The Measure of Successful Relationships

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A lot of adherents of monogamy will say that polyamory never works. This is usually based on the false assumption that there aren’t ethically non-monogamous relationships that last a lifetime. This isn’t true, but that’s not the assumption I’m going to challenge right now. Instead, I’m going to challenge the assumption that a relationship is only successful if it lasts until one of the participants is dead.

I love the romantic notion of a ‘til death do us part relationship as much as anyone. If I make a long term commitment to someone, I’m in it for the long haul. However, let us be realistic. Do you consider the guy who worked a menial job that barely met his basic needs for twenty years before getting snuffed out by an untimely accident as having had a successful career because he worked the same job a long time up until his death? Do we consider the woman who retires after forty years in the medical profession to have a failed career because she left her job before she died? If someone opens a store that turns a profit for years but they sell it to someone else because they’ve decided to put their focus into a new business venture, we don’t consider that a failure. So why should we judge the value of a relationship purely on whether we’re still in it when we die?  

So what else can we use to determine whether or not a relationship is successful? Everyone is different, but personally for me it comes down to asking three questions, the first two of which can be asked in the present tense to assess how well a relationship is currently going.

“Did I enjoy being in the relationship?”

How basic can you get? If you’re not enjoying the relationship, how successful can it be?  Whether your partner regularly made you laugh out loud, orgasm hard, or you went on great adventures together, what’s important is that you really liked being with them on the merits of what they brought into your life and weren’t just with them to avoid the negative feelings of loneliness or boredom.

That’s not to say the relationship had to be non-stop fun. Even great relationships have times when things go wrong and needs pleasure to take a back seat to responsibility and working out problems. Even when two people are in harmony with each other, external forces can disrupt the peace. Illness, financial crisis, unexpected pregnancy…the number of things that can rock a stable couple’s world is endless. When people love and respect each other, it’s much easier to get things back on track without too much distress.

However, we all know those couples who can’t seem to stand each other and are in an endless cycle of making each other miserable. They don’t want the same things and they don’t have the respect and genuine love for each other needed to reach mutually satisfying compromises or admit that the relationship isn’t working out so that they can at least stop being obstacles to each other’s happiness. That is not what a successful relationship looks like.

I can’t think of any relationship I’ve had that lasted longer than a year that I didn’t enjoy most of the time I was in. Some had more problems that disrupted the pleasurable aspects of the relationship than others, but generally if I stuck with a relationship longer than a few months without it ending it was because the good days outnumbered the bad days by a very large margin. I hate being alone for long, but I don’t hate it enough to accept a relationship where we can’t get along for more than a week or two at a time.

Of all the relationships I’ve had, the one that had the happiest, least troubled of them all only lasted just shy of three years. We never fought. Any problems we had were external and we faced them together very much as partners without a trace of blame or shame thrown around. Even the reasons for the relationship ending had nothing to do with any problems in the relationship, but rather because life was taking us in different directions.

“Did the relationship contribute positively to my personal development?”

Answering this question is more complex than the previous one, as it’s a lot more obvious when we’ve had a good time than it is when we’ve been meaningfully reshaped by a relationship. Sometimes this contribution is easily recognized, such as measurable ways they’ve helped us move towards a tangible goal, and sometimes it’s more abstract, such as strengthening our psychological fortitude by helping us heal from emotional wounds by giving us love and a feeling of safety. We don’t always see all the ways someone’s presence in our lives affected us.

A good relationship should, in some way, help us become closer to where we want to be. That is why, when choosing people to make lifelong commitments to, it’s so important to really consider how closely where they want to be in the future is to where you want to be.  The more your goals harmonize, the more synergy the relationship will have in keeping each other moving forward and on course. A truly glorious life partnership happens when people share a life goal and see it through together…their commitment transcending their desire for each other and flourishing in their devotion to a shared ideal.

That’s not to say that only relationships that achieve some greater purpose together are successful. Sometimes a relationship can help us get to a better place even when we know from the outset that our lives are going in a different direction. Going back to my happiest relationship mentioned above, we knew from the start that the relationship wasn’t going to meet my needs for a life partner. However, the few years we had together taught me a great deal about what I wanted my relationships to be like…loving, respectful, affectionate, and generous. It also gave me a safe, stable place surrounded by kindness and patience to heal from deep wounds from my childhood. From the outside, it may not have seemed like my love was doing much for me besides being a good partner, but that alone provided me a sturdy platform from which to better myself.

Some relationships, however, don’t help us better ourselves and some can even set us back. Sometimes this unintentional, with partners that are simply ill matched to our needs and end up distracting us from our paths because we’re preoccupied with trying to make the relationship work. Other times, this is because of an overt desire for control as someone deliberately tries to make their partner dependent on them through sabotaging their growth and undermining their self-worth. While, in a way, these harmful relationship experiences can often ultimately lead to developments that shape us for the better, these negative contributions are mistakes we learn from rather than successes as far as I’m concerned.

“Did the relationship have satisfying closure?”

How a relationship ends can make a real difference in the overall assessment of its success. Obviously, no relationship is successful purely on the merits of it ending well. If everything up until the end was a dissatisfying clusterfuck then ending things gracefully is just a relationship failing with dignity, and even great relationships can end disastrously. Even so, a strong finish definitely contributes to the overall sense of success for a relationship. If there’s an ugly break up and everyone goes their separate ways filled with anger and bitterness, then it can be difficult to chalk a relationship up as a win. If partners part ways because life is taking them in different directions and they disentangle their lives gently while maintaining a sense of love and compassion for each other then it’s going to have a powerful impact on how it feels to look back on that relationship.  

It’s an unfortunate fact, however, that sometimes even wonderful relationships end very badly. Life can blind side us with challenges the relationship can’t endure. When something changes that sets people in a relationship on different paths, one or both partners might not be willing to let go easily, leading to strains in the relationship that eventually explode, sending shrapnel of regret and resentment everywhere. It even happens that relationships that seem fantastic rely on deception and thus fall apart when truths are revealed. These, to me, are the most tragic situations because a bad relationship ending badly often brings a sense of relief when the dust settles while a good relationship going bad at the end sows can leave a feeling of loss not only of the relationship, but all the good memories that could have been revisited and appreciated had things not gone so wrong.

Whether a relationship lasts a lifetime or a day, I believe it can be judged a success if the answers to these three questions are “yes”. It might even be reasonable to count a relationship as a win if you can only say “yes” to two out of three. A relationship in which the answer to all those questions is “no” is probably what we’d call a “cautionary tale”. Even our worst failures have something to teach us, after all.

(Discerning Deviant is supported entirely through reader sponsorship via the Discerning Deviant Patreon.)

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