How relationships fail
I’ve once read an article in a paper magazine which half-jokingly stated that “every love relationship lasts 3 years”. The idea was that intimacy, passion and infatuation in an average relationship last about 3 years, after which they either dissipate into boredom and routine, or turn into resentment and criticism.
Even if no expert can seriously support such an idea, it didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s based on the fact that few couples manage to deeply love and respect each other for many years. The theory about “the shelf-life of love” is an expression of a rather cynical resignation of many people whose hopes and dreams of happiness were shattered, perhaps repeatedly.
Maybe you are convinced it can’t happen to you… or maybe you remember being convinced it couldn’t happen to you? It only takes a bit of laziness, ignorance and thoughtlessness to spoil your most important adult relationship.
A rational explanation of this half-serious “theory” could be summarized in this way: by the third year of an average relationship, positive projections and transference* have faded away, negative projections and transference have developed, motivation has given in to laziness, communication has become careless and inconsiderate, the partners have started to take each other for granted, and the pile under the carpet has matured and started to breed.
It’s so easy to thoughtlessly lash out at the partner when for whatever reason we feel irritable, to blame them for our immature anger, to strive to control them out of various fears, and show less and less love and respect because “it’s understood”.
Love and passion can be maintained for years by building trust and respect. Every temper tantrum, every inconsiderate comment, every expression of irresponsibility and thoughtlessness erode both trust and respect. When those are gone, some unhealthy bond (based on transference) can still exist for a while, but healthy love can not.
Some relationships fall apart because people carelessly apply the idea that it’s healthy to argue and express oneself. This is basically true – but many people practice that idea without much responsibility and self-awareness. Thus what might have been a healthy discussion can easily become a power struggle full of criticism and blaming. Arguing and expressing yourself is healthy – providing you do it responsibly and thoughtfully.
Some people might equate passion with emotional tension and drama. They might half-consciously provoke fights and insecurity to increase “passion”. They probably learned to associate emotional drama with love as young children, in their early families. If such people don’t put effort into resolving that pattern, they might find it very difficult to even be attracted to a healthy and responsible person. Thus achieving a quality relationship might be nearly impossible.
Infatuation doesn’t last forever, no matter how much we might hope so. But if you maintain trust and respect, infatuation will be replaced by a more stable and calm form of love. Healthy love usually does not bring so much intensity, ups and downs, butterflies in the stomach even at the very beginning, compared to infatuation based on childish transference. You might ask, does it mean that healthy love means less passion? You might perceive it that way if you confuse tension and drama with passion.
Healthy love does not include so much obsessiveness, idealizing, anxiety, relief and rapture at every sign of attention by a loved one, but that’s more than made up for by passion which is calmer, but deeper; by intimacy which comes from mutual recognition and trust, rather than self-deception and projections; and by maintaining a good relationship with yourself, too.
Healthy passion can grow and deepen with time, as partners have more and more chances to understand and appreciate each other. Acknowledging our mistakes responsibly, calm and supportive reactions when the partner is emotionally overwhelmed, expressions of affection and attention … enable intimacy and respect to grow rather than decrease. Every time you express your opinion, disagreement or an objection thoughtfully and without criticism, every time you show you pay attention and think about what your partner says… you add another brick into the house of lasting love.
You shouldn’t take all the responsibility upon yourself, however. For your expressions of respect, understanding, and support to improve your relationship, your partner also needs to recognize them, appreciate them, and be motivated to reciprocate. Not all people are willing or able to do so. Here are some key personality traits to look for when choosing a partner (or when choosing whether to stay in a relationship):
- emotional awareness. People who are used to ignoring their own feelings won’t be able to distinguish which of them are healthy, and which are not, so they are likely to follow immature urges when those become strong enough.
- responsibility. Is your partner willing to acknowledge their mistakes, overcome unhealthy urges, recognize patterns they need to change and work on changing them?
- thoughtful communication. Does your partner take care to choose appropriate words? Do they work on improving their communication, or do they believe it’s their god-given right to blurt out whatever they feel like, and if that feels hurtful, it’s your problem?
- empathy. Lack of compassion naturally leads to thoughtlessness, selfishness and irresponsibility.
If you and your partner both possess these qualities, I dare say almost any other differences and misunderstandings can be resolved. But if even one of these qualities is lacking, the chance for a long term happy relationship is small. The key question is, how strong are these qualities in a person? We cannot measure them in any scale we know of, and in the beginning it might be difficult even to assess them.
I suggest you rely on your instinct (rather than your hopes) when searching for possible lack of these qualities, not only in the behavior, but also in facial features, words and gestures of your love interest. Be prepared that it might take quite a while to figure out someone’s faults, especially if you don’t yet live together. Try not to fully commit to a relationship until you’ve spent at least one year living together – that is often (but not always) enough for masks to fall. Of course, by that time your partner might decide you lack some of those qualities, so it pays off to practice self-awareness.
* projections can be defined as perceiving our own feelings, intentions and traits, whether real or imagined, as belonging to somebody else.
Transference means to unconsciously perceive someone in front of you as if they were somebody else – usually somebody important from your past – and react with similar feelings and behaviors as if that other person were there.