When you are reading a great book, the kind you rush home after work to pick up, and you finally turn the last page, do you say, “What a failure that book was,” simply because it ended? You may feel a lot of things, but surely you don’t consider the experience a failure? The same with a college course, a drive through the country, or a meal. As you drive home from the restaurant, you think, “The steak was a bit overcooked but the risotto was to die for and that pumpkin cheesecake! I’ll never forget that meal.” Each experience we have in life, from hikes to parties to relationships, is whole unto itself, with some good things, maybe some bad, and a little learning along the way.
So get the idea out of your head that a relationship that is over is a “failed relationship.” Our society does not help us feel good about the end of a relationship. We absorb the subtle and not-so-subtle message that we are less than if we are not in a relationship, or that if our relationship ended, we did not try hard enough to stay together, are selfish, a quitter, unable to commit, a loser. The end of a relationship is a lot of things, but should never be viewed as a source of shame or a failure. And I’ll tell you why.
♦ The good. There was good stuff. If you compiled a list of the good—love, learning, growth—you would feel less likely to regret—just as you don’t regret reading that amazing book. Maybe there are children. Or you learned what you needed to know about living with someone, or you became part of an extended family that enriched you.
♦ Accomplishments. A relationship is not a static holding pattern. It is life lived together. During that time, short or long, you each supported one another to achieve goals, whether personal or professional. Maybe you bought a house, renovated a house, built a house. Or planted a garden. Raised children. Started a business. What would your life be without those accomplishments? You cannot separate them from the person who was at your side along the way.
♦ Learning. Unless you slept through your relationship, you learned. About yourself. About being in partnership with someone. About your partner. About what you need, want, and deserve in a relationship. Whether you choose to end the relationship or your partner does, learning did happen. If you’re smart, you’ll take that learning with you when the relationship ends, and apply it to all that comes next.
Don’t let them get to you.
If you feel the weight of opinion bearing down on you, shrug it off if you can. And remember, it is a personal choice to end a relationship. As with any major life decision, right? Starting a job, getting engaged, moving to another state, investing in a new company—these are life decisions that only you can make, and that no one else has any right to judge.
It is true that some relationships do not end by mutual agreement. If it wasn’t your idea, it is easy to feel like a victim, side-tackled by a previously invisible linebacker. But in the end, the experience is yours and yours alone. What you do with it is yours. It is your place to choose courage, honesty, being responsible for personal happiness. That includes taking control of your life by letting go of an unhappy relationship. And that, my friend, is pure unadulterated opportunity— for change and personal growth. (And how can that constitute failure?)
My intention is not to whitewash the experience of a break-up and dip it in rainbows and sprinkles. Realistically—the end of a relationship is often very painful. It is an enormous life transition that will take time to experience and then process.
Let me offer a few things it’s helpful to remember along the way.
♦ A breakup is a life circumstance. It does not define you.
♦ The blame game is a big fat dead end. Don’t go there. (Though it can be tempting at times, the same way a half gallon of Mint Chocolate Chip spooned directly out of the carton with pretzels is tempting—but you feel like crap 12 hours later.) Instead, share your innermost thoughts with people you trust who will hold your confidence in a safe container.
♦ Nothing is wrong with you or your partner. We all have our issues to work on, but you are not broken, useless, dishonorable, or wrong, and neither is your ex.
♦ Relationships end for many reasons. The reasons matter only insofar as they offer guidance and tools for learning. Otherwise, they are not worth mentioning, dwelling on, or compulsively reliving.
♦ Partnerships can evolve beyond a breakup. You may be better co-parents than lovers at this stage of life. Or maybe friends— without the pressure of cohabitation, exclusivity, or the presence or absence of desire.
♦ You and your next relationship can benefit from this. You learned many things about yourself, raised your self-awareness, and now you know what you really need and want in your life and relationships.
Whatever the history of this particular relationship, and whatever positives may or may not emerge from its dissolution—an ending is not a failure. Some relationships are harder to find the good in. Abusive, cold, or unequal relationships may offer more in their endings than they ever did during their lifetimes, but the strength, learning, and personal growth that results from them is potentially enormous.
No matter what you, your in-laws, cleaning lady, or doorman thinks—deciding to leave a relationship is not “the easy way out.” Quite the contrary. It takes real grit to stand up for yourself and make a mature courageous decision.
All relationships end, either through separation or death. Not one of them is a failure for coming to a close. And with that, I end this week’s blog.