Love is not enough for a happy relationship.

I recently had a heart-to-heart with a friend who had broken up with her partner. A long, complicated relationship, where the two of them shared everything – from their physical space to work and dreams. In spite of the difficult breakup, my friend is the furthest you can imagine from the women who turn evil when they’re disappointed. So, instead of bashing her ex, we talked about all the lessons that we’ve learned from our past relationships and, as a consequence, I remembered wanting to write this article. I’ve been postponing it for months but when I mentioned the idea to my friend she wrote it down and thought that it would be very relatable for others as well. So here we go:

What does it mean when we say that a relationship “didn’t work out?” Sure, expectations might have not been fulfilled but could it be that we actually learned the (sometimes) painful lessons we needed? And what exactly do we imagine when we say “work out”? If we didn’t ride off into the sunset, does it really mean it didn’t work out? Or did it turn out exactly as it should have?

In other words, I’m agreeing with The Rolling Stones:

„You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometime you find
You get what you need“

When a relationship doesn't work out
Photo credit: Everton Vila

A Short History of the Intimate Relationship (Minus the Clay and Ribs)

According to many anthropologists and especially psychologists who work with couples, such as Esther Perel, culture has had a huge influence on our natural needs. At the dawn of humanity, we weren’t much different from other animals, who constantly changed partners in order to diversify the gene pool and thus ensure the survival of their species. Later, under the influence of various social and cultural mechanisms, such as religion, we started coupling together for life. Just like many other religious practices, this one has a practical foundation as well. In an age when medicine and hygiene were not particularly well-developed, sleeping with only one person meant that you won’t spread whatever contagious disease you carried throughout the entire village.

Like many other people, I don’t believe that we humans are a monogamous species. If we were, we would lock eyes with someone over the potty one morning in kindergarten, spend our entire lives together, and go back to potty training together when we’re 90. Once in a relationship, we would no longer be attracted to anyone else, just like storks or penguins. However, everyone who is on this earth in the form of a person is well aware that it doesn’t work that way for us.

Influenced by social and cultural pressures we are keen to form long-lasting relationships, raise a family and a build a home together. Yet even today there are still tribes in the Amazon who believe that a child has more than one father. This collective mindset provides children with more support and more people to look after them while calling into question the need for couples and monogamy.

What to do when a relationship doesn't work out
Photo credit: Gabby Orcutt

Furthermore, up until a few decades ago in Europe and to this day in many places around the world, infidelity was generally tolerated. Sure, perhaps somewhat reluctantly, but it still wasn’t perceived as the end of the world, or the end of the relationship, especially when the man was the one doing the cheating (I will not go into how women have been sexually suppressed for centuries right now). For instance, when my grandma was young, it was pretty much the norm for men to have relationships outside of their marriage and she’s told me a lot of those stories. Even though my grandmother definitely didn’t enjoy getting cheated on and in fact often felt humiliated by it, she saw my grandfather’s indiscretions as a regular part of life.

Now, I am most definitely not advocating cheating or lying to your partner but if we consider the entire history of human intimate relationships, then we have to ask ourselves: Are our expectations nowadays realistic?

What Are Your Expectations?

As obvious as this question seems, the first time I asked myself what my real expectations were about relationships, I was pretty stunned.

A Happily Ever After?

If we decide that at least half of what I summarized above is true, then from a purely biological standpoint, expecting a human being to be interested in one single partner and worship them until the end of time, is merely unrealistic. Like expecting a river to run uphill, instead of downhill. It’s just not happening. And if you expect it to, you’re probably just going to get yourself angry, frustrated, and disappointed. Yet deep down, don’t you want it? Personally, I have to admit that I do. Even though my rational side understands that there is no sense in this romantic idea, my emotional side cannot imagine a life without it.

Perhaps when a relationship doesn’t head in that directions, it becomes one of the reasons why we think it’s “not working”.

Relationship lessons
Photo credit: Fabrizio Verrecchia

Like the Others?

Furthermore, expectations arise from comparing ourselves to real people and fictional characters. As humans, we are dependent on society, as well as smaller communities. From an evolutionary standpoint, being shunned from society is equivalent to death. Even though nowadays it’s not that literal and you could probably survive without any relationships with other people, it would certainly have acute psychological consequences.

There is a Joe Rogan quote that I love and fits right in here: “We need other people. Think about it – if you’re in prison you get separated from murderers and rapists as a punishment. These are the people you want to avoid! But what happens when you’re isolated from them? You get sad!”

One of the easiest ways to observe conformism is through non-verbal communication. Have you ever noticed how when you like someone you automatically copy their movements? Moreover – whenever we interact with someone in person, we lightly mimic their facial expressions. This is mostly a subconscious process which allows us to empathize with others. It’s also the reason why people who inject Botox into their faces have a harder time recognizing other people’s emotions.

This whole topic is pretty fascinating and if you want to know more without digging into scientific papers, I highly recommend the movie “The Brain” by the BBC.

Ok so I got a bit carried away with this whole conformism thing but my point was that sometimes I expect a relationship to look like a romantic movie or a professionally curated Instagram profile. Especially one that belongs to the proverbial “Instagram Couple” – beautiful people, beaming from a luxury bungalow at a private island and kissing snuggled in a dreamy bed over the jungle canopy. Of course, there are more mundane comparisons as well. And here comes the time for another question that seems obvious, but is often forgotten. Is it possible that when we think of a relationship that “didn’t work out” we are actually comparing ourselves to a friend, a colleague, some neighbor, etc.? And do we really know what’s going on in their beds and hearts so that we can positively conclude that our relationship didn’t work out compared to theirs?

Relationship lessons
Photo credit: Kelly Sikkema

An Ego Trip?

As I was trying to figure out what I expect from a relationship so that I can file it under “working out” an inconvenient truth occurred to me. It lurks in the corners of my mind and although I might be hesitant to admit it, being honest with yourself is the most liberating thing you can do. Maybe a relationship can sometimes be a bit of an ego trip. A way to validate yourself and look better in your own eyes. In reality, though no relationship can make you feel better about yourself, at least not in the long run. How you see yourself depends on… well… yourself. For better or worse, nothing in the outside world has a lasting influence. So, perhaps it’s all too easy to write off a relationship as “not working” when it doesn’t serve an ego agenda. But couldn’t it be much more useful to think of it as something that had indeed worked – by teaching us important lessons. Primarily about our character and expectations.

Why I Now Think That Every Relationship “Works Out”

Over the years breakups have made me angry and crazy, I’ve suffered and felt like it was the end of the world. Lately, though I’ve been working on becoming a better, more conscious human being. One of the fruits of my labor is gratitude. What a great feeling! I am now sincerely and deeply grateful to everyone with whom I didn’t share a “happily ever after”. I now see “it didn’t work out” as a tremendous gift, which taught me about myself, the limits I want to set, my dreams, and abilities. I know so much more about who I am, what I want in life, what behaviors I would and would not tolerate.

How would this ever happen without the relationships that “didn’t work out”? Can you learn to ride a bike just by looking at one (it’s just an example, I can’t ride a bike :D)? Sure, you might get a few cuts and bruises here and there, shed a few tears too, but it seems to me that in the grand scheme of things those are important steps, not than failures.

Over the past year or so, I’ve applied this principle to everything in life – my job, projects I work on, friendships, and all kinds of plans. When it seems that something is “not working out” is it possible that we are actually receiving exactly what we need?

Have you ever thought about this topic? I’d love to hear your thoughts on it and if you can think of any interesting articles, studies, etc. please share them as well, in the comments below 🙂

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