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Potholes! How to Deal with Them in Intimate Relationships

I used to live in a town in Connecticut that was pleasant and close to my office at Yale.  I lived about half-way up a very long driveway that was shared among four homeowners.

The setting was spectacular—almost in the woods and very private—and the house looked like a treehouse.  I fell in love with that house the first time I saw it and bought it the same day.

The last thing I was going to think about that day was—the driveway and the potholes in it.

The longer I lived in the house, however, the more that driveway loomed in my thoughts and, really, in my life.

A driveway?  Who spends much of their time thinking about a driveway? I sure didn’t, until….

Something seemed to be wrong with my car.  It was driving weirdly.  I brought my car to the car shop and was told that potholes had ruined the rims of my tires and had pretty much shredded my tires too.

I would need to replace not just the tires, but also the rims.  That was one expensive job! I knew where the potholes were. They were in the driveway, and some of them were both huge and unavoidable.

You just couldn’t get up or down the driveway without going over—or into them. And every year, because no one repaired them, the potholes got larger and larger!

I asked my neighbor down the hill why the damn driveway (it had been reduced in my mind from a “driveway” to a “damn driveway”) had never been repaired.

He explained that the agreement among homeowners was that if a repair needed to be done on the driveway or any other shared territory along it, the homeowners would all have to agree to it.  Moreover, their payments to the repairs would be determined by how much of the driveway they used.

Thus, because he was at the beginning of the driveway near the road, his share was very small.  I was second, so got the second lowest payment. The third and fourth owners were higher up and had to pay a greater share.

In the past, they had blocked the repairs.  I talked to one of them, who was totally not interested in paying.  I suggested we renegotiate the shares, but he still was not interested.

The repair never got done.

I eventually left Yale to become a dean at Tufts, and I never included the driveway among the list of reasons I gave people for changing jobs.

But I obviously have never forgotten the driveway and its potholes!  I just didn’t want to pay for new tires and rims every year. It was not only expensive, but utterly aggravating.

Relationships have potholes, too!

Maybe you wonder why I’m bothering you with this long story about potholes in my driveway.  Or maybe you have guessed.

It’s because every relationship has potholes.  And like the potholes in my driveway, you see them pretty quickly when you enter into an intimate relationship.

They just don’t seem that important at the time.  You are too much in love, as I was with the house.

But as time goes by, they wear away at you—little by little, day by day, and like the potholes in my shared driveway, you can’t escape them.

And you pay for those potholes.  The very things you noticed way back, which seemed small at the time, loom larger and larger.

Moreover, potholes left unattended grow bigger and bigger with time. They only get worse and may reach the point where it is difficult or impossible to repair them. Hence, when you have potholes, you do not want to just wait and hope for the best.

Eventually, they can destroy your relationship the way the potholes did my tires and rims.  The hell of it is, it takes both of you to fix them, and unless you both want to fix them—like the homeowners up the shared driveway—you’re powerless.

The potholes just stay there, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, slowly destroying your relationship, and maybe your peace of mind, in the process.

What are relationship potholes?

They are the things you notice that are really annoying, but at first seem to be just little things you believe you easily can ignore.

It may be your partner’s drinking habits, or eating habits, or smoking habits, or buying habits, or showering habits, or bedroom habits, or need-for-control habits, or bad-temper habits, or any of an uncountable number of things—all the things you hardly notice at first or else feel like you can deal with later.

How do you deal with potholes?

What do you do about potholes in your relationship? Basically, you have five choices.

1. You can ignore them. 

Ignoring the potholes is a crapshoot. It can work if the potholes are annoying but really not all that bad.  I have a good friend whose job it is to help a big city determine which potholes on the city streets are worth repairing.

I used to live in Boston, so I really get the importance of this job. There are so many potholes, the city never will be able repair them all.

But some are car-wreckers.  What you have to decide is whether the potholes you are confronting are relationship-wreckers.

If they are not—maybe you should just focus on more important things in your relationship and in your life. Find something else to think about!

2. You can try to bypass them.

In my driveway, there were some small potholes I could bypass; but unfortunately, there were a few big ones that just took up too much room, with bushes on both sides, so I had to drive over them at least twice a day, going to and from work.

So it is with potholes in your relationship.  You can bypass some of them.  For example, if you make enough money, maybe you can ignore the spending habits.

If you both smoke, maybe you can ignore that your partner smokes too much.  Or if you can deal with your partner’s needs for control, for example, by simply refusing the demands, maybe you can bypass that one too.

But some potholes just don’t allow a bypass.  They are there whether you like it or not.

And those just won’t let you bypass them. If you think you can try, you are only kidding yourself and will pay, whether you like it or not.

3. You can patch them over.

A patch job means that you try to smooth over the potholes so that they are tolerable, at least in the short run, with your knowing that they still are there and that the stuff you put over them to smooth them probably will start to wear away over time.

To patch them over, as in my shared-driveway situation, you need your partner to agree.

Your partner can agree to smoke only outside, or to shower more, or to take an Internet seminar on anger management, or to make a serious effort to cut down on the alcohol, or whatever.

Patch jobs sometimes work.  But as with driveways, they tend to need to be renewed every few years, or maybe more often.  You have to be vigilant to make sure the patch is holding.

4. You can repair them.

Again, you will need to work with your partner to achieve this goal. It means that you are both serious about working on whatever the problem is.

Your partner agrees to stop smoking altogether—maybe using a nicotine patch plus a support group; your partner agrees to go to an alcohol-cessation program; your partner agrees to go to intensive therapy for anger management.

Or maybe the pothole is one you have to repair in yourself.

Such efforts almost always take a serious investment of time and resources.  But they provide the best solution, if you both can agree on a solution.

5. You decide it’s time to move on.

With my driveway, I was pretty sure it was never going to be repaired—or at least, not in the duration of time I was going to live in the house. Eventually, I moved away.

I didn’t move because of the potholes, but I sure was glad to put them behind me! I just couldn’t deal anymore.  I knew that, no matter what I did, they were not going anywhere.

If you cannot get an agreement with your partner for a repair, and if you feel like you just can’t take it anymore, maybe the time has come?

If you have a pothole problem, look at the options above and see which options you have.

But remember one thing. Potholes don’t go away because you ignore them or because you wish them away. And they will chip away at you if you don’t address them. How about starting today?

Deal with the Potholes in Your Relationship - Get Your Workbook Now!

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4 thoughts on “Potholes! How to Deal with Them in Intimate Relationships”

  1. That’s a useful approach to categorize the types of potholes when determining options. I wonder if most potholes just eventually end up being driven around until people either adapt or until they no longer feel the bump.

    1. I believe that either we fix the pothole, or we drive around it, or if we keep going over it, we eventually habituate and stop noticing it, to the extent possible. We live near an airport in upstate NY. At first, when we moved here, I heard all the planes and found them so annoying. After a while, just habituated and hardly noticed. The planes did not disappear. I just decided, at some level, that I would have to live with them.

  2. I think the main point is that if you don’t repair a pothole it will just get bigger and bigger until one day it causes irrapairable damage. And once something is done it can’t be undone.
    The reason I think people do not want to fix them is that maybe when they take a closer look they find it’s much bigger than they expected and then the emotional cost is much higher. Then all there is left to do is move on.
    I quite liked this analogy.

    1. This is a great point. That is what happened to the pothole when I lived in CT. It just kept getting bigger and bigger. This is a good reason to try to fix potholes before they become unbearable. And problems in relationships, left unfixed, often worsen. I like your point so much that I am going to revise the blogpost to take it into account and mention that you, Chris, suggested this point. Bob

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