In my last post, we spent a lot of time digging into the potential costs of having default narratives around relationship structure. This post picks up where that left off, digging instead into the potential costs of having default narratives around the endings of relationships.
Permanence as a measure of success
So let’s begin with an obvious edge case: in a Disney universe, a relationship is successful if (and only if) it ends with somebody dying. To put it another way: if a relationship ends for any reason other than death, that relationship has failed.
And it’s certainly true that most people don’t seriously have that expectation. But it is, in our culture, the standard benchmark, the default narrative; it’s always “’til death do us part” this and “it just didn’t work out” that. That is, while most of us don’t expect our romantic relationships to be permanent, that expectation is a settling for, a jaded acknowledgement that the world isn’t perfect and therefore a tacit endorsement of the idea that things would be otherwise in a perfect world.
So when a relationship lives up to our more cynical expectations by ending, we tend to experience that as a failure, as having relationshipped wrongly or having picked the wrong person to relationship with. To put it another way: even though we have a general expectation that our relationships will end, there is no widely available narrative that allows us to treat a relationship that’s ended as having been a successful one.
When was the last time a relationship ended for you and your response to that separation earnestly included a “Thank you” or an “I learned a lot from being with you”? Have you been able to hold in your heart both an “I’m glad we did that” and an “I’m glad it’s over”? Have you ever described a relationship that has ended as having “worked out”? If not, why do you think that is?
Loss as a measure of love
How do we demonstrate to someone that we love them? How do we demonstrate it to ourselves? Taking a look at our culture, both pop- and otherwise, two primary (and complementary) approaches present themselves: promises of permanence and performances of grief.
We’ve already discussed permanence, but what’s the deal with the other thing? The problem with affection is that it’s hard to express — words don’t really do it justice and it’s nowhere near as simple as flowers and chocolates. So we use proxies, we use heuristics. We assign symbolism to behaviors and values to symbols, and we hope for the best.
One of the easiest proxies to reach for is suffering: after all, if you make me x units happier, then without you I’d be x units more miserable, and romantic misery is one of the few kinds generally permitted by our culture. (Bonus round: we live in capitalism, so we’re very used to measuring how much we value something in terms of what it costs us.) So we write songs about how bad our lives were before our current partner, and we wax poetic about how sad we’ll be after, and we generally use that subjunctive and counterfactual suffering as a way of measuring and expressing our present and actual love.
And in a certain sense, that’s noble. It is, after all, an attempt to forge stronger bonds and build networks of affection. But in another sense, it’s cruel and self-defeating — cruel because it holds you hostage today against my potential suffering tomorrow, and self-defeating because it obligates me to grieve deeply if and when the relationship does end.
If I say (and mean) that “I can’t imagine my life without you” and then the relationship ends, I have no choice but to suffer. I’m left adrift in a world I didn’t prepare for, left to shoulder the burden of the loss that I committed myself to in attempting to express my love. And, assuming our relationship was roughly symmetrical, I’m also left feeling responsible for the corresponding sense of loss that you’re now stuck grappling with.
At this point, I’m left with two options. I can mope and wallow and push my way through with a pint or three of ice cream, or I can try to recast and deflect.
Distance as a measure of closeness
Responsibility, like grief, is uncomfortable. The easiest way to avoid both is by turning them into anger; the surest salve for “I miss you” is “good riddance.” Suddenly, everything that drew me to you pushes me away; the more strongly I felt about you, the more strongly I have to reject you ex post to maintain my own emotional equilibrium.
In this way, the distance we create post-separation becomes a measure of the closeness we shared before. In a meaningful way, I’d already committed to this absolute rejection by treating you throughout as an absolute need, by measuring and expressing my then-present love in terms of my then-future loss.
Now, I’m not saying that you should be friends with all your exes. Some relationships end in ways that are traumatic or involve betrayals or other signals that you really shouldn’t have those people in your life. But it’s a problem if the ways we express affection and evaluate relationship success are interfering with this even being possible.
All together now
So, to recap: our baseline cultural metric of relationship success prevents us from thinking of relationships that have ended as successful ones, and our typical ways of expressing love commit us to deep grief and/or fury. That’s probably not ideal, so… what are the alternatives? How else can we express affection and evaluate our relationships?
For me personally, my metric of relationship success has always been “after this is over, will we be able to look back and say ‘I’m glad we did that’?” This has generally served me well, but it’s hardly the only alternative to “did someone die? no? then the relationship didn’t work out.” (To be clear, this is not an approach that works for everyone. I’m dating a woman now who found my attempts to prophylactically prepare her for my eventual absence distressing — not because our relationship will have been a failure for her if it ends, but because she’d rather deal with those feelings if and when they arise — so I’ve stopped always talking about our future together as hypothetical.)
Did a relationship help get one or more of the participants through a difficult time? Did it leave them happier or healthier than they were going into it? Have they learned a new thing about themselves or about relationships more generally? Are they now equipped to be better partners in future relationships? Were they able to work through the hurt of the relationship ending without harming each other? Any of those things looks to me like a successful relationship.
By re-imagining success, we free ourselves also to express our love in ways that are less toxic — by abandoning the aspiration to permanence, we make potential loss a part of the relationship and strip loss of its appeal as a measure of closeness. Without that low-hanging fruit to distract us, we can find all sorts of new ways to express our affection: desire, gratitude, care, acts of service, and whatever else feels authentic for that relationship.
See, that’s the whole point of regarding with skepticism default cultural narratives, whether about the structures of relationships or their endings: the more we uncritically adopt those default narratives, the less room there is for authenticity in our lives and relationships. The more we measure love in terms of loss and relationship success in terms of permanence, the more we distract ourselves from the joy and care and goodness we can bring to and receive from people. The more wedded we are to those metrics, the more distant we become from the relationships themselves.