Defining “Successful” Relationships

Posted: October 31, 2019 by Isaac Cross in Advice, Learn Something, Philosophy, Uncategorized

For most people in western societies and in many other cultures around the world, a successful relationship is one that lasts “forever”.

But this is an inadequate definition for many reasons.

So, first if all is the obvious flaw that “forever” actually means “until one of us dies.” So unless the two of you happen to die at the same moment, at least one of you will have to deal with the end of your relationship at some point.

And that leads to the next flaw, this definition of “successful relationships” demands a sacrifice. The only way to know that it was successful is wait patiently until a death occurs.

If the relationship terminates before one of you does, then it’s defined as a “failed relationship”.

Bullshit.

It is only within romantic/sexual relationships that we take that attitude. If you complete a grade in school and stop talking to your teacher, that doesn’t make you a failed student. Quite the opposite.

If you move to another town and stop being friends with your old coworkers, it wasn’t because they were failed friends.

If you stop reading articles on XCBDSM at some point, it might be because we failed to be valuable to you, but it could be one of a million other reasons, too.

The point is that not everything that ends is a failure.

So let’s assume that it’s possible for both people in a successful relationship to survive it.

But if death is not the ultimate marker of a successful relationship, what is?

Any given relationship should have a purpose, a foundation that defines it’s scope. That foundation then determines how success is measured.

If you meet someone for a blind date, the scope of that relationship, at that moment, is exploratory. The purpose of the engagement is assessment. If, at the end of the date, you know whether you want to see them again, then the date was a success, even if the answer is no.

As you continue to date, the purpose shifts to defining shared intent. What do you both want out of the relationship? Together, you determine the foundation that the new relationship will be built on.

This is where a lot of people can miss opportunities. Monogamous folks tend to restrict themselves and only ask “is this the person I want to spend the rest of my life with?” And even non-monogamous people can fail to consider that a relationship that starts flirtatiously could stabilize into a platonic friendship.

In other words, they aren’t looking for the relationships that could work in some way, they are only gauging whether the person can fit into the narrow set of relationships that they predetermined.

And that’s not necessarily wrong. If you know what you want and you’re just not open to anything else, then it’s better to recognize that early and move on. But it doesn’t make that relationship a failure. In fact, avoiding a drawn out relationship with an incompatible partner is yet another type of success.

Assuming, however, that you have an opportunity to build a relationship with a shared intention, the next pitfall to avoid is setting the goal post beyond the range of your vision. Deciding you want to grow old together is sweet and romantic, but there are countless things that could happen between now and then that would make that goal no longer worth pursuing. And if you are so afraid of “failing” that you endure every challenge, ignore every flaw, and reach that goal post, yet resent and despise each other at the end, that’s hardly a success. Each of you will have missed an endless number of opportunities for a happy life in pursuit of “success”. And that, it turns out, is failure.

So set your goals at reasonable intervals. No more than five to ten years at a time.

If you aren’t interlacing your finances or generating dependents, there’s probably no real need to commit to anything long term at all.

If you decide to live together, commit only to the length of the lease.

Dependents, as usual, are our one exception to the rule against multi-decade commitments. If you decide to have kids, commit to a co-parenting relationship that lasts 19 years or so, with the option to extend for future kids. But keep that commitment separate from the rest of your relationship. You are allowed to promise to love your kids forever.

But progeny aside, by avoiding the promise of “forever”, you can instead stop every now and then to ask “do we still want this?”

That regular reassessment is an opportunity to decide if the foundation of the relationship is still one that each of you values and to determine if you want to continue building with that particular person. If so, great. Keep at it!

But if not, if you aren’t both happy, if you aren’t both satisfied with the dynamic and direction of the relationship, then you can fix that.

There are two options at that point.

1) You can reorient the relationship, remove elements that aren’t working, add boundaries, or establish a new intention altogether. This is where you can say “let’s just be friends” and actually mean it. The goal of reorientation is to find a way to have a relationship that isn’t poisonous. Find one that doesn’t breed resentment or rely only on the fear of being alone. Find one that preserves the love you have for one another, even if it means setting aside big parts of the relationship like living together, having sex, or even spending time together frequently.

Pruning a relationship like this can be a painful process. It can really hurt to acknowledge that something isn’t working and let it go.

But if you can’t find that answer and locate a stable footing, then the other option is…

2) Break up. A relationship that isn’t making the people in it happy SHOULD be ended. Try to find a way forward first if you can, but never, ever preserve the relationship at the expense of the people. There is nothing virtuous in a long relationship that is more suffering than joy.

And that brings us to the most important goal post. The measure of success that matters more than any other.

If, at the end of a relationship (whether that end comes by choice or by death), you still love the other person and don’t regret the time and energy invested into the relationship with them, then the relationship was successful, whether it lasted 60 years or 60 days.

And that is why it is SO important to end a relationship when it has run its course. Because if you cling to it, desperate for that fairy tale version of “success”, you will reach the end with nothing to show for it but bitterness and pain.

You, each of you, is more important than your relationship together.

Act like it.

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