What is a "successful" relationship
May 27, 2009 8:16 PM   Subscribe

How do you define "success" in relationships?

I think I'm hung up on how my previous relationships went that I'm too scared to form new ones.

Is success defined in relationships based on whether neither party regrets having gotten in it? Or is it based on whether both parties behaved honestly with good intentions? It obviously can't be based on whether either party got hurt, because then that means most people are inevitably going to be failures.

Here's the cases that are bugging me...

Two cases where she got hurt:

- My first girlfriend (Sr. year of High School) fell in love with me, then I broke up with her, then we kept sleeping together, and then I told her that we had to stop, and then she got depressed and had to take Zoloft

- My first girlfriend after college fell in love with me, then I broke up with her. We were very passionate and close together, and her best friend (who was also a good friend of mine at the time), really got on my case for "leading her on."

Two cases where I got hurt:

- I dated my next door neighbor in my freshman year dorm, but I felt soo insecure around her, and I was so paranoid anytime she'd show any kind gesture to any of my other dormmates. After she broke it off with me, I became really neurotic about her, and obsessed about her the following summer, especially when some of my former friends/dormmates were visiting her during the summer.

- I dated someone recently who always went hot and cold, and she drove me into insane neuroses that were hard to shake off. It was so hard that I got physically ill, and I broke it off because I couldn't stand how aloof and emotionally unavailable she was. Afterwards, I kept thinking about her and got really angry with her for months.

In these four cases, I've come away with a really strong feeling that I fucked up majorly somehow. In the cases where she got hurt, I imagine the tears in her eyes and hear the message, "Why the fuck did you do this to me?? And don't you dare do this to anybody else." And from the cases where I got hurt, I get the strong message from myself, "What the fuck did you get yourself into?? Don't you dare do that again."

I feel that people around me don't blame themselves as hard, and see relationships as learning experiences like trial-and-error. I also kind of view them skeptically, like they're being irresponsible, by only being into a relationship for what it affords them now, and not even realistically considering whether they see themselves with this person forever.

Is there some perspective I'm missing? How can people feel good being in relationships knowing that they inevitably end (given divorce rates and how long we're living anyway)?
posted by pauldonato to Human Relations (22 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Did you learn something? Then it was a success.
posted by paultopia at 8:21 PM on May 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I feel guilty seeing relationships as experiments. I don't mind trying jobs that ultimately fail, because the only person that got hurt was me. But I feel that to dick around and just let myself "try" dating is irresponsible unless ... what? The only thing that would make me feel responsible dating is if I'm open to the dating to turn into a marriage that could last long enough in happiness to see our children off into college. Otherwise, this casual dating that seems to be for people my age (27), seems reckless.
posted by pauldonato at 8:27 PM on May 27, 2009

Response by poster: Some background on me: I feel like I was raised with conservative paradigms. Both my parents immigrated from Asian countries. My mom had one boyfriend before my dad, and was a virgin when she got married. My dad never dated before he got married, and maybe slept with someone randomly once. Dating only makes sense in that it's a prelude to marriage. But that's incompatible with my needs right now (not wanting to get married yet, wanting to be in a relationship).
posted by pauldonato at 8:30 PM on May 27, 2009

So yeah, I just read over your previous relationship thread - the "sassy" one. And had I not read that thread, I would have said that you need to think less about the rest of your life and more about just having fun with women and seeing what happens. And I still pretty much think that, but it's clear that you disagree pretty strongly.

So what I'll say instead is this: find someone who doesn't fit into any of your stereotypes. Find someone who is so intellectually and emotionally fascinating to you that she renders these other questions -- sassy vs. not-sassy, I'm-the-asshole vs. she's-the-asshole -- irrelevant. When that kind of language works to describe a relationship that you're in, that's your mind giving you an excuse to get out of it. A successful relationship is one that's so... inimitable, one that what you learned from it was so crystal clear, that these questions you're asking are simply irrelevant.
posted by roll truck roll at 8:37 PM on May 27, 2009

defining success as learning != treating relationships as experiments. Indeed, treating relationships as experiments is a sure-fired way not to learn anything. You have to take different perspectives while in dating than while out-of-dating. While in-dating, success is having continued mutually enjoyable interactions. Afterward is a different case.
posted by paultopia at 8:41 PM on May 27, 2009

I think deeming a relationship as a "success" or "failure" is not really the right approach. I don't think that's how you can define relationships.

Just like it would be awkward to define the jobs you've held in your life as successes or failures. Instead you'd look at why you took each job (quick cash, a stepping stone to other jobs, a chance to explore a particular field) and whether you achieved that goal. You'd look at whether you behaved responsibly and with integrity in each position. Sometimes a job is a total time-suck from which you're not learning anything but inertia is keeping you from leaving. You might have gotten laid off as a result of externalities that had nothing to do with you. To sum up, there are positive and negative experiences based on what you intended to achieve, what you actually achieved, and how you behaved.

