When it comes to relationships, we want them to last. Especially when it comes to a primary partnership. Relationship longevity is something that we want and our definition of success always centers around what we want. What we want and therefore intend in a relationship is even embedded in most wedding vows… to be with the person until “death do us part” (or longer). And because this is what we want and because it is what governing bodies wanted (when they decided to make marriage the foundation of societal structure), longevity is how we define success in a marriage. Longevity in a relationship is like a badge of honor. People can feel successful and proud when they tell someone how long they have been together.
The thing is, when it comes to relationships, longevity both is and isn’t a measure of success. Being friends with someone or a partner to someone or married to someone or working with someone for a long time may be an indication of relationship success. Or, it may not. Here is what I mean:
On one hand, longevity can indicate that two people are compatible and have found a way to form a kind of symbiosis. That their commitment to the relationship and dedication to working on the relationship has made it so that they have created repair to any ruptures that have occurred. That instead of succumbing to perpetual avoidance by running from discomfort the minute it came up; they used the relationship to grow. But instead of growing apart, they grew together. It can indicate that they are practicing the mastery of relationship. It can mean that their relationship is healthy. It can indicate that the relationship is successful.
On the other hand, longevity can indicate that for whatever reason, two people are committed to staying together, no matter how incompatible and miserable they both are. That in response to the pain of the relationship, in order to stay together and not make a change, they each figured out coping mechanisms to deal with the relationship. As a result, they did not grow. They are not in a relationship that is healthy. And they are not in a relationship that is successful. It is a mistake to think that if a relationship lasts, it automatically means that it is a good and successful relationship. People can stay together for their entire lives in a dysfunctional, toxic dynamic with one another.
When we don’t recognize this, and we treat longevity as the definitive marker for success in a relationship, we think that anyone who is in a relationship that has lasted a long time, has the key to a successful relationship. The reality is, they may have great wisdom and advice or they may not. What they may have is the key to creating a toxic dynamic that lasts a lifetime or the key to coping with a dissatisfactory relationship rather than changing the relationship or getting into a different one.
So that you can understand what I mean, I’ll give you an example. Miriam has been married to Robert for 45 years. As a result, people definitely see their relationship as successful, three of their four kids do too. When they were in their late 20s, Robert started a sales business. He was gone 3/4ths of the time and Miriam was left to raise the children completely alone. She was miserable. This misery was compounded by the fact that Robert had a raging temper, was totally disengaged from her and the kids when he was home and had an affair at one point. Robert felt bored by Miriam. She lacked both passion and interests. She never said or did anything exciting. She didn’t want to make any decisions for herself. He hated her passive aggressive character. She was not affectionate and so he felt sexually rejected. And he resented the dependency she loved to foster in him. The relationship was not a good one and it was full of dysfunctional patterns. However, both Miriam and Robert stayed committed to keeping the relationship together. They both cared a lot about their family’s opinions and both of their family’s believed that you never say the “D” word (divorce) in marriage. They didn’t want to disrupt their kid’s sense of family, so they believed in staying together for the kids. Miriam did not believe in her ability to create a livelihood or to be safe in the world without Robert. Robert wanted nothing to do with raising kids and so he felt dependent on Miriam to be there and to be the one doing it. And neither of them wanted to face the societal stigma of divorce and be looked down on by their community. So, they stayed together. And each of them found ways to cope with the pain.
Miriam coped by ignoring and denying the things she disliked about Robert or any of his behaviors and fixated instead on what she loved about him. She replaced intimacy and communication with him, with intimacy and communication with a group of best friends. She distracted herself as well as found something to look forward to in a television show that came on every night. She let go of any expectations of him and instead poured all of her needs and expectations into her children. And she took to smoking. Robert coped by coming up with every excuse to not be home. He considered his family to be a stable nest that was always available, but he found all his zest for life away from all of them. He took the edge off his irritation with a gin n’ tonic every afternoon and by obsessing over sports games on TV. He made every effort to make it known that his kids were to expect no attention from him, and to go to their mother for whatever they needed. He bought Miriam presents occasionally in order to gain some of her temporary satisfaction, because it bought him some relief from the tension between them.
Miriam and Robert were not happy, even though they said they were. And they believed their relationship to be successful because they were still together and because their experience was “normal”. After all, so many other married couples they knew were experiencing the same things. When people ask them what the secret to a good marriage is, Miriam says it is accepting the other person for exactly who they are instead of trying to change them. Robert says it is to use your head and pick a spouse for important things like who would keep a good home or who would be a good mother or who would be financially responsible.
A relationship has a much bigger chance of lasting a long time, even a lifetime, if it is a good one, if it contributes to the growth and wellbeing of each person, if it is healthy and if it is compatible. But longevity should not be considered the measure of whether a relationship is good or is healthy or is compatible or does contribute to the wellbeing and growth of each person. There are many relationships that are successful that are not long. And there are many relationships that are long that are not successful.
It is time for the whole of human society to recognize that longevity should not be the definitive measure of success in a relationship. That relationship success should be based on other things; most especially the mental, emotional and physical wellbeing if each person that is part of the relationship and the degree to which the relationship nourishes that wellbeing. Of course, if people realized this, the social structure of society would inevitably have to change.