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Why Relationship Failures Can Be Good for You

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So often our romantic and sexual relationships end in regret, sadness, and loss. Those initial feelings of excitement and connection seem to slip through our fingers; they just fade away, and we're not sure why that happened. Nevertheless, men and women continue to hope to find that elusive "soul mate," a relationship of sustained vitality. But so often, partners descend into what I've called the "functional relationship." Some become lost in a maize of unfulfilling sexual connections or affairs.

In previous posts I've written about some roots of that seemingly inevitable decline, and what can help restore or build new vitality. But I think there's another part of relationship failure or loss that can be a basis of new growth.

Let me explain. Over the decades I've witnessed countless examples of people drawn into new relationships that are simply new versions of previous, failed relationships -- old wine in new flasks, as the saying goes. And inevitably, disaster is waiting, right down the road. That often happens when an important part of the foundation for a positive, sustainable romantic and sexual relationship is neglected or overlooked.

That is, mental health practitioners focus a great deal on building better mechanics of listening, mirroring to each other, techniques of communication and compromise, and so on. All good stuff. And what I wrote about in my previous post, about the need for a shared vision of life is essential, as well, at the front end of a relationship.

But what can go missing is a deeper learning, emotionally and spiritually: Learning not only what went wrong in your past, failed relationships; but also learning from the residue of the loss and using that awareness in your future relationships. That means incorporating the meaning of your loss or failure into the fabric of your life, and identifying what you need to learn from it as you go forward.

That missing ingredient came to mind recently when I read an essay by a woman who encountered the son of an early, lost love. Reading it stirred up an old memory. As a young boy growing up in upstate New York, I sometimes roamed through some nearby woods and fields. As I did that one bright, summer afternoon, I came upon a large tree -- perhaps an elm or poplar. I noticed that its trunk had a deep scar, and looked like it had been struck by lightning some years before.

That memory was triggered -- for reasons I'll explain below -- by reading Lee Montgomery's essay, "First Love, Once Removed." She describes a drop-in visit by the son of her first lover, with whom she had many romantic and adventurous experiences in her early youth, during the 1970s.

She writes:

When I think of Ian, I think of endless days hanging out in the woods and fields around our New England prep schools, sucking dope out of a metal chamber pipe. Ian showed me the world and taught me to live in it. New York City. The Great West. And Europe, where we lived for several months during his first college year abroad. He was socially connected and wealthy, two things I was not. For a long time, it didn't matter.

Eventually, their relationship ended. No surprise, for two 18 year olds. She went on with her life: "I went to college, fell in love again (and again), married, went to graduate school and made a career. For his part, Ian... inherited a lot of money, moved out West, married, had no career that I knew of and shot himself when he was in his 30s."

His son, who was quite young at the time his father committed suicide, was now about the age Montgomery was when she and his father were lovers. She describes his dropping by her office one day, hoping to hear some stories of what his father was like. The memories felt alive as she drew into them and spoke with her young lover's son about his father: "Sitting across a booth studying this young man, I was overwhelmed. So many years later, I was stunned to find the feeling of first love still there... We were really happy once. My word, imagine to be that age, in love and alive."

Montgomery's poignant essay brought to mind the importance of facing and living with the enduring loss of love and connection. It affects us permanently. And that can be a good thing. No matter whether it was because the two of you grew in different directions as you enter adulthood, or from failure to build on what you once shared together. Nor does it matter if the relationship ended because of something you did that harmed or damaged the relationship. None of those experiences can be undone.

Nor should they. Their legacy becomes woven into the larger tapestry of your life, even as that tapestry enlarges over time. The challenge is to incorporate all of it; learn about yourself from all of your experiences, especially what didn't work or what was negative... or else keep repeating new versions of it.

That's what brought to mind the old tree trunk I saw as a young boy. Damaged where the lightning had struck, I noticed that the trunk had continued to grow around it and gradually encompassed the damaged part within it.

It was like what happens in life: Even if you continue to grow and change, learn from your experiences and continue on with your life, your losses nevertheless remain part of you... always there, a visible, enduring part of you. But by embracing that reality, loss of failure in love can be a good thing for your future relationships -- if you can learn to integrate it; meld it into your ongoing life journey, your personal "evolution."

Here's a way you can begin learning from your failed or lost love relationships. I call it a Relationship Inventory. Start by making a list of your major romantic relationships. Then:

• For each one, reflect on and write down what attracted you to that person, at that particular time of your life. What were the qualities of that person that aroused your interest? Why those qualities? What were your life circumstances at the time? What role did those play? Include family influences, as well as the impact of what you thought love was, at that time. How would you assess your own level of development or awareness at that time?

• Describe in one or two paragraphs what you think happened during the relationship that led to its end, from today's perspective. That is, from the vantage point of what you know about yourself today.

• Write down what you think you learned -- or were unable to learn at that time -- about yourself from that relationship.

• How did that help -- or could have helped, had you been more aware at the time -- evolve your capacity for a positive, sustaining relationship?

• How can you use that knowledge and awareness now, with your current -- or next -- relationship?

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is Director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, DC

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