You’ve probably heard some variation on the old expression, “Every relationship fails until one doesn’t.” Charming, no? It underscores the widespread belief in Western society that every relationship that does not culminate in a marriage, or a relationship in which a marriage doesn’t last, is by definition a “failure.” It’s something to perhaps be slightly ashamed of, and whose contents are swiftly tossed into the reject bin.
Whether or not you realize it, you’ve probably adhered to this notion at some point in your dating life. If you’ve caught yourself saying, “Yeah, my last relationship was a hot mess,” or “I wasted so much time on something that was never going to work out,” you’re absolutely mirroring back the idea that because you and your partner broke up, the relationship was unsuccessful.
This notion has got me thinking about a particularly beloved Hollywood darling, who also can’t seem to escape the stigma of failed relationships: Jennifer Aniston.
Since her infamous divorce from Brad Pitt, Jennifer has rarely been seen single. From 2006 to the present, she’s dated or was rumored to have dated Vince Vaughn, Paul Sculfor, John Mayer (more than once!), Gerard Butler, Harry Morton, and as of quite recently, Justin Theroux.
Each time she parts ways with the next actor-model-hunk, there seems to be a collective sigh on behalf of America’s Sweetheart. In fact, even Jennifer has clued in on how many people seem to feel genuinely sorry for her inability to find lasting love. In a recent interview Jennifer declared: “I’m happy. Really. I think people honestly just want to see me as a mom and married and barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. And I just want to say, ‘Everybody, relax! It’s going to happen.’”
She’s also said, in reference to her long string of exes, “I have no animosity towards any of them. You spent quality time together and meant something to one another.”
Jen Aniston seems to intrinsically understand something that the vast majority of the world does not: A relationship that ended doesn’t have to be a failure. Below, I’m doing away with the typical anatomy of a failed relationship and redefining what constitutes “success,” even after a relationship ends.
Wrong: Your ex was completely wrong for you.
Slash the notion that if a relationship ends, the person you were with was never right for you. Your ex was right for you during the time that you were with them. Like Jennifer said, you meant something to each other. People grow and evolve and are changed by countless indeterminable forces in just the course of a year or two. Not every relationship, no matter how much you may mean to each other, will be able to encompass two people’s growth, evolution, and personal change.
If the relationship can’t contain or fully satisfy two constantly evolving people after a certain amount of time, that doesn’t mean the relationship was wrong the entire time you were in it. You may or may not buy into it, but consider your ex as someone who served a purpose in your life. Their purpose may not have been to be your lifelong partner, but I guarantee with a little hindsight and reflection, you’ll realize what their purpose was.
Wrong: You should always loathe your ex.
At the very beginning of a breakup it is best to harbor at least a little anger and resentment toward your ex. That animosity and hurt we feel can fuel the fire that moves us forward and away from our ex, not backward toward an unhealthy on-again-off-again relationship.
In time, though, your attitude about your ex is likely to shift from “oh-my-god-I-hate-him-I-can’t-believe-he-did-this-to-me!!” to “eh, whatever.” When you reach that state of shrug-it-off neutrality, you’ll probably begin to find yourself feeling (dare I say it?) grateful to your ex. Sure, he caused you significant pain, but he’s also the catalyst for a huge life change, one that you’ve learned from and that caused you to grow and mature.
No matter how badly the relationship was or how awfully it ended, you will always end up uttering something to the effect of: “If X hadn’t broken up with me, I wouldn’t have become so independent/ambitious/wise/strong/savvy/open-minded/mature.” After that, it becomes hard to completely loathe someone who, by closing a door, inadvertently opened some better windows in your life. (Hint: this would be serving that “purpose” I just spoke of.)
Wrong: You wasted time in your past relationships.
Most people are going to have a string, much like Jennifer Aniston’s, of relationships that ended. That doesn’t mean that you’re bad at relationships or that you’re somehow doomed to a life of singledom. Generally, it means that you just haven’t found the person who you’ll click with for the long haul. And just because you haven’t yet found that particular person doesn’t mean that everything in the past was a huge waste of time.
Stop disrespecting your past relationships. You chose to be in them and, at one point, they made you happy. Every relationship you have defines your life in some way. It helps you grow, it teaches you valuable lessons that you’ll apply later; and, if nothing else, makes you more appreciative of the one relationship that does go the distance.
Imagine what would happen if you met the person who you do end up with for the rest of your life before some of your “failed” relationships happened. What person would they have known? Would they have known you as you are today, or some past version of yourself who wasn’t as mature, wasn’t as smart, wasn’t as wise and wasn’t as ready for a lifelong commitment as you are now?
Our experiences make us who we are, and our relationships are some of our most life-shaping experiences. You don’t fail when your relationship ends. You simply add one more component to what makes you “you.” I wouldn’t call any of that a waste of time.
Personally, one of my most exhausting, unhealthy and emotionally wrenching relationships was also one of my most successful. Not, of course, because the relationship worked out for the two of us, but because of what it did for me. Because of that so-called “failure,” I became someone much, much better than who I was in the relationship.
And instead of labeling every past relationship as a failure, or worthless or a waste of time, I think we should take a moment to be grateful for the path our life didn’t take, had we stayed in the relationship, and reflect on who we’ve become thanks to its breakdown. That should be the true anatomy of a “failed” relationship.
Each week in “Relationships by Rachel,” TMR columnist Rachel East tackles relationships in all their blissful, heartbreaking, and mind-boggling glory.