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November 30, 2015

How to Defuse the Fear of Failure in Relationships.

Zlatko Vickovic/Flickr

Have you ever felt like your relationship was… failing? When our love life goes through a difficult moment, when we are on the brink of a breakup or divorce, fear of failure may take over.

The prospect of facing our failure, and having to admit it both to ourselves and to others, can be truly terrifying.

In this paralysing state of mind, it is difficult to embrace change, especially if it goes in an unplanned direction. When failure finally happens, we try to resist, and if we can’t—then we start looking for someone to blame for things having gone wrong.

Why is that? Where does this fear come from?

The notion of “failure” can only exist because of its opposite and complementary idea: success.

Most of us strive to have “successful” relationships. Many of us secretly hope that those around us will look at our love life with admiration and perhaps a bit of envy. When this image of perfection is threatened, we feel scared and frustrated.

In the long run, evaluating our relationships in terms of success and failure can turn our relationships into something more similar to a mission, a project, an endeavor. And obviously, if we are concerned about success, failure is lurking just around the corner.

But who and what defines success and failure with regards to intimate relationships?

Relationship models are, at the end of the day, social constructs. We are constantly bombarded with representations of how a successful relationship should look. All sorts of advertisements, from food to cars to clothing, portray happy, healthy and generally heterosexual couples with apparently nothing to worry about. Not to mention movies, books and magazines; if they want to sell, featuring a successful love story is almost a requirement.

Being constantly exposed to these images of couples with perfect smiles, beautiful houses, beautiful babies, shining cars, we end up yearning to be them. Those images become powerful archetypes.

We gradually create an unconscious standard against which we measure our love life. While we would be reluctant to admit it, most of us, at least at some point, consider a relationship successful to the extent that it matches the models we see in the media.

For some of us, those standards can have pretty disastrous consequences on our intimacy, as we realize that real life is much more complex than those simplistic pictures.

The first step towards freeing ourselves from those hidden criteria of success is acknowledging them and making them explicit. Here’s a simple way to do it:

1. Grab a piece of paper and write down some real examples of intimate relationships that you consider successful. Resist any temptation to include characters from books or movies, famous personalities that you’ve never met or basically anyone that you don’t know directly.

(I would recommend not including your parents in the list, even if you consider their relationship as very successful. The reason is that it is very difficult for us to be objective about our parents’ intimate relationship, and much of our perception about it is formed during childhood.)

2. Now, have a look at the list and write down the characteristics that make those relationships successful in your eyes. Is it the long duration? Or communication and respect? Or, perhaps, passion and desire? Financial stability? Make your standards explicit by describing them.

Having uncovered our inner standards of success and failure, we can ask ourselves whether they help us or hinder us in our quest for love.

Often, a surprising realization is that there is no reason to assume that other people share our standards. In fact, when we take for granted that we all agree on the same idea of successful relationships, we are setting the stage for an infinite variety of misunderstandings.

Instead, by clearly communicating our ideas about success in a relationship to our lovers and listening to their standards with an open mind, we can maximize our chances of finding common ground.

This is good enough, and yet, I believe that we can go even further than that and ask ourselves whether talking about failure and success in relationships makes any sense at all.

I believe that there is indeed a purpose in relationships. But the purpose isn’t success—and not even happiness—it is evolution. As someone who counsels people in the realms of relationships and intimacy, I discovered early on that I couldn’t just tell my clients that I would help them “have a successful relationship.” I would help them evolve, whatever that meant—even if that meant parting ways with their current partner.

In fact, there may be an underlying, grinding contradiction in the idea of “success in love.” Love is something that, by definition, cannot be measured, so how can we measure its “success?”

What if we dropped the notions of failure and success in relationships altogether?

Wouldn’t we be better off if we embraced our humanity, the frailness of life and the mutability of intimate relationships? If we abandoned all ideas of success and failure, and focused on living in the present moment, ready to embrace change if and when it occurs?

This may be a bold step to take. It requires reframing our ideas about love completely. It means abandoning the hope that at some point in our lives we will “make it,” winning the lottery of love once and for all.

It means accepting love as an eternal dance, ever surprising and unpredictable.

Yet, if the alternative is getting trapped in an eternal cycle of failure and frustration, it might be a step well worth taking.

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Author: Raffaello Manacorda

Editor: Toby Israel

Photo: Zlatko Vickovic/Flickr 

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