“It is through others that we develop into ourselves.” – Leo Vygotsky
Transcendent, life-changing connections with others can and will be experienced throughout life, along with unhealthy and dysfunctional relationships, and even those that end in flames. However, even as there are negative and harmful relationships, there are no failed ones.
Each relationship we encounter has the potential to offer a wealth of lessons, significant opportunity for personal growth, and newly acquired self-awareness if we so desire to notice and choose to learn from such. Even tumultuous and unhealthy relationships hold, with extended hand, these offerings.
My first romantic relationship was crucial and timely in terms of his entrance into my life. Having grown up in a childhood rife with abuse, emotional abandonment, with being turned away from and violated by the very people who should have loved and protected me, with Adams arrival, my heart began flickering and eventually, illuminating and expanding with the gift of his love.
Meeting him was necessary for the planting of seeds in my heart which eventually, years later (in combination with seeds planted from a few equally relevant others) would bloom into much personal growth, coupled with finally coming to believe in my own worth and lovability. Adam, while the wrong man for me as a lifelong partner, was the right love at the right time.
My next love, Christian, was gentle and tender-hearted. He was also addicted to marijuana, which I wouldn’t find out until months later when it was too late and I had already moved in with him. Attempting to have a truly emotionally available, authentically connected relationship with someone who is an addict, I would learn the hard way, is a battle lost before it’s even begun.
Instead, it’s a love triangle. The drug of choice, their unwavering love, the one to which they are devoted, or more accurately, enslaved. You are the other man or woman. The one who will not, cannot, be chosen. There will be promises. They love you “so much more” than this. They will give it up, they say. These promises are words built with tiny twigs. Instead of a house of cards, a house of kindling. Their addiction, a laden weight set atop, resulting in the tower of twigs. Their weak promises, snapping and breaking as the addiction crushes and demolishes them under its weight. This is the nature of addiction.
The not insignificant road traveled via this relationship led me to the conclusions that, addicts will not, and cannot choose you. They are attached, handcuffed, to something else. And until they actively long for and seek help, any relationship with this person doesn’t stand a chance.
More importantly, though, I learned that I was staring too intently at the wrong door. How often we make that mistake in our lives, don’t we? Pounding on and begging for its opening. All the while, failing to see the sweeping landscape of other poignant loves waiting in the wings for our undistracted attention for their full flourishing.
I needed to let go of chasing the wrong relationship, at what would never be the right time, to be able to notice fully, turn toward, and invest in as well as develop the right ones.
Yet, neither of these were failed relationships. Both men offered differing gifts, as well as meaningful, even crucial lessons which were relevant to the person I was to become. Some of these were deeply painful, while others were heart-rending and beautiful. These two men, as well as the great loves I would experience in a handful of affirming friendships, prepared me to be the partner for the love I was to meet down the road: Maxx.
In terms of the idea of there being no failed relationships though, we must first examine the language and means of assessing a relationship’s supposed success that has become commonplace in our culture. What seems to have become our go-to measuring stick for whether a relationship is admirable: does it last “forever”?
Are relationships and marriages an automatic failure simply by means of their not enduring until death do them part? And conversely, just because a relationship endures, is this indicative of it being a truly healthy and good one?
Don’t you and I both know of relationships of acquaintances, friends, and loved ones that have endured and yet are unhealthy, not happy, or wildly mismatched? Why then is longevity touted as the golden star, the utmost standard for what makes a relationship successful?
All begging the question, might it be that our standard(s) for what makes a relationship successful (or not), good (or not), worthwhile (or not), might be way off-kilter?
Longevity has become a focal point of our cultural script regarding a relationship’s perceived success or failure. I want to push back on and challenge this line of thinking. To go so far as to state that this is a ludicrous means of measuring, akin to defining a great meal as one that doesn’t end in throwing up.
Longevity coupled with genuine happiness, that’s another story. A healthy, perpetually growing, as well as inspiring relationship is something to be proud of. Having navigated challenges as a couple and remaining together because it’s a truly fulfilling and joyous relationship overall, this is significant and wonderful.
Too many people though make this a crux of why their relationship should be applauded, simply by means of their having remained together for x and x number of years. As a standalone, this is a lousy as well as a misplaced indicator of the merit of a relationship.
My first two romantic relationships concluded, and this by no means made them failures. Positive and negative lessons were learned within and from each. What would have been a failure would be remaining stuck, frozen, afraid, or even lazy by means of shared history, supposed comfort with familiarity, and dependence on the façade of a supposed crutch the relationship offered, when in truth it had reached a point of needing to let go.
This faulty and misused measuring stick of longevity aside, there is no such thing as a failed relationship and here is why.
On one side of the coin, it’s within mismatched, even unhealthy relationships that we learn with whom we do not want to be. We may also observe the type of person we do not wish to become. The values we do not want to adopt or accept. The life we cannot or do not care to live. Within these relations, frequently coming to realize their lack of serving us.
It takes immense bravery, strength, and insight to identify unsuitable or perilous connections, as well as to garner the courage to act accordingly. Many of us remain for years steeped in unhealthy or even awful relations, whether parental, other familial, platonic, or romantic because it’s too terrifying to let go, too distressing to confront this truth. Instead, clinging to the familiar, to what is easier, to what is less immediately painful to avoid the gaping unknown and searing hurt of letting go.
Finally ending such a relationship? Or, putting up significant and strong boundaries within said relationship, if unable to let go fully. This is no failure. Instead, it’s brave, a signifier of immense growth and utmost self-love, and will open a sizable space in your life for connections that are healthier, happier, and far more fulfilling.
