“And they lived happily ever after…” As far as I can remember, that line is where my initial belief on successful relationships began. As a small child, watching Disney movies and reading fairy tales, I believed that for a relationship to be successful that meant it had to last forever. This belief was constantly reinforced by society and family as I grew up. Then came my first serious boyfriend, I had a few short experiences before then but they ended in failure. I was 16 and I was in love. For the next year and a half, I dreamed of forever. We talked about marriage and houses, the whole shebang. So it was no surprise when that relationship ended my whole world fell apart. I was planning on forever, I was told when you love someone the goal was forever and I failed, at least by that definition. Life continued and relationships came and went. My definition still standing strong. Meaning every relationship that ended was a failure. I met my now husband, we got married and I got excited. I was now in my “successful” relationship. I started reminiscing about those past relationships and they didn’t feel like failures anymore. I soon began to notice that my belief on the definition of a successful relationship was beginning to change. Now I feel it is unhealthy to measure relational success by length of time. Instead I believe a successful relationship is any relationship where you learned something that made you a better person.
I started considering this definition when I read about Ubuntu. It is a South African concept of humanity. Loosely translated to “I am because we are”. Meaning we exist because of a greater community that allows us to do so. In my mind, something clicked and I came to see that I believed that we are made up of every person we meet, good or bad. We learn something about ourselves or others through those interactions. We either see something we would like to emulate or something we want to avoid. So if this is true, how could those relationships have been failures if I was a better person from them? Each one made me a better partner for the next.
Take a minute and look back on your past relationships. Did you learn something that made you a better you? Even the ones you don’t remember fondly? Did you find out how strong or resilient you can be? Did you discover bad communication habits you possessed? Did you decide you never wanted to make another person feel the way your partner had made you feel? Did you learn ways to show your love to someone who has a different love language than you? Did you discover that you could feel safe and secure for the first time? Are you a better person because of what you have experienced in life and relationships? (Disclaimer: this is in no way should be interpreted that abusive relationships are good, they aren’t)
Next, came the realization that we (humans) are pack animals. We need each other to survive. It is biologically programmed in us to need others. It is how our ancestors survived before us. Those who came together and shared their resources and knowledge were the ones that continued living long enough to reproduce. Meaning we need others in our lives. Our culture does not promote this at all. It is about being independent and succeeding on your own. However, the truth is none of us have ever succeeded on our own. We have all had support systems and teachers. Humans are the most inept mammal babies on the planet! From birth we have to depend on others to meet our needs because we can’t do it alone. That doesn’t change as we get older. We just learn to communicate it in a different way. Research shows that in high levels of stress our bodies release oxytocin, the “hugging hormone”. This is to make us reach out to others. We call this interdependence, we can technically get by on our own but still need help from other for comfort and support to create a better existence. As we grow and move, our packs change. Our interests, beliefs, and locations change. Therefore the people around us also change. If this is the case, then some relationships can’t be meant to last forever just for the time that you both exist in the same space.
I believe, by defining a successful relationship this way, you are replacing a potential negative and harmful belief, with one that provides optimism and hope. I think it also takes the pressure off of partners wondering “if this is the one?” so they can spend more time in the present enjoying the relationship. This would end up leading to a more fulfilling relationships thus a more fulfilling life.