How to Navigate a Complicated Relationship

Shot of a woman embracing her husband from behind while sitting in their bedroom

PeopleImages / Getty Images

Is your relationship status hovering somewhere between "single" and "committed," in the "complicated" zone? Do you feel like you're walking on eggshells when you're around your partner?

Your relationship may feel complicated if you're not on the same page as your partner or if you're not sure where you stand with them.

Relationships become complicated when partners are not aligned on goals, expectations, or the purpose of the relationship, says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University.

This article explores complicated relationships, how they can impact your mental health, and some strategies to help you navigate them.

Impact of Complicated Relationships

Every relationship has its own unique issues, however, finding yourself in a gray area can be quite confusing and difficult to navigate. Romanoff explains how complicated relationships can impact your mental health.

Negative Patterns and Symptoms

When engaging in a complicated relationship, you will make accommodations at your own expense to preserve attachment with that person.

This will manifest through internally reactive symptoms like insecurity, anxiety, depression, or more globally assuming responsibility or blame for the difficult aspects of the relationship.

Communication Difficulties

Relationships are often complicated because partners are not communicating clearly with each other. This is usually due to the fear that communication will cause the relationship to end.

It is better to be alone than to be in a draining or toxic relationship that is no longer serving you. You are much stronger than you think, and it is important to provide yourself the opportunity to prove this strength through moments of honesty.

Biased Perception

According to Romanoff, these relationships can become difficult because they have both good and not-so-good qualities.

People tend to describe these relationships as a rollercoaster, where they disproportionately attend to the positives and minimize the negatives. The issue with this approach is you cannot pick and choose parts of a person or cherry-pick the positives in a relationship–you have to accept the whole thing. 

A consequence of this coping style is fragmentation and biased perception of how people view their partners and maintain a sense of stability.

When there is turmoil in your relationship, you will likely make quick fixes to neutralize it. A common pattern is for partners to assume the problems in their relationship as their own. This gives them a sense of control and also frees their partner of responsibility.

Tips to Navigate a Complicated Relationship

If you find yourself in a complicated relationship, understand that there are ways to help improve it. It's also important to remember that you do not have to remain in a relationship that makes you unhappy.

Below, Romanoff shares some steps that can help you navigate a complicated relationship.

Stop Distorting Your Reality

We all have ways of distorting reality to see the world and others in more acceptable ways. The problem is the price we pay for these distortions and how long we are willing to create these distortions.

Part of the solution is to understand the function of the distortions you create concerning relationships that serve you in some ways but are hurting you in others.

For example, many believe that they cannot or will not find happiness without making do in their relationships, which is not true.

Understand Your Conflict

It’s important to understand your conflict. The reason behind the complications in your relationship may be multifaceted, and it’s important for you to take the time to identify what is most important and distressing to you. 

An effective way to do this is to write down a list of behaviors or aspects of the relationship that you find distressing. Writing is helpful because it provides distance from the problem and can clarify your perspective and understanding of the situation.

Identify Your Contribution

You need to disentangle aspects of the problem that both you and your partner are sustaining. Relationships are co-constructed, and even if you perceive your partner as the source of the issues in your relationship, there are ways in which you are also allowing that behavior to persist. 

You can write down the undesirable behaviors to which you contribute. Owning your role in the problem gives you agency and control over the solution. 

Communicate With Your Partner

Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD

You hold the power to uncomplicate the relationship by being honest and putting your cards on the table, regardless of the consequences.

— Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD

Be honest and communicate what you need, and if that is not possible, have the courage to find it in someone who can provide it. Communication is most helpful when you are solution-oriented instead of accusatory or blaming. 

Build a Support System

Talking about your relationship conflicts with people who have an outside perspective can provide validation, encouragement, and a new way to organize how you understand a situation. This is especially helpful when speaking to people who have experienced similar problems and can provide advice from their situations. 

There is shame and embarrassment associated with relationship conflicts for many people, which causes them to suffer alone. Instead, consider the ways opening up to friends and family can help you be more communicative with your partner.

Know That Leaving Is an Option

Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD

Remember that you always have the choice to leave the relationship.

— Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD

To make things better, you must be willing to acknowledge what you want in a relationship and a partner, even if that means your current partner might not satisfy those needs. Many people are afraid to ask for what they want because they fear those needs will not be met. Instead, they settle for unsatisfactory relationships.

Many stay in complicated relationships because of the significant time and energy they have invested in them. Their commitment to the relationship may also influence their ability to stay, despite its challenges. This causes a bias that their problems will work out and their effort will be worthwhile. The intensity with which partners contribute to saving a relationship may blind them from seeing how incompatible they have become. 

One exercise is to imagine what life would be like if you were no longer together. Think about whether you would feel relief, what you would be able to do, and what kind of partner you would hope to find.

If you are facing significant problems in your relationship, remember you always have the option to end it.

A Word From Verywell

Being in a complicated relationship can make you feel uncertain, insecure, anxious, and depressed. It can take a toll on your mental health and make it difficult for you to function.

Introspecting about what’s distressing you, communicating clearly with your partner, and asking for what you need can help uncomplicate the relationship. You can lean on friends and family for support, and leave the relationship if things are not getting better. 

Was this page helpful?
1 Source
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Reis HT, Sprecher S. Encyclopedia of Human Relationships. SAGE Publications; 2009.