Why were you in each relationship? If you don't know, then decide what you want before your next relationship. Sex? A diversion? Marriage? Are you happy with the way you behaved toward the other person? If not, decide why not and have the willpower to change your behavior for the next time.

Etc. A relationship's effect on you doesn't end when the relationship does. It's all one life. The determination of "success" will be at the end of the line, when you look back on everything as a whole.

Also, it seems like you don't really understand cause and effect. You can't cause someone else to have to take Zoloft, and someone else can't cause you to have neuroses (unless there was some kind of abuse going on, in which case, and maybe even anyway, you should seek a little therapy for this issue if you haven't already).
posted by thebazilist at 8:46 PM on May 27, 2009 [4 favorites]

Nobody gets out clean and nobody gets out alive. To fall in love is to fall into the unknown, and you can pretty much calculate the amount of frustration, disgust, and heartbreak you'll have in life by figuring out how much control you're determined to have over yourself and your fate when it comes to romance. If you were able to let go and fully explore a situation to its ultimate end with an open mind and heart (which is not the same as being a gullible sap) then you will never have wasted a moment in love.
posted by hermitosis at 8:55 PM on May 27, 2009 [12 favorites]

Friendship after the relationship is a pretty good indicator that you've done something right.
posted by puckish at 9:12 PM on May 27, 2009 [5 favorites]

If you're the lifelong monogamy kind, the most successful relationships end in death.

In other words, any relationship is going to end in loss. Either you'll break up at some point, or you'll be "until death do us part," in which case one of you will leave the other by kicking the bucket. Either of those kinds of loss are going to cause pain to one or both people. The people you break up with will be angry and hurt that you left them, the people who break up with you will be upset at the way things ended, and if you find the love of your life and stay together forever, one of you will eventually suffer the devastating blow of permanently losing the person most important to you in the world.

I say all of this not to make you feel terrible about relationships, but rather to put things in perspective. Life is always going to have pain in it, and giving your heart to another person puts you in a position to be hurt. But taking the risk of falling in love and letting someone else love you is also the only way that you get to feel and experience some of the best parts of life. Most people agree that it's very much worth the risk.

My definition of success is when, after enough time has passed to heal the immediate pain of losing someone I loved, I can look back on a relationship and say that I'm glad I spent that time of my life with that person. I hope that my exes feel the same way.
posted by decathecting at 9:19 PM on May 27, 2009 [17 favorites]

I feel guilty seeing relationships as experiments. I don't mind trying jobs that ultimately fail, because the only person that got hurt was me. But I feel that to dick around and just let myself "try" dating is irresponsible unless ... what?

I don't think that's what paultopia meant, that you should just willy-nilly try a relationship on the grounds of, "hmm, let's see what happens if I date a blond...okay, did that, check that off, next we'll have to test the brunette...okay, girls with glasses, and I'll have to find someone without glasses next..."

I think it's more that we're trying to suggest that "success" is something that you can define for yourself in the aftermath, whatever that aftermath may be. It's not like the relationships that don't pan out were invalid, after all.

Even in the cases where you were hurt, you learned things about yourself and you gained experience. Those insights and that experience is very important, no matter what happens to you. Even the worst relationship I've ever had taught me things that I was able to incorporate into the rest of my life going forward. By some yardsticks, that relationship was a total screaming failure -- but by other yardsticks, I learned some very important things about myself, so therefore it was a good experience.

Ultimately, I think what a lot of us are trying to say here is that there are so many different variables, and it's such a personal and individual thing, that there is no one single definition for "success". A relationship is something you just do. There is no "succeed" or "fail" to it.

Now, this doesn't mean that you shouldn't try to work at a relationship which you both find valuable -- provided you both DO find it valuable, of course -- I'm not saying that you should just take a laissez-faire attitude to things. The thing about relationships, though, is that you can try as hard as you like to "work things out," if that's what you want to do, and it could still not work out the way you'd like it. That doesn't mean you "failed," is all I'm saying, it just means that it didn't work out the way you'd like it. But you and your partner both grew from the experience nevertheless -- it is impossible for people to go through any experience and not be affected even in just a tiny way.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:29 PM on May 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Campsite rule. If we can both leave it better people than we were before then it was a good relationship. Sometimes it takes months or years to have the kind of perspective where I can clearly judge. And of course "better" is subjective, but do I have the happy memories, what did I learn, what new direction is my life heading because I had this person in my life. Subjective.

Though, what I really want to write is "Relationships just are."

I think the "as experiments" thing can definitely cause trouble because you're looking for a specific result. Relationships are about the doing of them, not about the end result.
posted by Ookseer at 9:42 PM on May 27, 2009 [3 favorites]

How about Dan Savage's "campfire" metaphor? (or is it camping ground?)

That is, you should try to leave the other person in as good a state as you found them in, or even in a better state, if possible.

Now, you seem to be focusing a lot on the ending of relationships and on their aftermath, and not on whatever positives there were within the relationship. And realistically, a relationship can only end in one of two ways: mutually or one-sided. The one-sided breakups are inevitably going to cause some hurt; nothing much to do about that, other than minimising it as far as possible, using the time-honoured words & soft landings that you can find repeated a thousand times over in breakup threads.

