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I Don't Feel Fulfilled in My Relationship
In the beginning, it seems like all you need is love, sprinkled with things like attraction and fun. It's the perfect relationship recipe . . . until it isn't.
As a relationship coach, I've seen a variety of issues. Not any one issue is worse than the other because it all depends on whether both partners are willing to work through it or not.
I've seen couples successfully work through cheating and bankruptcy, but many of the issues and warning signs I've listed here seem subtle, eventually leading up to the slow end of love and mutual partnership.
The couples seem to have difficulty pinpointing exactly what went wrong because it's a combination of many of these relationship killers that tend to fly under the radar.
5 Signs of a Lack of Fulfillment in a Relationship
- Neither of You Is Putting in the Effort Anymore
- Card Shopping Is Difficult
- You Can't Imagine a Future With Your Partner . . . or the Future Looks Bleak
- The Foundation Is Crumbling
- You Don't Like Who You Are in the Relationship
1. Neither of You Is Putting in the Effort Anymore
It's a major warning sign when one partner comes to me for help and the other is less interested or invested. I can almost predict with high accuracy, how the relationship will fair based on whether both partners are willing to make some effort.
If you're in a relationship longer than six months, you now know relationships require "work" and a healthy amount of give-and-take. A sure warning sign is when the belief of one partner is that if they're a good couple, it shouldn't be work.
However, in healthy relationships, each partner will typically put in various amounts of effort, which can vary from time to time. Overall, the goal is a combined effort that maintains relationship satisfaction for both partners.
Effort includes initiating and displaying affection, kindly confronting or sharing their feelings, open conversation and mature communication, plus making quality time as a couple, continuing to learn about each other, supporting each other, sharing duties around the house, and helping with the kids.
I cringe when I hear one partner say, "that's her/his job." Some effort comes naturally and other effort will be agreed upon through communication between the couple. There is nothing in the relationship that should be only one partner's "job" to fulfill.
There are times when one partner may be up for a promotion or a big project at work and the other partner will cook dinners and do extra housework so that person can focus on their career for the time being.
Another form of effort is emotional intelligence such as being open without judgment, honesty without criticism, creating a space for the other to open up about difficulties, acknowledging their feelings.
Sometimes one partner will have a lot on their plate and the other will make more effort to find quality time as a couple or show their interest in their partner's individual endeavors or take over house duties and anything extra to show their support.
Relationships are not linear, meaning we're still individuals and we experience life's ups and downs differently, yet hopefully together.
Hopefully, your partner is not a constant source of the lows in your life together.
Major imbalances in effort are a source of many issues.
Arguments, turmoil, and resentment arise when one partner feels they're putting in more effort, most of the time, or one partner causes the other partner to put in extra effort.
Perhaps the imbalance of effort is a long-time pattern within the relationship where one partner contributed the majority of the effort from the beginning (people-pleasers, codependents, etc).
Givers Attract Takers!
Suppose the more generous partner finally notices the dysfunction of that pattern and they stop putting in as much effort. What they may realize is their partner has never really put in much effort at all.
Another time that unequal shifts in effort occur is when a couple has children. This is typical and many couples recover from this by communicating their needs and wants and prioritizing roles that work for their family.
At any given time though it may seem like one partner doesn't "pull their weight". What's most important to take note of, fairly and objectively, is if a lack of effort has become a pattern, a phase, or just short-term situational. A lack of effort is also reflective of a lack of support for each other's wants and needs.
Sometimes score-keeping can occur where a partner will withhold effort until the other person puts in more effort. It's a this-for-that exchange that almost always leads to an unhappy arrangement.
Most patterns of unequal effort lead to resentment by the offended partner; resentment and blame build-up and are difficult to recover from as a couple. An inward shame may be present too about whether they are not lovable or worthy of their partner's effort and support.
Not feeling worthy or lovable may cause that person to put in way more than their fair share of effort just so they can feel loved, but this can prove disastrous to the relationship.
It may take someone years before they let go of making the majority of the effort because their fear is if they do, then the relationship will parish. When neither partner puts in enough effort to maintain the relationship, it can become what's referred to as "growing apart".
There's a sense of apathy about the relationship. Each individual cares more about, and prioritizes, their needs and wants rather than considering their partner. Suddenly a couple finds themselves at a crossroads. The relationship doesn't seem worth the effort.
This can show up in two ways:
- Each person is doing their own thing, sharing less and less of their life together. This can be closing down physically (less intimacy) and closing down emotionally (less sharing of thoughts, emotions, and interests).
- Lack of support. As I explained above, relationships are give and take. If this pattern ceases then it looks less like a relationship. When people no longer get much return for their efforts, they become apathetic- there's no will or desire to put anything into it.
Psychologists have found that lack of effort is NOT due to laziness. Studies show motivation and effort come from what we value. We'll make the effort if we value something.
Effort and Values
Effort requires each partner to know what they value about the relationship as well as what the other person values about the relationship in order to consider and fulfill those values in various, even subtle, ways.
Lack of effort, Psychologists have found, is not due to laziness. Studies show motivation and effort come from what we value. We'll make the effort if we value something.
It's important to communicate goals and values as individuals and for the relationship. Your time will likely gravitate toward what is important to you—your values.