On the other side of the coin, how about poignant and positive relationships which conclude? People like the quick draw conclusion that if a relationship ends, there must have been something wrong with it. That it couldn’t have been great after all. Its ending, an automatic signifier of such.
This is a one track and narrow conclusion, as well as frequently, flat out wrong. Sometimes when a great relationship concludes, there was something amiss. Just as often though, relationships end that were, by and large, truly great.
An ending may signify a divergence in life paths. Not a given, nor necessarily a sign that the relationship wasn’t a marvelous and beautiful one. An ending might occur because one person grows beyond the other. A relationship can conclude because of a sudden and significant shift in sexual compatibility.
Maybe one person changes in such a way that it alters the relationship to a degree that it cannot sustain. This need not be a negative shift within that person’s character. Though still, it might be a shift that’s significant enough that the relationship concludes.
A flaw or reason that results in a romantic (or even platonic) ending does not automatically invalidate, or mean “bad” or “wrong” for the whole of the relationship. This is as though concluding that because in the end, we die, that the whole of our life is pointless and no good. As though by means of it ending, the entirety of what came before is one giant fail.
Throughout each person’s life, our needs, goals, desires, values, and interests will alter, evolve, change, and grow. At varying times, we might both attract and need different types of people. This is no indication that any of these relationships are better than previous ones or connections yet to come. Instead, it means that both life and people are not static. We are ever evolving. And that sometimes, what was healthy, inspiring, and necessary for us at one point, now looks different.
Mustering the strength to let go of Adam, who had been my love and dearest friend for nearly a decade, was one of the most painful and difficult things I have done emotionally. Yet, it was necessary and felt right, even as it hurt.
While he longed for a place in the country, I was very much at home in the bustle of Boston. Where he wanted a house spilling at the seams with children, and yesterday, I was more than content to wait, and not even sure of wanting children. An evolving change of stance that was surprising even to me.
Where Adam loved drinking, socializing, and partying, I yearned for books, tea, and quiet, possibly coupled with one or two close friends for heart to heart conversation. Where his boundaries with others were loose and ambiguous, sometimes even feeling inappropriate for me, mine were hypersensitive. This difference between us causing me not insignificant distress.
Despite these variances in our values and temperaments though, I loved Adam, as well as felt cherished by him. We shared a close friendship and a genuine liking of one another. Adam was wildly generous in both our relationship, and with his love for me.
Adam was the right man to tip the path I was headed down, of self-loathing and certainty that I was not worth cherishing nor prizing, in the other direction. All while, the time came for concluding that relationship and moving on to a better fit for both of us.
Christian was the right person, in terms of his tenderness of heart and embodying the catalyst toward enticing me to Germany. While I never would have chosen Germany on my own, it was there, after having let go of the continual disappointment and heartbreak of the mirage that was Christian, that I met some of the great loves of my life thus far.
These people, Judith, Melissa, Dali, Bhakti, taught me that I am loveable and worthy of respect. That people enjoy my company, will cherish and love me, and even go out of their way for me. That even if those who are supposed to prize and protect you won’t, there are people who will. These loves healed the remaining scars still lining my heart.
They closed the still-open-a-crack doubts in my psyche, occasionally whispering from the wings “but maybe you are unlovable, strange, messed up, or not worthy.” These loves, coupled with Alex and Sarah, my two closest friends for over a decade, were game changers. Preparing me, both opening and enveloping my heart with a tenderness and warmth, for the next man I would fall in love with, Maxx.
On our first and second dates, I was skeptical. Perceiving him to be “too” quiet, logical, scienc-y, rational to a fault, possibly rigid or stiff, all what I felt sure would be distinct contrasts to my whimsical, head in the clouds, romantic, excitable, and idealistic temperament. How much I would have missed out on, had I written him off with those simplistic assumptions and initial impressions.
Maxx, who would write me whole series of love letters. Sending flowers following our third date, which I would find waiting on the doorstep the next morning. Baking my favorite type of bread just a few dates in, to which he affixed a note on which was penned “coming soon,” showcasing two little stick figures dancing hand in hand, hearts above their heads.
The person who, on my brother experiencing a particularly challenging time, offered to fly either my brother to visit us, or me to see him. The man who, on someone close to him treating me unkindly, got in the car and drove ten-hours roundtrip to tell them in person that this was unacceptable behavior. That they would not treat the woman he loved like that again.
This same man who, though not much of a book reader on our first dating, became the creator of our two-person book club. This growing into a much anticipated and reveled in shared activity. The man who would read every essay I wrote, all my blog entries posted, who would show intent, engaged, curious interest in both the woman I am and the woman I was continually evolving into. Maxx, who has become a great, poignant love.
A partner who would both challenge and support me, who would see me as my best right now, as well as with laden with potential for what I might grow into. Who would love me in both word and action. Who would listen to me, with an open and receptive heart, whether coming to him with a concern or just the feelings and thoughts in my soul that day. The most physically affectionate man I’ve known, with a gentle, thoughtful, caring heart and temperament.
Each relationship and person that makes an entrance into our life offers an abundance of lessons and insights along with them. Regardless of the specifics of any given relationship, there are no failed ones. Length of relationship aside, ending or not, all relationships offer us something meaningful, if we so choose to notice and glean such.
All the connections that come into our life, including those that conclude naturally or even ones which end with a bang, serve us in multiple ways.
Some of these will be with painful lessons, with regards to whom and what we do not want. Others will elicit the prompting of healthful changes and shifts to our character and hearts. Every relationship serves a purpose to both who we currently are, as well as whom we have the potential to become. There are no failed relationships.
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