The Juicy Bits

Love, lust, and the luster of life.

Why a Failed Relationship Isn't a Personal Failure

There's no way to love without exposing yourself to pain. That's a good thing.

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When it comes to failures of love, it's easy to assume that it's "the weak" who get scorched, because "the strong" know how to protect themselves. But I suspect that frequently the reverse is the case, that it's often the strong who get positively pummeled by love—because they are the ones willing to take the risk of getting hurt in the first place.

Love is not made for the faint-hearted, or those who hesitate on the sidelines. You must be tremendously brave, tremendously audacious, to throw yourself into the eye of the hurricane. You must have incredible faith in your ability to mend a broken heart to risk falling into the arms of a lover whose motivations you might never fully understand.

In a deep sense, passion is meant for the resilient—for those who know that they'll find their way back onto solid ground no matter how badly they fall. It's meant for those who are confident that love's disillusionments won't ravage them beyond repair. And it's meant for those who recognize that sometimes a massive love followed by a massive failure is more glorious than a timidly lived success.

It's easy to think that when love fails, it's because we did something wrong—it's easy to blame ourselves for not having followed Rule X, or for having done A when we should have done B. Many of us spend the aftermath of romance berating ourselves over the mistakes we think we made. But it may well be that love often fails for the simple reason that it's inherently fickle and capricious.

Most love affairs are not built to last. When you look at happily-coupled people, it's obvious that many of them had to go through a slew of romantic disappointments before they found a rewarding connection. And we know that many relationships that now seem happy will eventually come to a (sometimes bitter) end.

So it may be an error of judgment to assume that the mission of love is to make us happy. It may well be that love has other designs, other objectives, that are much more mysterious.

Love failures are not life failures. When it comes to love gone wrong, we need to give ourselves a break. We need to give ourselves the permission to fail, even to do so spectacularly. We are trained to think that only love that lasts is worthy. I strongly disagree. I think that some of our most far-reaching love affairs are those that fail. With the possible exception of abusive relationships, every love gives us something, and sometimes it's the broken affairs that give us the most. Sometimes our biggest breakdowns lead to our biggest breakthroughs. In this sense, there are few mistakes in love—no missteps, but merely fresh opportunities for growth and self-development.

There is no way to love without exposing ourselves to the possibility of pain, because there is no way to turn passion into something safe and controlled. But this is not a calamity. It's not a tragic flaw in the grand design. Quite the contrary: I think it would be an enormous tragedy if we were able to safety-proof our love lives. Doing so might spare us some grief, but it would also deprive us of important occasions for actualizing our deepest human potential. It would cheat us of the chance to become more multidimensional and interesting people.

There are times when the pain of past loves makes deeper love possible in the present. This is why I have little patience with the idea that we should look for lovers without "issues." Everyone has issues. And people with some complicated ones are often much more fascinating than those whose main issue is choosing the right pair of shoes in the morning. A lot depends on the state of their pain, of course: If the pain of the past is encased within them unprocessed, without an easy outlet, things may get thorny. Bottled-up pain can give rise to emotional earthquakes that destabilize the foundations of new love. But if this pain has been distilled into thoughtfulness and compassion, it can only augment a new relationship, and add fibers of wisdom to its overall character.

Mari Ruti, Ph.D., is a professor of Critical Theory at the University of Toronto. She is the author of The Case for Falling in Love and The Summons of Love.

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