Things change over the course of long-term relationships so values change too—after kids are introduced into the mix or job changes, or health concerns (depression can make it hard for someone to make an effort).
Ask your partner what they value about the relationship; what their "couple goals" are. Re-evaluate what you value about the relationship (is it worth it? What's important?). The reasons for lack of effort may become apparent especially if you each value different things or your shared values have changed drastically over the years.
Each partner's values should be represented in the relationship and this makes effort come more naturally.
2. Card Shopping Is Difficult
OK, so what relationship resembles a Hallmark card?
I've noticed that in some relationships, I would find myself spending way too long in the card aisle trying to deliberate how much I can lie about the beauty and goodness of the relationship and still live with myself.
If you've noticed that card shopping is like a 4x's-a-year (Valentine's Day, birthday, Christmas, anniversary), painful reminder that your partner has few, if any, redeeming qualities listed on cards. Or that your relationship is way too dysfunctional for a poetic portrayal of paper appreciation.
Card shopping can be a moment of truth about how we view our relationship and our partner. You may find yourself choosing generic cards that stick to something short and sweet.
In any case, difficult card shopping trips can signal a chronically unhappy relationship or a partner that doesn't have many of the qualities you need to be happy with them.
3. You Can't Imagine a Future With Your Partner . . . or the Future Looks Bleak
The future in a relationship is like the bottom line in a business. Will your efforts and investment be worth it? Is there balance? What is the ultimate outcome? What can you do now for a better future 5 years from now . . . 15yrs from now?
If you feel like you can't go on the way it's going and it seems like it's never going to change, the future likely looks bleak. We've already discussed that relationships have their ups and downs, but how long should a "down" last?
During the low points in relationships, you should have at least some HOPE, if only an ounce of hope. I've seen couples who are not "on the same page", but some couples are not even in the same book together!
If you don't feel there's anything to look forward to or even salvage in the relationship then it's difficult to imagine a better future.
Some questions I ask my couples:
- Do you have relationship goals? Does your partner have relationship goals?
- Imagine your ideal future . . . is your partner a part of it? What role do they play?
- The pictures in our heads now, tell a lot about our future.
A short visualization:
If it helps, you can imagine this as an imagery of two paths: One is with your partner. One is without.
Sit down quietly, calmly close your eyes and imagine two paths. You're free to choose either one . . . and even try out both.
First path is a future without your partner. What would it be like? How would you feel? What is different about life without your partner? Get a sense of this any way you can.
Take a few deep breaths, clear your mind, and now imagine taking the other path . . . a random future with your partner. Whatever comes up if you could imagine any future with them. What is that like? How are you feeling? What are you doing or not doing? Get a sense of this.
Is it still difficult to imagine a future with your partner?
In addition to really thinking through your imagined future, jot down anything you believe your partner is holding you back from accomplishing? Are they also things you may be holding yourself back from.
Blame is easy and common in relationships. If life seems better without your partner (the grass is always greener) then why is that? Is it you or your partner that keeps you from your ideal future?
It's easy to blame your partner for not having the life you imagined so take stock of your own life, evaluate the images you do get about your future, and decide why or why not, it's better or worse with you partner?
4. The Foundation Is Crumbling
Sometimes in relationships, there comes a point of no return. The foundational qualities that make up a relationship have been deeply damaged.
Couples/Marriage counseling can promote problem-solving skills and help you rediscover the good things about each other and the relationship, but the foundation is deeper work between two willing people.
The 4 Foundational Relationship Qualities
When any of these, and especially if all or most, are missing, deeper work is required to salvage the relationship. It also depends on how long they've been missing.
Realize trust may be lost and recovered at times. Respect could falter, and support takes some adjusting when changes occur, but overall the health of the relationship is determined by how strong the foundation is—how easy it is to bring it back to balance, how easy it is to trust again if it's been broken or communicate about your needs, and how much you desire to support one another and respect the other.
These aren't the only principles of a relationship, but you'll find that other key aspects fit into one of these four foundational categories.
5. You Don't Like Who You Are in the Relationship
Everyone changes, but if you were a better person outside of your relationship, that can be a big red flag! Another warning sign is if you don't recognize yourself in the relationship. Your wants and needs have been drowned out by your partner's.
Your partner is there to encourage you to become a better version of yourself and support growing together. If their needs and wants seem to take precedence over yours then you can feel left out of your own relationship.
On the other hand, if your partner brings out the worst in you, it's time to do some serious relationship reflection.
Check how you feel and how your energy is when you're around your partner. Are you more negative? Are you walking on eggshells? Are you more yourself around others or by yourself than you are with your partner?
It was Dr. Phil McGraw that said the way we feel around someone is likely an indication of how they feel about us.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Most couples with these warning signs are in the "too bad to stay and too good to leave phase." As mentioned before, life is full of unpredictable ups and downs, but relationships are full of patterns that are very predictable!
What is consistent, and what is persistent in the relationship? This makes it easier for you to discover and determine whether our relationship is overall fulfilling or not by looking at the negative versus positive patterns.
Take a Relationship Test
- Test My Relationship - The E&P Relationship Test
The E&P Relationship Test will help you identify and understand your behavior and patterns in romantic relationships as well as those of your romantic partner(s).