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Relationships

To Find Love, Change the Way You Think About Relationships

Odds are, you are not somehow worse at relationships than everyone else.

Key points

  • It’s hard to extricate oneself from a failure mindset.
  • Just seeing others’ relationships through that lens is a type of cognitive distortion.
  • Four to five of every 10 currently married people you know will someday be divorced or have already been divorced.

Every relationship I’ve ever been in has failed, so why should the next one be any different?

If that sentiment sounds familiar, then this article is for you.

It’s hard to extricate oneself from a failure mindset. Unless you’re new to dating or your last partner passed away, you have never been in a “successful” relationship. Right?

In a way, that’s true. If your goal is a lifelong committed relationship, you want a partner to grow old with, and all your past relationships ended in breakups, you have so far “failed.” But before you sink deeper into your failure mindset, let’s take a step back.

Everywhere you look, it seems there are people in “forever” relationships. They’re in happy, loving, committed partnerships that you—and they—imagine will go on until death does them part. But just seeing others’ relationships that way is a type of cognitive distortion. If you believe that you’ll never get married and that everyone you know who is married will stay married forever, facts aren’t on your side.

Instead, your beliefs are marred with cognitive distortions and biases.

When you look at a happy couple and think, “They’re going to be together forever,” and then look at your history of breakups and think, “I’ll never have what they have,” you’re fortune telling. Cognitive behavioral therapists define fortune telling as predicting an “outcome without realistically considering the actual odds of that outcome” (1).

Let’s consider some statistics: 43 percent of people aged 55 to 64 have been divorced at least once (2). That means four to five of every 10 currently married people you know will someday be divorced or have already been divorced. Look at it another way: “Among those 75 years or older” who have ever been married, “58 percent of women and 28 percent of men [have] experienced the death of a spouse in their lifetime” (3). If you imagine every relationship that ends in a breakup or divorce as “failed,” then little more than half of all women and a quarter of men have been in a “successful” one.

Here’s another statistic: 53 percent of Americans aged 25 to 54 are currently married (as of 2019) (4). If you’re under age 60 and have never been married, and you look around yourself and only see happily married couples, you’re falling into the confirmation bias trap. Confirmation bias is “the brain’s tendency to search for and focus on information that supports what someone already believes while ignoring facts that go against those beliefs” (5). You feel like everyone other than you is happily coupled off, so that’s all you see.

Often when we recover from an ended relationship and begin to imagine dating again, we think of our most recent relationships and extrapolate from there. When we do this, we’re using the cognitive bias called the availability heuristic: a thought process in which “someone estimates whether something is likely to occur based on how readily examples come to mind” (6).

If all you’ve known in your dating life are relationships that ended in a divorce or breakup, you think you know the probability that your next one will be a “success”: zero. When you think this way, you forget all the relationships you’ve been in that haven’t ended in catastrophe but for other reasons. For example, you moved to a different city, you grew apart, or only one of you wanted kids. Can you really call those relationships “failed”?

“Anything worth doing is worth doing badly,” the poet Jack Gilbert writes in defense of “failed” marriages in “Failing and Flying” (7). In the poem, he compares an ended marriage to the flight of Icarus in Greek myth. Icarus, with wings of wax, flew too close to the sun. The sun melted his wings, and he fell into the sea. To Gilbert, people get too caught up in the falling-into-the-sea part of the story. “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew,” he writes. When you’re so focused on the endings of things, you risk forgetting all the middle parts—the happy relationships you’ve been in that simply didn’t work out and the many happy moments in relationships that, in the end, broke your heart.

It is not that you are somehow worse at relationships than everyone else; it’s just that at this current moment, you’re not in one, and some people around you are. Going by the data, at some point in the future, it’s highly likely that you’ll be in a relationship, and some of your currently coupled friends will be single.

Your past relationships aren’t a series of failures but of adventures that have ended. The past isn’t necessarily prologue. If you keep an open heart and an open mind and are realistic about what it means to find a “forever” person, you will find love again.

“I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,” Gilbert writes, “but just coming to the end of his triumph.”

References

(1) Bonfil, A. (2020, March 23). Cognitive distortion: Fortune telling. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Los Angeles. https://cogbtherapy.com/cbt-blog/cognitive-distortion-fortune-telling

(2) Bureau, U. S. C. (2021, October 8). Number, timing and duration of marriages and divorces. Census.gov. https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2021/marriages-and-divor…

(3) Bureau, U. S. C. (2021, October 8). Marriage, divorce, widowhood remain prevalent among older populations. Census.gov. https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2021/04/love-and-loss-among-olde…

(4) Fry, R., & Parker, K. (2022, March 11). Rising share of U.S. adults are living without a spouse or partner. Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends Project. https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2021/10/05/rising-share-of-u-…

(5) Psychology Today. Confirmation bias. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/bias#:~:text=What%20is%20conf…

(6) Psychology Today. Availability heuristic. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/heuristics#:~:text=What%20is%…

(7) Gilbert, J (n.d.). Failing and Flying. Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48132/failing-and-flying

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