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How Fairy Tales Set Us Up for Relationship Failure

We need to redefine success in our intimate lives.

Key points

  • True romantic success isn't achieved through going out and finding our one perfect match.
  • Instead, we must develop our inner capacities to choose appropriate partners, form intimate bonds, and maintain satisfying relationships.
  • No one is born with those skills—indeed, developing them is the work of a lifetime, and often requires trial and error.
  • A relationship of any length is successful if it made both people happier, at least for a while, and left them better off than when it started.
Shutterstock/standard license/Basicdog
Source: Shutterstock/standard license/Basicdog

Americans are inundated with movies, advertisements, and social media posts portraying fairy tale proposals, picture-perfect weddings, exotic honeymoons, and lifelong passionate love. Valentine's Day has come and gone, but the fairy tale fantasy lingers on. In fairy tales, every good person finds a happily ever after, with no divorce or morning-after regrets. By comparison, our own romantic lives can often seem lackluster and lonely. Surrounded by social pressure and sentimentality, we may judge our own relationships and partners (or lack thereof) harshly, making us feel like failures. But the problem isn’t us—it’s the standards we’re using.

Developing Our Capacities for Intimacy

It’s easy to imagine that if we could only find our perfect match, our loneliness would melt away and we’d be happy, secure, and adored forever. But the path to true romantic success doesn't lead out to some other ideal person. Instead, we must turn inward, to develop our own capacities to choose appropriate partners, form intimate bonds, and maintain mutually satisfying relationships.

No one is born with those skills. When we begin embarking on romantic relationships, we typically have no more ability to establish and sustain love than we did to walk or talk when we were infants. And just like walking and talking, we learn to love through trial and error, painfully. We gradually correct and expand our abilities, until what once was an insurmountable challenge eventually becomes second nature.

Realistically then, the only way to gain insight into ourselves, our relationship needs, and how to care for others, is through practice and repetition. We learn from our errors—the bad dates, the harsh endings, the fights, and the miscommunication—as well as from our gradually increasing successes.

It’s hard. Sometimes you have to make the same mistake a few times before learning what to do differently. It isn’t the kind of knowledge you can't get from a book—and certainly not from a fairy tale. The more we expect our lives to reflect the fairy tale, the less we are able to see what our experiences really teach us—or to make progress toward passionate, enduring love.

The sad truth is that you can learn a lot more from losing your first love than from a perfect prom night. Surmounting the pitfalls and heartaches of life and relationships can, over time, help develop the inner strength, self-confidence, and equanimity necessary for enduring love—provided we can see them as opportunities for growth, rather than as debilitating failures.

Avoiding Risk Sabotages the Potential for Love

Fear of failure tends to cripple our development as intimate partners. If we cannot tolerate the risk that love might end, we may never allow ourselves to fall deeply in love. Or else we will love under a shadow of fear, avoiding conflict, stifling change, jealous of all possible rivals—slowly strangling the very thing we seek to preserve, as our relationship stagnates and our connection weakens. To avoid risk is also, even within a relationship, to avoid intimacy.

Thus, our fairy-tale hope for the impregnably secure relationship is counterproductive. Loving profoundly is like jumping from a 1,000-foot cliff—the opposite of safety. Without taking that plunge, we will not achieve what we seek. The feeling of being truly cherished only comes when we wholeheartedly give love, as well as receive it.

A New Standard for Relationship Success

Given the realities of love, we need to redefine what constitutes success and failure in intimate relationships. Instead of defining a failed relationship as one that ends, or ends "prematurely," we should consider a relationship of any length a success if has made both people happier, at least for a while, and left them better off than when it started. If a relationship has enhanced our abilities to be a good partner and provided life-enriching experiences, it has been a successful one.

A failed relationship is therefore not one that ends, but one that lingers on past its expiration date, making the people involved unhappy with their lives and resentful of each other. An amicable parting can be a very successful end to a relationship, while staying together forever, despite incompatibility, loneliness, and misery is the real failure.

The Benefits of Endings

This is equally true for parents, and though children should not be introduced to a parade of short-term partners, showing them the importance of moving on from unhappy romantic relationships is very beneficial.

Correspondingly, being single should not be seen as a marker of shame or undesirability, but as a valuable and necessary staging ground in the iterative exploration of love.

Mastering the Art of Love

Rather than judging ourselves harshly when a romance ends, we should offer ourselves the same kindness and encouragement that we would give unsteady toddlers toppling over, as they struggle to walk. The bumpy road to love may sometimes leave us in tears, flat on the ground, but if we have the courage to get up and try again, we are already succeeding.

Although a few lucky people master the arts of lasting intimacy within the confines of a single relationship, most of us require multiple and varied experiences. Developing the requisite self-knowledge and inner strength, as well as the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of love, is the work of a lifetime.


An earlier version of this article appeared in The Huffington Post.

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