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‘Til done do us part: Successful relationships can (and do) end

I refused to put “‘Til death do us part” in my wedding vows. I recognized that I can’t promise forever, even though I plan on being in a relationship with my husband until the end.

Most people seem to think that in order for a relationship to end successfully, it means that one person has to die. After all, if you break up or go your separate ways before then, doesn’t that mean you’ve failed at keeping it together? What people often stop to consider is that forever doesn’t mean success – and success doesn’t have to mean forever.

Successful relationships don’t always ride the relationship escalator, but an unsuccessful relationship doesn’t always stall on the escalator, either. Some people move in together, get married, or even have children in the hope that it would fix an already unsuccessful relationship (Some also start exploring polyamory to save a failing relationship, but that’s another post all together). On the other hand, sometimes successful relationships forego any or all of these things and still thrive. Many happy relationships continue along without getting married, having children, or even ever living together.

So, without looking at the length of a relationship to see how successful it is, how do you know what to look for?

What are the elements of successful relationships?

1) It’s beneficial for everyone in it

A relationship cannot be healthy or successful if it doesn’t have benefits for the people involved. Whether that’s companionship, connection, sex, or something else, a relationship that is not beneficial is not healthy. It’s not that you should go into a relationship looking to “get” or “take” things from the other person, but you should consider what the relationship means to you and what it adds to your life.

In a successful relationship, you are building each other up, not tearing each other down. You are sharing emotional intimacy and building connections, not breaking them down. You are being vulnerable, not causing vulnerability.

Once a relationship stops adding enough benefits to balance the effort you put into it, you need to start reexamining the relationship’s place and shape in your life. That doesn’t mean it has to end immediately, but it may take a different form. Maybe you will be friends instead of lovers, or lovers instead of partners. Maybe it does mean it has to end, but that’s okay too.

Sometimes, a relationship lasts only one night or an otherwise short length of time. As long as that’s what each partner wants, that’s fine. If that relationship benefits both people, however they define “benefits”, it was a successful one, and one they will probably look back on fondly, however brief it may have been.

2) You learn and grow from it

Everyone will learn and grow from each relationship they are in, whether it was a successful one or not. The difference in learning and growing in a successful relationship is that you do so constructively and positively. Your partner’s actions and feedback most likely encourage you and help you make choices and evolve as you grow.

You must also grow as an individual outside of the relationship, and your partner should support you in that. Codependency is not healthy, and it holds you back as you try to grow as a person. If your partner discourages your growth as an individual, you should reconsider whether this element of your relationship is healthy.

3) Needs and wants are clearly negotiated…

Whether you’re polyamorous, monogamous, or anywhere in between, this is an essential part of a successful relationship. You need to be clear about what you want and need in your relationship, listen to what your partner wants and needs, and find out if those wants and needs are compatible. Sometimes these wants and needs are relatively simple, and can affect even the early stages of a relationship.

Sexual compatibility is a huge one in many relationships. When you’re in a polyamorous relationship, you don’t necessarily need to feel perfectly compatible with someone, generally compatibility here is still important – including compatibility on the decision not to have sex.

Other smaller compatibilities are not usually going to take over a relationship. Shared interests, favorite foods, career paths, these can all be important in their own way but are generally not dealbreakers. There are bigger and harder topics, however, that you will want to address.

This includes taking a good, hard look at the relationship escalator and whether that’s the path you want to follow with your partner, or whether you want to make your own way. Do you want your future to include cohabiting? Children? Marriage? What level of entanglement do you want in your lives? Ask all of these questions and make sure that you’re on the same page, or at least are compatible in your needs and flexible in your wants.

There are some topics that are simply not negotiable. If one person wants children and the other person doesn’t, you can’t just have a child part-time. You need to be absolutely sure that things like this match up. Other times, you might be able to compromise, even on the other big decisions. Maybe you can agree to live in the same house but still want your own bedrooms. Maybe you don’t want to get legally married but you’re willing to have a commitment ceremony and celebrations.

Of course, these decisions don’t need to be made on the first date, but it’s important to know where you each stand early on, and which issues you’ll never budge on.

4) …And are renegotiated when necessary

Then again, you don’t know the future. People change and outlooks evolve. Something you swore you would never do, you now consider a need. Smaller wants and desires are almost guaranteed to change, and there are new ones to be found. Suddenly you discover a kink you never knew you had, or you realize you love to travel. You might want kids when you thought you never would, or decide that you never want them after all. If these desires match up with your partner’s, great! But sometimes we’re not so lucky.

You may find yourself in a relationship where, at the beginning, all your needs, wants, and desires lined up perfectly. After a few months or years, you might find that those things no longer align quite so perfectly. People and circumstances change; maybe someone started out saying they never wanted to live with a partner but is now interested in cohabiting, or perhaps the other way around. Other things, like sexual desires and libido, can also change, which forces a change in the relationship and interaction no matter what.

In a sense, polyamory makes this easier, though not easy. If you want to cohabit with a partner, you may be able to with one but not another. As time changes things, that may even swap one day. If you want children and one partner doesn’t, maybe you will raise children with another partner. You have options without having to give up any one partner to meet your needs.

Polyamorous or monogamous, one thing is the same. It is almost always easier to ride up the relationship escalator than to turn around and walk back down. This is why you should be very deliberate in taking any of those steps, especially those that you can’t turn back from (like having children). It’s much easier to move in than to move out; it’s much easier to get married than divorce.

5) You realize the relationship will end

Every single relationship, successful or not, ends one day. Whether that’s in death, someone moving away, with an explosive breakup, or just slowly drifting apart, things happen. Success is not measured in the length of time it survives, but in how the relationship worked when it was alive.

Do you have a friend in your past that you used to be close to? When that relationship ended, do you still look back with fond memories of the relationship as it was, without focusing on when or how it ended? That was a successful relationship. The same can be said for romantic relationships.

Breakups hurt, and can be messy. There’s no denying that. But if you look at what the relationship was, and how it helped shape you into who you are now, you can look back on a successful relationship, and enjoy it for what it was. A breakup doesn’t mean failure, it simply means an end of this form of the relationship. You may remain friends, you may not, or there may be a break before you become friends again. You may even get back together someday. No matter what, you still have the memories of that person in your life.

So, what is an unsuccessful relationship?

When it comes down to it, an unsuccessful relationship is one you really don’t want to be in, quite obviously. It can last forever. Have you ever seen an elderly married couple, bickering about everything and making cutting remarks at each other every so often? It’s so common that it’s a trope in TV and other media. Those relationships aren’t successful, they simply have stubborn endurance. The sunk cost fallacy is extremely strong in these cases; you’ve spent so much time on it, that it seems a shame to stop now. Is that what you want out of life?

An unsuccessful relationship will often hold people down and keep them in the boxes they started in. People will unwillingly or even unwittingly take the relationship escalator, perhaps not even realizing there’s an alternative.

Look for the marks of successful relationships, and look closely at the relationships you have, and will have. Make the most of your relationships, and work towards having successful ones, whether they last one night or ’til death do you part.

Chelsey Dagger

Chelsey is solo polyamorous, with multiple wonderful partners across the United States. They are in IT during the day, and at night they are currently in school for their Master's in Marriage and Family Therapy, and on their way to being a therapist, with focus on polyamorous and LGBTQ individuals and families.

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