How you define relationship “failure” may just help you stay together in a more fulfilling way – here’s why…
See the author’s TEDx Talk on Creating Extraordinary Intimacy in a Shut Down World.
Not too long ago I received an email from a man who wanted some advice about his sexless marriage. He went on to say that his wife is not the least interested in seeing a therapist or hearing the thoughts about their situation from the likes of me (or anyone else for that matter). My advice to him was not so much imploring them to “work it out.” Instead, I encouraged him to consider his options, including leaving his marriage if the thought of living with a mate who was no longer interested in intimacy felt intolerable. And I gently reminded him that we each only have so many days left on this planet, and to consider how he wants to spend the rest of them.
Most cultures call a dissolved committed relationship a “failure.” Instead, here’s a way to look at relationship “success” and “failure” from an entirely new and empowering perspective. One that leads to much greater overall lasting fulfillment…
Staying Together In Relationship Failure
The primary purpose of wedding vows is to illicit a commitment between two people to stay together and support each other regardless of circumstances. You know, all that “…in sickness and health, for richer or poorer…” stuff. And that, in and of itself is good. I mean let’s face it — who wants to marry and maybe even have kids with a fair weather spouse? Culturally speaking, the primary purpose of this solemn commitment was to support the propagation of the species. Without it, given our other genetically-wired tendencies, it would be very difficult to have and nurture children who would go on to have and nurture their own.
So I’m cool with all that — when the circumstances in question are external to the relationship. Whether life is challenging or all milk and honey, we are there for each other. However, when internal circumstances change, then all bets are off. By internal I mean one or both of the parties chooses to no longer connect, either emotionally or physically, resulting in a loss of fulfillment. And I contend that this is the very definition of relationship failure. A condition that can be temporary or permanent.
Ending the “togetherness” before it devolves into a lifeless quagmire of disconnection is the relationship equivalent of retiring while you are at the top of your game.
Using this distinction, relationship failure has little to do with whether you are together or not. In fact, by staying together under these circumstances, it is more of a failure than deciding to go your separate ways. Why? Because the condition of loss of fulfillment with the other person no longer exists and the possibility of enjoying it with someone else is now available to you. Likewise, two people who are fulfilled within their relationship may eventually grow apart for any number of other unrelated reasons. Ending the “togetherness” before it devolves into a lifeless quagmire of disconnection is the relationship equivalent of retiring while you are at the top of your game.
Yet there are powerful cultural and visceral forces that tend to keep a couple joined when they really have no business being so.
Comfort, Uncertainty And Fulfillment
As human beings we are wired (both genetically and culturally) to strive to master our survival needs first before pursuing higher level needs (like relationship fulfillment). Given this, is it any wonder that so many couples stay together even though they are completely unfulfilled? Another way of saying this is that most people prefer the certainty of their misery rather than risk the misery of uncertainty. This assumes of course there is little, if any, chance of regaining fulfillment with each other. By staying together, they feel their survival needs are less endangered than if they took the chance for fulfillment with someone else.
Yet, ironically, it is the willingness to embrace uncertainty within an intimate relationship that provides it the greatest possibility of remaining successful (i.e. fulfilling for both).
Daily Commitment For Lasting Relationship Success
My Life Partner and I are both divorced and know firsthand what a “relationship failure” looks and feels like. And, we both chose to end our respective previous marriages for that very reason. After being together for over three years our emotional, physical and spiritual intimacy continues to grow tremendously. This has resulted in a sense of continuing fulfillment beyond anything either of us have previously experienced. Yet, we are not likely to ever get married or say those tear-inducing vows.
That’s because we take nothing for granted — especially each other. We embrace the uncertainty of our relationship with open arms, no matter how uncomfortable it can be. We also re-affirm our commitment to our union every day by consciously being vulnerable, authentic and open-hearted for each other.
Vulnerability, authenticity and open-heartedness are the three pillars that support our very strong foundation of emotional intimacy. A quality that is missing in nearly all relationship failures as I defined it above.
Here’s the thing. We are both acutely aware that despite how deep our current bond is, there may come a day to move on for purposes of our respective personal growth. If this does happen, as sad a passing as it will be, I know it will be in the spirit of unconditional love and support for each other. And, we don’t hide from this possibility. Instead we consciously acknowledge it every time we meet — which is a most powerful reminder to show up for the other as fully and authentically as possible.
By fully facing this typically avoided relationship fear on an ongoing basis we remove much of the charge around it. And, in so doing, it frees us up to explore far more possibilities for our relationship that otherwise would remain hidden behind the curtain of fear. And that my friend is the most fertile ground for lasting relationship fulfillment one is ever likely to find.