Looking back at your past relationships, you can’t help but feel dejected. For one reason or another, they all ended, and not always on a good note. You’re trying to understand why relationships fail so you can break the pattern.
First, let me just say: it’s not your fault. I know you might be hard on yourself, thinking of all the ways you might have caused a relationship to fail. But think of it like this: you’re looking for a needle in a haystack, one guy in a million, so by proxy, every relationship except one is supposed to fail!
Still, understanding some common reasons why relationships fail can help you to keep an eye out for red flags as well as do your best to make things work out.
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Is a Relationship a Failure or a Lesson on Love?
Depending on your perspective, a relationship that ends isn’t necessarily a failure. See it as a learning opportunity to help you be a better partner in your next relationship. It’s all about your perspective.
What can you learn from a relationship gone wrong?
How you want to be treated: Either your ex treated you horribly, which tells you how you don’t want to be treated, or that was the one good thing about your relationship: how he treated you with respect (maybe there was another cause for the relationship ending).
How to better treat your partner: You have likely learned how to treat a partner with respect. If you failed to do so occasionally in past relationships, I’m betting that the two of you had a conversation about it. So you now know that, for example, it’s respectful to text your boyfriend to let him know you’re going to be late, and thoughtful to do something sweet for him once in a while, like make dinner without being asked.
Qualities you really want in a partner: If you were to look back at your past several relationships, what would the qualities be that you want in future partners? Maybe your ex was always chivalrous, opening doors for you. Maybe he was supportive of your career. These are absolutely qualities you can look for in future partners.
How to better communicate: A lack of communication is a top reason why relationships fail, as we’ll soon see. I know that you can look back at past relationships and see how you might have communicated better than you did. Use that knowledge to make things even better next time.
How not to settle: The good news is: you ended relationships that were wrong for you. You didn’t settle for a Good Enough relationship. You had faith that there was a better partner for you out there, and you kept looking. Remember that feeling: when you settle, you accept things that really are not okay for you. You compromise more than you should.
Why Relationships Fail
While I’d like you to get away from the idea of “relationship failure” and see it more like the end to a relationship that wasn’t, in the long run, right for you, it can be helpful to understand a few key reasons why relationships fail so that you can do your best to avoid these pitfalls in the future.
1. Lack of Communication
As I said earlier: a lack of communication is a top reason why relationships fail. But what does that lack of communication look like? Different things. It might be an unwillingness on one (or both) of your parts to admit fault in a situation or take constructive feedback. It might manifest as constant arguing where nothing is resolved. It might happen when you keep things from one another or are afraid to discuss small annoyances that then become larger issues.
How to Fix: You can’t be afraid to communicate with the man you love. It’s part and parcel of a healthy relationship. And yes, sometimes the conversation will get uncomfortable, but know that if you can make it through, things will be better in the long run because you’re being open with one another.
Learn his love language; communication isn’t just verbal. You can communicate love through acts of service, touch, time together, et cetera. And pay attention to body language; he may express frustration by not kissing you as much as he normally does. That’s your cue to ask what’s going on.
2. Lack of Trust
When one or both of you don’t trust the other, a seed is planted that may be difficult to remove.
Lack of trust is murky water because it could stem from past relationship trauma or something that has happened in your current relationship. Regardless of the cause, you need to determine whether the two of you are willing to work through it or whether it will continue to plague your relationship.
How to Fix: Start by identifying: who’s got the trust issues, and where do they stem from? Did one person actually do something to warrant pulling trust away, or does it come from past experience?
If, for example, you have trouble trusting your boyfriend because you’ve been cheated on, you need to be able to let go of that past trauma. This man isn’t the same one who broke your heart. You have no reason to think that he’ll do the same. It may take talking to a therapist to mend your heart fully so that you can proceed in this relationship.
