Before we start today, I’d like you to take a moment to think back to all of your major romantic relationships. How many of these relationships would you consider successes? How many would you consider failures?
If you’re anything like me, it may feel like you have a lot more “failed relationships” than you do “successful” ones — but can you tell me why?
I’ve long considered myself a collector of failed relationships. From the girlfriend I asked out during a bar crawl and dated for eight days to the conservative Christian who thought her love was “saving me from a life of debauchery,” I actually gained a little pride from my list of failed love affairs. However, while these relationships were problematic, what made them “failures?”
In my mind, I always thought of them as failures because none of these people were “the one.” I’m not still with any of them. In fact, most of these relationships completely devolved into petty arguments and mutual disdain for one another.
While this may be normal for most people, I’ve come to realize the danger in allowing the fact that a relationship may end to be the metric by which you measure its success.
Put simply: relationships aren’t only meaningful if they last for the rest of your life, and writing off a relationship as a failure because of how it ended adds to the false notion that love is only valid if it’s endless, while diminishing the value of the lessons these “failed” relationships are capable of teaching us.
I believe our tendency to view every relationship but your last as a “failed relationship” is due to the stigma that surrounds being alone, which stems from a culture that directly and consistently tries to equate your ability to be in a long-lasting romantic relationship with your value as a human being. While I can see that this stigma is slowly being phased out by social development, it still contributes to how we view our relationships and why we stay in toxic relationships for too long while reinforcing the falsehood that any romantic entanglement that doesn’t end in marriage and old age is wasted time.
Honestly, the notion that the only kind of “true love” is one that never ends is a notion I can understand. In theory, the idea of love as an “eternal flame” is beautiful, and telling a child “they lived happily ever after” is a lot more whimsical than “they dated for eight months, had an amicable split, and still occasionally bone down when they run into each other at house parties.” However, this sentiment overlooks the simple truth that, most of the time, your relationships aren’t going to end well.
If you only allow yourself to consider your relationship a success based on its longevity, it’s easy to imagine why so many people are concerned that they’ve thrown away months or years of their lives. My longest relationships lasted upwards of six months, and after each breakup I’d find myself feeling embarrassed and ashamed when telling others about them. Every time, I felt like a fraud for being so openly happy and excited about someone, only to have it all fall apart half a year later. It always felt like my love wasn’t good enough to make the cut, and as such it wasn’t real.
I never even thought about this, until two days after my partner and I first started dating.
While there’s no doubt in my mind that we love each other, we were having a discussion about the very real possibility that we won’t end up together. We’re both starry-eyed early twenty-somethings with enough self awareness to admit that life might take us in different directions someday, and that’s okay. After I made a comment about my unsuccessful dating history, my partner looked me in the eyes and asked me a question.
“So. How do you want to define success in this relationship?”
Though this seemed like a simple question, what really struck me was the fact that it was something I’d never asked myself before. I’d considered my plenty of romantic interests “failures” before, but in what context? Were they failures in terms of my own personal beliefs, or what I was taught to think about the nature of a meaningful relationship?
I realized then that there was no reason I needed to see my relationship through the lens of “forever.” I was allowed to set my own parameters — to make my own goals and figure out what I wanted to gain from the experience. Even retrospectively, I could look back at my past and see the ways those relationships were moments of growth or learning experiences, instead of writing them off as failures just because they ended.
In fact, some of the relationships were successes because of how they ended and what they taught me.
Love is the only thing we try to claim is beautiful because it lasts forever. We know that flowers die and that the night sky will eventually turn to day, but we don’t think they’re any less beautiful because they’re temporary. We should look at love the way we look at stories — like they’re an experience to be lived through, and they’re only as long as they need to be. Nothing more, nothing less.
Sometimes, a relationship goes on for 50 years, as two people continue to help each other change and grow through anything life throws at them. Sometimes, a relationship is a flash in the pan — a singular moment when the right person just stumbled in at the right time, and though it may not last for a long time, it helps you grow and affects change in a very real way. Both of these experiences have their values, and both are beautiful in their own right.
Regardless of all the #wastemytime2k16 Facebook statuses littering your timeline, there are very few instances in which a relationship is a failure — and those instances are decided by you and you alone. Every difficult breakup or negative experience is another learning opportunity, and there is value there that shouldn’t be disparaged or forgotten.
A successful relationship can last forever — it can be one centered on helping you grow, or one focused on just having a good time. It can be as few or as many of these things as you want, and more. All that matters is how you define success.
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