You know that couple on your Instagram feed that seems like they have their shit completely together? They go to pumpkin patches, send each other little gifts, and clearly never argue over whose turn it is to clean the bathroom in their shared apartment. Their love seems effortless, and they make you question your own relationship when it doesn’t feel as uncomplicated. Are you and your partner even meant to be together if you squabble over all kinds of little things?
Say hello to the autopilot relationship: one in which the partners never bicker, never let each other down, and seem to intuitively know what the other is thinking. It’s like the coupled-up version of the “cool-girl” — one that is uncomplicated, easy-breezy, and totally chill.
This relationship, however, is a bullshit myth. And you can blame social media for why we think it’s real. “We’re so image-conscious — literally,” says Kristin Zeising, PsyD, a sex therapist in San Diego. “Everything we look at and put out into the world has to look so good, that that’s the main focus in a lot of our lives.” We don’t want our lives, including our relationships, to look messy, even though they are. So instead of being upfront and honest about the hard times in our pairings, we’d rather present a faultless front.
“It becomes a vicious cycle,” says Kelley Johnson, PhD, a clinical sexologist based in North Carolina. “You see how perfect other people’s relationships seem to look, so then you think that there’s something wrong with you and your partner because you’re in a rough patch. But instead of being honest, you present a perfect image.” That, in turn, can cause other people to question their messy relationships in comparison to your seemingly flawless one.
All this culminates in a culture in which people feel as if relationships should just be effortlessly perfect, and that they don’t require work. “So when problems do arise, you might leave the relationship prematurely, because you think that points to you two not being a fit,” Dr. Zeising says. “It’s perpetuating the idea that relationships don’t take work — and they do.”
Now, that’s not to say that you should stay in a relationship when there are serious issues, like disagreements in lifestyle, plans for the future, or whatever your other big “deal breakers” are. But working through disagreements is such an important part of a strong partnership. “We’re a society that doesn’t like to do a lot of work around personal growth. We just expect it to come to us,” Dr. Johnson says. “But a good relationship is one that does take work.” Sometimes, that work could be enlisting the help of a couple’s counselor. Other times, it could just be a weekly check-in for you and your partner to talk about where you stand or how you’re feeling.
The easiest way to bust the myth of the autopilot relationship is to just be real about the ups and downs in your own. That doesn’t necessarily mean sharing every detail of your therapy appointment, or calling out your S.O. on social media when they neglect to send flowers on your birthday. But it does mean being honest, even just with yourself, about some of the hurdles you two have crossed together, and the fact that other people will have faced some, too, whether they talk about it openly, or not. “The more people can be frankly authentic and honest and real, the healthier their relationships will be,” Dr. Zeising says.
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