If, however, the trust issues are because of something that has happened in this relationship, especially due to cheating, think twice before trying to move forward together. In a scientific study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, researchers found that participants who had cheated in a past relationship were three times as likely to cheat again. And that’s a past relationship! If he’s cheated on you, just accept that there’s a very high likelihood that he will do it again. Can you really trust him?
3. Expecting Perfection
We all have an idea in our heads of what we want a relationship to look like. Maybe you want a man who makes you feel safe and loved, who rubs your feet and pays the bills. Maybe he wants a woman who will cook for him and have his slippers and pipe ready when he gets home from work.
The fact is…a relationship really never lives up to our expectations fully. We idealize what we want and then we feel let down when we don’t get it. Yet another reason why relationships fail.
How to Fix: No relationship is perfect. Learn to love someone with his flaws (though don’t settle for dealbreakers). Just remember Charlotte from Sex in the City when she first met Harry. He was bald and short, had a hairy back, and talked with his mouth full. He didn’t fit what she thought she wanted (though Trey, who fit that image perfectly, didn’t work out). Once she let go of her expectations, she realized that Harry was perfect for her.
4. Not Aligned in What You Want
Maybe when you first started dating, you didn’t have The Conversation. You know the one: where you ask “what are you looking for?” and he looks awkwardly around trying to find the answer. This would have been the time to tell him that you’re looking to settle down. To get married. To have or not have kids.
Or maybe you did have The Conversation and you both said you wanted different things…but you chose to ignore it. Maybe he said he wasn’t looking for commitment, but in your head, you thought, “he’ll change his mind after dating me a few months!”
Now you’ve reached an impasse. Neither of you can convince the other to change what you want, and so now it seems the relationship is doomed.
How to Fix: Have a discussion early on about what you’re both looking for in a relationship. If he’s looking for something light because he’s leaving the country in 6 months, this isn’t the guy to fall in love with. Believe him when he tells you what he’s looking for, and don’t try to change his mind!
5. Lack of Compatibility
You wanted to believe that you could have a long and loving relationship with a Satanic tattooed biker…but it didn’t work out.
You can’t overlook the importance of compatibility in a relationship. Did you realize there are actually four kinds of compatibility?
- Physical: You need to have chemistry and attraction to one another.
- Emotional: There needs to be a “click” when you’re together. You need to feel safe and fulfilled.
- Intellectual: Does he light up your brain? Are the conversations engaging?
- Spiritual: You should have the same big picture about what you want from your lives and how you want to make a difference.
Looking back at your last relationship, did he check the boxes for each of these types of compatibility for you? Or maybe he only checked some of the boxes. Sometimes the reason why relationships fail is that you’re not completely compatible in each of these categories.
How to Fix: In your next relationship, start monitoring compatibility in each of these areas. Maybe you find him extremely intellectually engaging, but physically you’re not on the same page. Identifying a lack of compatibility early can help you see that a relationship may not be worth pursuing long-term.
6. Different Priorities
You: “I want to settle down, buy a house, and live in it until I die.”
Him: “I want to save up, quit my job, and travel the world.”
Just as important as being compatible is having similar or aligned priorities. When you’re not aligned in what you want out of life, it becomes hard to be together long-term. In the scenario above, how would things work with a man with wanderlust when all you want to do is settle down?
It wouldn’t. You would constantly fight about how immature he is, how his priorities are screwed up, et cetera.
If you want a relationship to work, you need to find a man who has priorities that align with your own.
How to Fix: This happens in relationships from time to time, but in general, you should be moving through life at the same pace in terms of career, focus on relationship and family, etc. Have these discussions early.
7. A Rut Becomes Permanent
Any couple who has been together more than a couple of years ends up in a rut. It’s normal. While at the start of your relationship, everything was new and exciting — and you wanted to spend every second together — things settled down and became routine. Rather than talking about hopes and dreams, you talk about how high the electricity bill has gotten. Instead of going out for a romantic dinner followed by more romance in the bedroom, you go to Lowe’s for light fixtures.
