Most people do not recognize that and as a result we tend to trigger each other in very painful ways.

We Get Past All the Projection

Sometime between six and 18 months into the relationship we move past the honeymoon stage which is all about projection when we fill in the blanks we don’t know about someone with our fantasies and hopes. When the reality of our partner’s behavior and preferences emerges, it typically generates disappointment and anger, because there is not going to be perfect alignment in all areas, as we had hoped. It takes a lot of emotional maturity and great communication skills to work through these differences.

We Stop Being on Our Best Behavior

In the beginning of a relationship we are all at our most charming, easy-going and impressive. An important part of relationship longevity is the ability to tolerate one another’s bad moods and annoying habits. These don’t tend to come out until you have been in a relationship for a year. For another example, consider suspending your hatred of the outdoors to go on a camping trip with someone you just started dating. Look how fun and chill you are! Trees! Bugs! Eventually when you develop a real connection — and trust — you’re going to come clean about your preference for all-boutique-hotel travel, and you two may no longer be a match.

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Attachment Issues Come Up

Once we get past the honeymoon stage of a relationship, filled with hope, fantasy, projection, and dopamine, our attachment fears tend to bubble to the surface. They create anxiety, anger, fear, and aggression. As the commitment increases, early life experiences and anticipation of abandonment can come up. As a result, partners start to anticipate the worst from their relationship. This can result in a lot of anxiety and neediness in some people, and feeling stifled and needing space in others, which means conflict. If you can determine which person you’d be in this scenario and work through the original wound, it’ll be good for the future of your relationship but also for yourself and your own mental health.

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Grudges Are Hard to Overcome

Studies have shown that a majority of conflicts between couples never get fully resolved. This only further confirms the importance of the interactions between couples during a conflict. At the end of the day, you may not be able to resolve the conflict, but how you talk through it can be a big determinant of whether or not your relationship goes the distance. Most people do not have great communication skills, especially once they have been triggered or hurt by someone they love. Creating a respectful process that allows both people to feel heard is the only way to have a long-term relationship.

We Struggle to Negotiate

Next comes the negotiation stage of the relationship. During the negotiation stage, couples establish their core beliefs as a unit, as well as their spoken and unspoken relationship rules. Negotiation is not about one person winning and the other person losing; more often than not, it is about finding a middle ground that both of you can live with. Typically, negotiation is anxiety-provoking for both parties. It is a time when your differences are highlighted. The idea that you and your partner are different, and may or may not agree on important issues, can feel like a betrayal. This often creates feelings of anger and frustration. Successful couples are able to negotiate well and, during this phase, develop their communication skills. Even with great communication skills, though, you may determine that you have irreconcilable differences that are worth breaking up over.

Swipe-Left Mentality Prevails

In many ways it is easier to avoid doing all of the work that it takes to have a healthy, long-term relationship. Dating apps have created a mentality that people and relationships are disposable and easily replaced. All you have to do is swipe left. The problem is, wherever you go, there you are. Whatever issues you have in one relationship, you are likely to have in another. If you do not learn the advanced communication and emotional skills it takes to have a healthy relationship, your relationships will have a short shelf life. That just is what it is. Finding a new partner may give you a nice endorphin rush and allow you to avoid doing some work on yourself, but it is not going to help you learn how to go the distance.

Milestone Pressures

Hitting that one-year milestone usually makes couples assess the relationship and evaluate if they want to take that next step together. In addition, holidays and anniversaries can create pressure that can kill a relationship. As a matter fact what is known as “breakup season” occurs both in the spring and late holiday season. These are peak breakup times due to pressure to define the relationship, conflict about how significant holiday events should be, fears about measuring up to expectation, or one person being ambivalent about next steps. 

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Things Cool Down

Once we get past the one year point, the novelty of a new naked body has worn off. We tend to know each other’s moves and get complacent about taking sex to the next level. We are no longer showing off our fanciest tricks in bed, and things tend to get more predictable and less exciting. It is at this point that couples most need to invest time and effort to make their sex life fun and exciting, but most people do not. Most people are inherently lazy in this area but a great long-term sex life requires work. Lack of work in this area can lead to the deterioration of our relationship. When you feel bored or unsatisfied after only a year, or a year-and-a-half, would you stick it out for the long haul? And that's exactly the point.