Valentine's Day inundates us with images of warmth, romance, and closeness, and although we enjoy the spirit of the day, it also exacerbates loneliness, as our own lives -- whether single or coupled -- seldom seem as rich or passionate as the ones on TV. Surrounded by social expectations and sentimentality, we judge our own relationships (or lack thereof) harshly, and often end up feeling like failures. But the problem isn't us -- it's the standards we're using.
In fairy tales, everyone who is nice gets their happily ever after, with no divorce or morning-after regrets. If we allow ourselves to believe in that version of romance, and try to apply it to our own lives, we lose our way. We despair that we haven't "found someone" (or not the right "someone"), and imagine that once we do meet that perfect match, we will receive endless security and boundless love.
But the path to true romantic success isn't out toward some other ideal person -- it instead demands that we turn inward, and develop our own capacities to choose appropriate partners, form intimate bonds, and maintain mutually satisfying relationships. No one is born with those skills. We start with no more ability to establish and sustain love than to walk or talk. And as with those first achievements, we learn to love through trial and error, painfully, gradually correcting and expanding our abilities until what once was an insurmountable challenge eventually becomes second nature.
Realistically, the only way to gain insight into ourselves, our relationship needs, and how to care for others, is through practice and repetition. We learn from our errors -- the bad dates, the harsh endings, the fights and the miscommunication -- as well as from our gradually increasing successes. It's hard. Sometimes you have to make the same mistake a few times before learning what to do differently. It isn't the kind of knowledge you can get from a book -- and certainly not from a fairy tale. The more we expect our lives to reflect the fairy tale, the less we are able to see what our experiences are really teaching us -- or to make progress toward passionate, enduring love.
The sad truth is that you can learn a lot more from losing your first love than from a perfect prom night. Surmounting the pitfalls and heartaches of life and relationships can, over time, develop the inner strength, self-confidence, and equanimity necessary for enduring love -- provided we can see them as opportunities for growth, rather than as debilitating failures.
Fear of failure tends to cripple our development as intimate partners. If we cannot tolerate the risk that love might end, either we will never allow ourselves to fall deeply in love, or we will love under a shadow of fear, avoiding conflict, stifling change, jealous of all possible rivals, and thereby choke off the thing we seek to preserve as our relationship stagnates and our connection weakens. To avoid risk is also, even within a relationship, to avoid intimacy.
Thus our fairy-tale hope for the impregnably secure relationship is counterproductive. Loving profoundly is like jumping from a 1,000 foot cliff -- the opposite of safety. And without taking that plunge, we will not achieve what we seek -- the feeling of being truly cherished only comes when we give love as well as receive it.
Given the realities of love, it is time to redefine what constitutes success and failure in intimate relationships. Instead of defining a "failed" relationship as one that ends, or ends "prematurely," we should consider a relationship of any length a success if has made both people happier, at least for a while, and left them better off than when it started. If a relationship has enhanced our abilities to be a good partner, and provided life enriching experiences, it has been a successful one.
Therefore a "failed" relationship is not one that ends, but one that lingers on past its expiration date, making the people involved unhappy with their lives and resentful of each other. An amicable parting can be a very successful end to a relationship, while staying together forever despite incompatibility, loneliness and misery is the real failure. This is equally true for parents -- though children should not be introduced to a parade of short-term partners, showing them the importance of moving on from unhappy romantic relationships is very valuable. Correspondingly, being single should not be seen as a marker of shame or undesirability, but as a valuable and necessary staging ground in the iterative exploration of love.
For though a few lucky people successfully master the arts of lasting intimacy within the confines of a single relationship, most of us require multiple and varied experiences. Developing the requisite self-knowledge and inner strength, as well as the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of love, is the work of a lifetime, not a one shot deal.
Dr. Ruth Bettelheim, MFT, is a marriage and family therapist, life coach, writer and lecturer practicing in New York and Los Angeles. She can be found at RuthBettelheim.com.