Today I started reading Eat, Pray, Love, as one does when they are re-discovering themselves.
I can relate a lot to Liz Gilbert’s description of her first marriage. I know what it’s like to not want to leave a relationship, while simultaneously not wanting to stay in it either. Her honesty and fresh perspectives are brilliant, yet there’s one phrase she keeps tossing around that I can’t get on board with.
She keeps talking about her failed marriage.
She’s not the only one. I know a lot of people who love to talk about how they’ve been through a failed marriage or a failed relationship and they use the term “failed” to show people how humble they are, how they have scars, how their life hasn’t been perfect.
But can we stop for a minute and question that?
Are marriages and relationships really a failure if they don’t last until death do us part? And conversely, just because a relationship lasts, does that make it a success? Is longevity actually something we should be striving for?
My experience has taught me otherwise.
When my marriage ended, I endured a litany of pity from people who wanted to console me, but the truth was I felt great about it. Not only was I planning on remaining friends with Paula, but I felt like our break up was the best thing for our relationship.
Did I have emotions about it? Of course I did. Was it easy to do? No, it wasn’t. But it needed to happen, and afterwards I felt a huge sense of relief.
Divorce doesn’t mean you made a mistake, it just means that you’re choosing to not be married anymore. It’s two adults agreeing to make their happiness more important than their marriage.
Ending something that’s not working isn’t a failure, it’s a success.
Questioning the Game
It’s more comfortable to say you failed at the game of marriage than to question the validity of the game itself.
When you say “my marriage failed” everyone says “aww, we’re sorry to hear that”. But if you say “I just got divorced and it’s wonderful”, people think you’re insane. We are afraid to rock the boat, so we simply play along and read the script.
Four years ago I was giving a talk about love, dating and understanding men to a group of women. I began by having them say their names and why they came. Most of the women were single but a few were married.
One woman introduced herself and proudly shared with the room that she had been married for fifteen years. The rest of the women cheered. Another woman shared she had been married for eleven years, and again the room cheered. I paused the group for some reflection.
Why do we celebrate how long relationships last? Is that a true sign of success, or is it simply that we’re cheering because everyone else does?
It was like I had pooped in the middle of the room and asked if anybody wanted to smell it. No one wanted to hear that the game they’ve been playing wasn’t real. We would rather plead ignorance by pretending that if we just follow the rules and do what we’re told, someone will come along, give us a gold star and say nice things about us to our parents.
Relationships Are Our Greatest Teacher
Consider that you have never truly learned something if it didn’t involve direct life experience.
Maybe you think that you learn by watching your friends, maybe you heard some really good advice from a dating expert, but I’m willing to bet that it didn’t stick unless it involved direct experience.
Take this article for example.
I’m not saying anything new by suggesting that there’s no such thing as a failed relationship, but the reason this may (or may not) shed light on something for you is that you can see the truth of how that has played out in your life.
You can look back at your past relationships, even relationships that only lasted one date, and see that they all had a purpose. While they may not have lasted forever, they were all successful in their own unique way.
Has that been true for you?
Relationships are our greatest teacher. We get the lessons we get, and it always turns out that it’s exactly what we need to grow and evolve into a better version of ourselves.
If longevity is not a good metric for success, what is?
What should we strive for if not ’til death do us part?
I’m reminded of this quote, often attributed to Abraham Lincoln.
In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count.
It’s the life in your years.
Most of us would never assign the same kind of success metric to life as we do to relationships. Steve Jobs wasn’t a failure because he died at age 56, and neither was Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Lee or Martin Luther King, who all died before their 40th birthday. Their success was measured by things like impact, influence and willingness to play life to the fullest.
The irony is, playing to the fullest and trying to make something last are often opposing energies. If Martin Luther King’s goal was to reach old age, he wouldn’t have put his life at risk by leading the civil rights movement.
I believe the same is true in relationships.
When we fear the death of a relationship we become overly cautious, we don’t take risks and we do our best to preserve and protect what we have.
When we let go of that fear,
When we embrace the inevitable death of everything.
We give ourselves the chance to experience a relationship.
And a life.
That’s fully alive.
If you liked this, you may also like How I Define a Successful Relationship