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Changing How We “Measure Success” in Relationships

I wish I could count the number of times I have heard friends and colleagues say, “It didn’t work out” about their relationships.   Sometimes these are relationships that lasted one, five, ten, fifteen years, or more.  Sometimes these are relationships where people supported each other through college and graduate school, health issues, and difficult […]

I wish I could count the number of times I have heard friends and colleagues say, “It didn’t work out” about their relationships.  

Sometimes these are relationships that lasted one, five, ten, fifteen years, or more.  Sometimes these are relationships where people supported each other through college and graduate school, health issues, and difficult life moments like the death of a parent or sibling.  Sometimes these are relationships that led to the creation of small humans. Or to the creation of businesses or charities or hospitals.

But somehow upon reflection, the participants in those relationships declare, “It didn’t work out.”  Because the relationship didn’t involve marriage, decades of duration, and death, its importance gets minimized (and sometimes even invalidated) under the banner of “it didn’t work out.”   

You see, there is an underlying assumption in our culture that any relationship that doesn’t result in marriage, then a long life together, and then eventually death, was a failure.  And there’s an assumption that a relationship that results in marriage, many years together, and death was a success even if the participants in that relationship were miserable, dishonest with each other, engaging in manipulative behavior, or actively loathing one another.  

This has always struck me as really weird and quite unhealthy as I don’t think the worth and value of any relationship can be measured by its duration and “until death do us part.”  Measuring success this way puts the focus on endurance rather than on growth, acceptance, understanding, sharing, joy, love, and support – qualities that seem much more appropriate when describing the importance of a relationship than the ability of the parties to endure one another.

We grow through relationships and while our understanding of another person can deepen with time, it doesn’t deepen based on time itself but rather on the active participation and willingness of the parties to engage and be vulnerable and share and support.  So let’s put the focus there. Instead of celebrating anniversaries and the passage of time, perhaps couples should celebrate the moments when they are loving and accepting and supporting each other – even if loving and accepting and supporting means that they decide to go separate ways.  Partners could acknowledge the importance of supporting one another through school, the miracle of creating small humans, the help through a surgery or the death of a family member. Instead of focusing on duration, partners could focus on the depth of the relationship and on being there for each other – which may or may not have to do with how long the relationship lasts.

When I look back on the most important relationships in my life, they lasted four years, ten years, six months, three months, and one year. The depth of the support, growth, love, vulnerability, and acceptance were profound and the types of issues that we held each others’ hands through were dramatically different. Fundamentally, the importance of those relationships didn’t really have much to do with duration. And to be honest, staying together longer would have resulted in resentment and destructive behavior. (I know some of you now are thinking, “Oh, you just haven’t met your person yet and once you do, you’ll live happily ever after and until death do you part.”  Please stop yourself for a moment to consider what I’m really saying here because you may have missed the point.)

Instead of focusing on whether or not a relationship “worked out” by that traditional definition, let’s start acknowledging that a relationship can be deeply meaningful and valid regardless of whether it resulted in “until death do us part.”  Let’s start acknowledging and celebrating the pleasure and pain that inevitably occurs, the support given and received, the personal growth that happens (because you grow from relationships – even the crappy ones – and sometimes especially the crappy ones). Let’s celebrate experiencing the full range of human emotions in whatever form and whatever time frame they come.

So when describing a relationship that has ended, instead of saying, “It didn’t work out,” let’s start saying, “We grew.”  And then let’s celebrate that growth and continue moving forward on our journeys.

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