What You Can Learn From a Relationship That Ends

Note: This is the first of a two-part series.

Dear Neil: I am ending a 25 year marriage with a man I have spent my entire adult life with. I wanted to be a stay at home Mom, but because he couldn’t keep a job, I had to work most of those years. I have heard people refer to the lessons a failed relationship can teach you, but I don’t know what lessons I am supposed to learn. Can you help?

Trying to Make Sense of It in California

Dear California: As strange as it may be, most people don’t receive effective instruction about how to develop and maintain a healthy intimate relationship. So most people enter marriage trying to be a good spouse, but still miss the mark because they don’t know how to keep a relationship close, connected and vital.

Of course a relationship takes two people. The attitudes, stances, skills and behavior of both must be considered when we address what led to a relationship dissolving. That being said, the more you can discover how you contributed to the problems in the relationship or how you assisted the relationship to fail, the better chance you will have of not repeating the same mistakes again. So even though your husband no doubt played a big role in the downfall of the relationship, it is wise for you to look at your role in what went wrong.

Here are some questions to assist you in learning the lessons that the ending of a relationship might teach you, courtesy of Karen Kahn Wilson in her book Transformational Divorce (New Harbinger Publications). Answer these questions as thoroughly as you can:

  1. What was your understanding about the nature of connection as you grew up? How did your parents connect? How did they express displeasure with each other and handle disagreements? Did you learn that connection was loving, punitive, controlling, obligatory, abusive or demanding? What you learned in childhood (even if you were unaware of it) set the stage for your marriage.
  2. What did you think you wanted from the relationship in the beginning? What were you hoping the relationship would give you? Frequently we bring unspoken and even unrecognized expectations into a relationship which can lead to major conflict and division. If, for example, you expected your husband to support you and provide you with a comfortable lifestyle, and he didn’t do that, it is likely you would have grown angry and resentful toward him, and a marital conflict will then grow. Figure out what your expectations were when you entered into the relationship.
  3. What attracted you to him? What was unattractive? Make a list of all his attractive and negative characteristics. How similar were these traits to each of your parents? Most of us are drawn to people who are either similar to or the exact opposite of our parents/caretakers growing up.
  4. What warning signs did you miss when you chose your husband?
  5. How well did you foster connection and partnership? How much did you give and how much did you expect to receive? It’s easy to forget that the mainstay of a healthy relationship is to take care of it, and that relationships require more care, time and effort than most people give. How often did you compliment your partner or thank him for getting up in the morning and going to work, for putting the children to bed or for taking care of the lawn and garbage? If you think that you shouldn’t have to thank him for doing what he’s supposed to do, think again. Thanking him is about acknowledging his efforts and valuing his contribution. It shows that you’re paying attention to him and not just taking him for granted.

I will continue this discussion in next week’s column.

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