“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” Scott Adams
In the creative fields and in entrepreneurship, it is vogue to fail and iterate. Design thinking luminaries like IDEO founders Tom and David Kelly urge us to embrace our failures, to own them and to use the learning on our path to doing great and original things. But failing in relationship is not generally held in quite so high esteem; rather the contrary, even today in the US where divorce rates hover somewhere between 40– 50%, people who have more than two or three long term relationships or marriages under their belts by mid life are looked at sideways. We cluck our tongues, call them unlucky in love; we label their deeply personal experiences failed relationships.
Where did we get the idea that people should be able to get relationship right the first or second or even third time around? Where did we get the idea that a relationship should be judged for its durability rather than rated for awareness gained or growth achieved? Or the crazy expectation that this very modern idea of marrying for love (even finding one’s soul mate) could be at all straightforward? It would be like expecting someone to hit a hole in one on their first day playing golf.
To those who have done this, to my very own parents (62 years of marriage) and to my brother and his wife (31), I bow down. To my many friends who hit the jackpot early—you blow my mind. I have wanted to be you many times.
However, I argue that in the context of relationship “failure” is a misnomer. My past has given me the opportunity to open my heart multiple times and cook (and burn) in the fire of experience. I had to go through many iterations of relationship in order to discover what I needed, what I wanted and what I was doing to insure that I would get neither. I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t (couldn’t) show up in my current relationship, without having learned from my past. Including the scorched parts and gristle.
Relationship is not for the faint of heart. We hone our skills and self-awareness in duress—under the mind-bending influences of our personal histories, collective traumas or the conventions of culture. We have to learn about our powers and how to use them well, both on our own behalf and for the other, in peaceful times and during conflict. It takes concerted effort to practice when we are triggered and where it hurts or humbles us the most. It helps to have a coach/counselor who can offer direct, constructive and sometimes painful feedback. And it takes inner work, meaning we have to learn to self-coach.
Practice makes better, in the long run—I promise. But ARGH… we give up the perverse and intoxicating altered state that comes with yelling, name calling, throwing things, blaming, giving the silent treatment, sulking, storming-out or feeling righteous and superior.
My 30 plus years experience working with couples has shown me that the art of mastering intimate relationship is as hard for some as mastering piano or golf or calculus is for others. Unresolved issues and persistent conflict eat away at love, erode trust and destroy hope. The fatal proclamation I hear too often from clients— it’s just too little too late—is indeed sometimes true.
However, breaking up is (almost always) hard to do.
Anticipating they will not be celebrated for yet another unsuccessful relationship, many otherwise confidant people hide what is happening at home. I did. How could someone as trained as I am, find herself in such an emotionally compromised, unsafe and painful situation? Again! What’s wrong with me? If you have asked yourself this, you are not alone. And beware: you bear the brunt and burden of a collective projection—a collective fear of old and aloneness. There but by the grace of god…
Social media does not help. Stunningly curated lives reveal next to nothing about what goes on at the kitchen table or behind bedroom doors. People who are bickering, sex-starved, lonely, critical or criticized, cheated on or cheaters, and those who are miserable, hysterical and lost…. yet again, rarely #bless us with their status updates. There is too much shame, fear and self-loathing—too much loud or silent judgment from the world. It’s especially true for victims of emotional or physical abuse and for those who either live with or suffer from mental illness or serious addiction.
Additionally, there are many situations where individuals do not have the physical, emotional or financial ability to free themselves, even when things are desperate. The inherent inequities in our world are mirrored in relationship and it will take much radical social change to improve the outcome for the disempowered parties in a break-up.
I make a point of helping individuals and couples find their raw truth and encounter the low point—I think this is the honest and ethical thing to do, even when it is emotionally agonizing. I make a point of supporting and congratulating people who find the courage and ability to end unhappy relationships.
The world does not generally celebrate this. I do.
In case you are someone with many past relationships under your belt, here are some steps you can take to gain maximum benefit. And for those who haven’t had to break up, keep these on hand, just in case.
1. Own your experience. In order to learn from experience, first you have to own it, including the gnarly, painful parts. Face yourself. First dwell on what happened and then deepen and unfold it until you discover something meaningful and/or surprising. Don’t get stuck in either beating yourself up or trying to move on to quickly.
2. Review your patterns. Take a birds eye view. Determine the signs and signals you miss in a repeated way. Then find some detachment and connect with a deep inner intelligence that can provide loving advice. Some common examples: a) high dreaming (believing in your highest hopes and ideals rather than seeing what is really happening), b) fear and avoidance of conflict, c) unfinished personal history (reacting to the present as if it is the past).
3. Seek support. Make a plan for how you will develop the skills and awareness you need in order to grow and do things differently.
4. Share the lessons. Don’t allow your shame to make you stingy. Share what you learned—the world needs your wisdom. . It definitely makes others feel #blessed when they know they aren’t alone.