But it's the content of the living part of the relationship that's more important, and that's where the campfire metaphor comes in. Because a good relationship should mean that each party is better off afterwards than they were beforehand, even when you take into account the relatively temporary pain of the breakup.

In other words, do the parties look back on it fondly? Did you learn from each other? Did you have fun? Were you mutually supportive, and did you help each other to grow, and to try new things? If, looking back, you felt like the entire thing was a period of wasted time, stagnating & going nowhere, chances are it was bad. If you can reminisce about all the good things, and feel that it was worthwhile at the time - shame it hand to end, but hey - then it was probably successful, even if it was limited within a finite end point.
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:54 PM on May 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

posted by UbuRoivas at 9:56 PM on May 27, 2009

Response by poster: I'm digging the campsite principle.
posted by pauldonato at 10:30 PM on May 27, 2009

I had something to say here, but after reading decathecting's excellent comment, it seems a small and passing thought.

My definition of success is when, after enough time has passed to heal the immediate pain of losing someone I loved, I can look back on a relationship and say that I'm glad I spent that time of my life with that person.

What a beautiful and simple way of looking at the issue -- and really, what more could one ask to experience than this?
posted by yohko at 11:44 PM on May 27, 2009

if you have compassion for each other and other people then it's a success.
posted by peter_meta_kbd at 1:54 AM on May 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Mutually satisfying and growth producing.

That is a tall order, but any relationship that meets these criteria has no reason to dissolve. Most don't.
posted by FauxScot at 5:33 AM on May 28, 2009

All of this philosophizing is true, and I think the framing of the question warrants the responses, but if he'd asked: "What makes a "good" relationship?", rather than a successful one, I'd hope there would be more concrete criteria to look back and judge that on. Success is an illusion, but long-term happiness really does come more from some pairings that others.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:12 AM on May 28, 2009

You learn something from every relationship, and that's success, even if the relationships end. Ending something that's not working is not failure.

That one girlfriend had to go on Zoloft is not your fault. Zoloft and other drugs fix a chemical imbalance in the brain; that's not something you can cause by breaking up with a girl (it's like saying you broke up with her and now she has diabetes). Likewise, girls do not cause neuroses or obsession in you; that's a choice that you make. People can hurt your feelings but they can't control you or cause you to do anything. Take ownership of your own feelings and reactions and stop claiming ownership of others'.

To love is to risk hurt--to risk getting hurt and to risk causing hurt. It's worth it. I've learned so much and grown so much from the relationships that failed--maybe more than the one so far that's worked. I believe this one's working because of what I learned in those "failed" relationships.

I agree that people around you (myself included) view relationships as trial and error, and worth trying even though they will ultimately all end.

I'm a happier person in a relationship. I like having someone to pay attention to. I personally can't date anyone I couldn't see marrying someday, but I don't need to know from day one when that might happen. I assume the best (that it will work) and stay on behavior that follows the campsite metaphor--I would like to leave my partner in better shape than he was when he met me. I'd like to be left better than I was when he found me.

I just try--for a while, I walk this path. I have found someone to walk it with me for now. I hope we walk it together for a very long time. If not, I wish him well on his own path, and I have faith in myself that I will be fine to walk alone for a time, and someday to walk with another. You only get one life, and there's very little right and wrong about it. Make choices that make your head and your heart happy, treat others as you'd like to be treated, and at least you can always look back, be proud, and say "I learned something".
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:30 AM on May 28, 2009 [7 favorites]

I agree! It's the experience and what you learn. And that depends a lot on your perspective.

I've come to realize that EVERYTHING is an EXPERIMENT.

Cause no matter what you think will happen, you really don't know.

The only way you will find out is by trying.

As someone who has had very un "successful" relationships in the last 10 years, I've had to learn to understand relationships in a different way - as experiences, as being accompanied on the road that is my life for a bit, sharing some special moments, and learning some cool things, knowing that neither of us know where we will end up.

Naturally, thinking like that has led to more "successful" relationships.

I LOVE what hermitosis wrote. Absolutely true. So absolutely true.
posted by Locochona at 5:48 PM on May 29, 2009

I've come to realize that EVERYTHING is an EXPERIMENT.

one of my truisms is never to regret anything from the past, because - by definition - the choices made at the time were the best that could have been made, considering the information, experience etc available at the time.

the fact that some may have proven incorrect in the longer run doesn't disprove the fact that, at the time, they were seen to be the best option available.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:31 AM on May 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

Communication has always been key for me. Over the years, one cannot deny that there will be differences that you cannot get over, it is how you face them together. Many couples fall apart when things "hit the fan" and they tend to fight one another instead of battle out the world together. As gladiator-esque as that sounds, I've realized it to be true on many levels. To be on the same page with someone is something absolutely necessary and I think it even beats being able to see someone else's perspective.
posted by penguingrl at 4:58 PM on June 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

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