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A Better Way to Look at "Failed" Relationships

Was a relationship a failure because it ended? Depends on how you look at it.

holding hands
Tender hand holding symbolizes affection for many

Nowadays people often have several romantic relationships throughout their lives. We date, we have boyfriends and girlfriends, and sometimes even multiple marriages. This means that relationships — the vast majority of relationships, in fact — end.

I've heard people refer to any relationship that ended as a "failed" relationship. For example, you might hear somebody say "he had three failed marriages before he met Amy." But were all of those marriages really failures?

In some sense, yes, because marriages are explicitly supposed to last a lifetime. That's basically the promise made when you get married. If it was supposed to last forever and didn't, then it failed, right?

That's not the only way to look at it. It might not even be the healthy way to look at it.

The Rise of Divorce

People often look at the rise in divorce rates with alarm. Yes, more people are getting divorced, but up until as late as 1960, the same number of marriages were ending, even as the divorce rate climbed.


It turns out that the dissolution of marriage has not changed all that much between 1860 and 1960. It's just that we're living longer, so fewer marriages are ending because of death. Imagine that you are in a bad marriage, but you're only going to live another five or ten years. How bad would the marriage have to be to get out of it? Compare that to the situation where you have another 30 years to live. It makes a difference.

People have been living longer and longer, so when they're in bad marriages, it makes more sense for them to quit and start over. They've got time. It could be that marriages are no worse than they've always been, it's just that now people have the freedom and desire to get out of the bad ones more than they used to. Not all of the changes in the divorce rate are attributed to differences in longevity, however — and the divorce rate has gone up considerably since 1960.

The other interesting consequence of increased longevity is that marriage, as an institution, was created during times when people were not expected to live to be 77 (in the past 100 years, average life expectancy has gone from 47 to 77). Could it be that "until death do us part" is asking a bit much when people live so long? What about if people live to be 200?

Failed Relationship or a Happy Time?

To move away from marriage in particular and talk about romantic relationships in general, many people have had wonderful, fulfiling relationships that were very rewarding, where the partners respected each other, helped each other out, shared some experiences, and learned about themselves. Sometimes, because somebody had to move, or they grew apart, or someone changed, the relationship had to end. But this does not mean that the whole relationship was a failure. To look at all ended relationships as failures disrespects the joy and growth that many ended relationships bring people, and can give someone a negative and depressing outlook on their love life.

Imagine that someone gets the idea in their head that they'd be happier living in New York City. One day, she makes the decision and moves there. After ten years of having a great time, the stresses of the city start to get to her, and she starts longing for a smaller town, with less noise and action. She then moves to, say, upstate New York.

Would you look at this story and say that the move to the city was a "failed move?" The person moved there, liked it, and when she didn't like it anymore, she left. That's not a failure in anybody's book. Was your trip to Hawaii a failed trip because you came back home? It's a shame that we don't look at relationships more like this.

One time I had a girlfriend who was great fun. She taught me how important it was for me to have a partner with artistic interests. But we knew pretty much right away that we were not a good fit in the long term. After a few months, we parted, peacefully, and have been friendly ever since. This is not a failed relationship. Even a marriage can be like this.

This is not to say that there are no failed relationships. Some relationships are just terrible — the worst of which feature emotional or physical abuse — and others are just generally unhappy. Sure, these can legitimately be thought of as "failed," if you must, but not every ended relationship is so miserable.

When you refer to someone's ended relationship, think before you call it a failure. Maybe it was good while it lasted. More importantly, think about your own past relationships, and perhaps allow yourself to enjoy some of them as happy memories.


Mann, C. (2005). The coming death shortage. The Atlantic. May.

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