What Makes for a Successful Relationship?

If you’ve ever left your house, you’ve probably found that talk about relationships is nearly unavoidable. “Does she like me?” “Does he like her?” Turn on any prime-time television show and a major plot thread will be some unresolved tension between a man and a woman. The drama, gossip, and general focus on relationships in society can weigh down on both single people and couples. It’s easy to get burned out from all of that. It’s even scarier when you realize that relationship and their success are about as guaranteed as a winning poker hand.

I’ve dealt with, felt, and seen a lot in this life. I’ve watched relationships that I thought would never work succeed, and I’ve been surprised by seemingly unstoppable couples fall completely apart. I’ve even lived through a few of those scenarios myself. I’ve had a long night or two where I wondered hopelessly if I’d meet the right person. I’ve watched friends have their hearts split in two by women and men that they were certain would never hurt them. What makes a couple succeed? What makes it fail? Not a whole lot of science or advice has ever given me a clean-cut answer. Even now, when I’m in shape, in a great relationship, and having the best time of my life I can’t quite find the key to those questions – just some scattered patterns and hints.

My experiences over the years have hardened me to putting little care in whether I am in a relationship or not. I emphasize my own sense of self-accomplishment over relationships – in the sense that until I’m married to someone, there aren’t any guarantees (and even then there aren’t, being honest) – I see improving myself as a separate category from relationships altogether. It’s easy to put a ludicrous amount of mental stock in a significant other only to be blindsided when things don’t work out. I was one of those people. Enough wounds and you start to see relationships in a completely different light.

Even the best of us have been through some dark, dark nights. Nights where we thought we were in love only to have that thrown right back in our faces. There’s plenty of buried memories of relationships we thought would succeed but instead exploded. Just the other day I was jogging through the park and a memory crossed my mind of my ex from when we were there together. Us laughing, smiling, joking, just holding hands and walking around. Not one for nostalgia, I had to shake that memory from my mind and remind myself of what she put me through long after that day. I had to remind myself that the person from that memory had long-since changed for the worse.

To me, she will always be the ex. None of my past relationships ever carried the lasting sting hers and mine did, and our somewhat-brief but intense relationship will always be near my waking memories. Not because I loved her – it took me awhile to come to the conclusion that I didn’t – but because it was our relationship that broke me mentally to the degree that I had to rebuild my entire identity.

I think it’s a natural tendency for us as people, when in relationships, to begin assimilating parts of their identity into us. If I’m dating Sarah, one of my identities I might see myself as would be “Sarah’s boyfriend”. Likewise, if I was with Cindy, I would be “Cindy’s boyfriend”. That isn’t all of us, mind you, but the longer a relationship goes on the more we begin to integrate that role into our overall identity. I suppose in the relationship I was speaking about above, we had been together long enough that I considered my role as her partner as one of my primary defining characteristics.

She told me she wanted me to marry her, we made plans about jobs, careers, and shared a lot of dreams. It was probably at about the fifteen-month marker that I began to seriously consider ring shopping. Not necessarily immediately, but I had the idea in my mind that I would marry her eventually. The security and comfort from that was very important to me back then.

That security, relational security, is what I based a lot of my decisions around. I changed my major, I was going to follow her lead, and I was going to begin planning for the future. I put so much stock in the certainty that the two of us would succeed that I never considered the possibility of failure. I told myself that “she was the one” and spent four months operating from that mentality.

That was a mistake.

I won’t go into the hard details, for that story is hardly relevant, but we began to see each other in a different light as the days went on. My humor? Not quite as funny in her eyes. Her sarcasm? It started to become stifling and hurtful. We were starting to simply growing sick of each other. She would press my buttons, I would press hers. A gap between a couple that once seemed unbeatable began growing, and before either of us could see it coming it was as wide as the Pacific. And, like a flash, one warm July night she left me standing at her doorstep to face the world alone. A night I’ve hardly forgotten since.

I was devastated beyond reason. Perhaps it’s the sense of looking backwards on my own life that creates a sense of narrative, but that was a major turning point in my attitude, if not the major turning point. Up until that point I let the events around me define my existence. My identity was based around the people I surrounded myself with, not anything I actively chose. I stumbled into a relationship and because it didn’t fall apart in three months, it became a primary role. In that sudden and blindsiding loss of identity, I had to think a lot about what I wanted out of life. I needed a sense of purpose again. As I’ve mentioned before, that became me redefining what I wanted out of life by my own standards. I battled weight loss, depression, social anxiety, and plenty of other inner demons that sprang forth the night she dumped me. I realized that I needed to define my identity by myself alone and never let something like that devastate me to the degree it did.

Yet in the long run I’m glad it happened. I learned more about what I wanted out of my life than I ever would have had we stayed together. A lot more. As I’ve said before, relationships shouldn’t matter. Why? The only guarantees in life are what you are doing right now. Give it your best, try your hardest, be a good guy – but don’t expect that the girl you’re getting dinner with tonight to always be there. Don’t freak yourself out – she might end up being the right person for you – but don’t make decisions base around an assumption. A lot of guys I know, and obviously myself, didn’t obey that command and got burnt. Pretty badly.

Don’t let situations like that define you like I let it define me. Find a sense of identity and solace in what you alone are doing. I treat my current relationship like an added bonus – I get to spend time with someone I really like – but that could change at any moment. Once you realize that, you might find that your relationships are better. Without all that pressure, I’ve had a lot warmer memories for certain. Better than that though is the fact that I feel great about myself, and myself alone – if I’m single one day and with a different person the next, you would hardly tell the difference. A steel heart is better than a broken one.


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