Cara* still couldn’t believe it. Her boyfriend had broken up with her because, he said, he just wasn’t ready to get serious yet. Two weeks later she learned that he was dating a colleague; and two months after that, he was engaged to be married to that other woman. What made it worse, in some ways, was that Cara had felt that the relationship wasn’t working, but hadn’t been ready to end it. She thought there was hope for them if they could work out some of the issues. “I really like him, and I thought we were starting to make some headway. Stupid me,” she said. “Not only that, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings!”
What is it that makes one relationship work and another one not?
How do you know when a relationship isn’t going to work out?
In their book “The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts,” Judith S. Wallerstein and Sandra Balkeslee describe data gathered from interviews with couples who considered themselves happily married. Although the study was limited to predominantly white, middle class couples from northern California, some of the ideas they gleaned apply to a wide range of couples. One important concept is that there are several different types of happy marriages (they categorize them as romantic, traditional, companionate and rescue). No one size fits all.
There is also no perfect match between partners. What is important is that a couple is compatible with both their differences and similarities. For example, a woman who wants a traditional marriage may do very well with a man who wants a romantic one; but a man who sees marriage as a way of rescuing a woman from her difficulties may not be compatible with a woman who wants equal companionship.
Cara was unhappy because she had not seen the signs that her relationship was not working; and even more that she did not take action first, before her boyfriend. Why was that important? Cara was not nursing a broken heart, although she was feeling both lonely and sad about losing her dreams about the future. But a loss of a sense of agency, that is, of having some say over what happens in our lives, can sometimes be as devastating as the end of a relationship.
The following list will not protect you from any problems in your relationship (all relationships have problems at some time or another!). It will not tell you whether or not your relationship will last. But it will help you assess where you are in your current relationship.
1. Can you talk openly and easily with one another?
2. Are there topics that you have to avoid? Are they important topics? Why do you have to avoid them?
3. Do you have shared interests?
4. Do you respect one another, including in the ways and areas that you are different?
5. Do you have similar moral and ethical philosophies? (A couple can have different religious beliefs and yet similar moral and ethical philosophies.)
6. Do you have similar goals for your life? (If one of you wants to get married and the other does not, you may be in trouble.)
7. Do you like to spend time together?
8. Are you able to spend time apart?
9. Could you be with this person for the rest of your life, unchanged, exactly as he or she is now?
10. Can you talk about these questions without becoming too angry, overwhelmed or demanding that each other change?
Answering these questions will not tell you whether or not your relationship is going to last, but it should help you determine whether or not it is working for you now.
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