Ruts are normal, but they shouldn’t be permanent. The thing is: you have to change things, shake them up, to get out of that rut and make sure your relationship stays strong.
How to Fix: Again, completely normal, however, it does take effort to keep a relationship fresh. Go on date nights. Get a sitter. Talk about something other than bills.
8. Arguing All the Time
Some couples fight. Others don’t. Maybe you’ve never fought with any ex as much as your last one. There was just something about the combination of the two of you that sparked frustration. When you’re arguing more than getting along, that’s a sign that he’s not right for you. For whatever reason, that man brought out the worst in you, and you didn’t like yourself as the shrieking, nagging woman he made you feel like.
Most arguing is a direct result of poor communication. When you can’t be open about things when they’re small, they grow bigger and bigger and ignite into a full-blown argument that threatens your relationship.
Research shows that the top three things couples fight about are:
- Social media behaviors
You probably can already identify a topic (or three) that you and your partner argue about the most. Tread carefully when that subject comes up.
How to Fix: Work on your communication skills. See a couples therapist, even if you’re reluctant because you will learn how to better talk to one another around those landmine topics.
9. Outgrowing One Another
Another reason why relationships fail isn’t your fault or his: you simply outgrow one another. Here’s a story I hear again and again: you fell in love in high school or college and got married pretty young. Things were great for a while. You built a family. But then, 20 years later, you feel like you have nothing in common with this man.
Recent science shows that adolescence, which used to be considered to last until about 19, actually goes until 24. That means that someone who got married at 21 was still mentally and emotionally developing. Who you were back then is certainly not who you are now, 20 or more years later.
And so it stands to reason that the person you fell in love with back then wouldn’t be right for you now. It’s sad, but it happens far more than you’d think.
How to Fix: Sometimes you can’t fix it. You weren’t meant to be with this man. The best you can do is let it go with grace.
10. It’s Too Much Work
I firmly believe that, while a relationship does take work to thrive, it shouldn’t feel like work. Yes, you have to be willing to keep communicating, even when it’s hard. But sometimes relationships take more work than they should. You felt like you had a full-time job just trying to keep things stable.
That’s not what a relationship should be.
Either that or you were just unwilling to put in the work it did require. In your head, you expected a relationship to be easy like they are in rom-coms. So when you were actually required to lift a finger to nurture your relationship, you just couldn’t do it. He got frustrated, feeling like he was doing all the work. It didn’t end well.
How to Fix: Take this as a lesson: relationships are hard. You won’t get away with being lazy in one. Next time, be willing to put the work in. On the other hand, if it required more work than it should have, take that as a tip that it wasn’t the right relationship for you.
11. Relying on Someone Else for Happiness
Oh, how many times have I told one of my relationship coaching clients this?
You can’t rely on someone else to make you happy.
I usually have that conversation after my client starts complaining about all the things her partner isn’t doing to please her.
“He never says he loves me anymore.”
“He used to bring me flowers.”
“He always wants to hang out with his friends rather than me.”
Now, I’m not suggesting that if these are your complaints that things are rosy, but if you’re looking for happiness to be given to you, you’ll always be disappointed.
You have to find happiness on your own, and that comes from loving yourself.
How to Fix: If it was you who was looking for happiness externally, realize that you are responsible for your own happiness. If you can’t find it on your own, you will never find it as part of a couple.
Now that you know some of the reasons why relationships fail, think about your last few relationships and see which of these categories they fall into. Do you see a trend? For example, do you always end relationships because a man isn’t making you happy, or because it requires too much work? Are you drawn to men you don’t feel you can trust, or who you can’t communicate with?
Patterns tell us a lot about ourselves, so be open to the message. If your relationships end for similar reasons each time, realize that the common denominator is you. You need to identify your own behaviors that are sabotaging your relationships so that you flip the script and find the right relationship.
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