Last week, a reader emailed me, “I just went through my fourth divorce. I’m tired of repeating my failures and have shut down emotionally although I don’t want to. I've just lost too much.”
His words perfectly capture how failure depletes joy and optimism. Who wants to look back at a life full of disappointments? Giving up is a self-preservation instinct.
After my own divorce, I was hesitant to enter into another relationship. I earned the nickname “Trigger Finger" due to my penchant for fleeing relationships at the faintest whiff of trouble. My ambivalence, like many others', was grounded in fear of failure.
In a series of articles, Aimee Hartstein, LCSW (a relationship therapist), and I are examining the elements of heartbreak. We both believe that while failure is inevitable, it is also an integral part of growth. It does not have to mean defeat. It should be a catalyst to start over.
Einstein defined “insanity” as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” To avoid this repetition failure, we suggest the following:
1. Engage in vigorous self-examination.
“Anger is a very normal and healthy part of the breakup process. It’s OK to list your partner’s faults, especially if you’ve been wronged. However, to have a successful relationship, you must look at your own behavior and shortcomings,” said Aimee.
For example, a man with a history of cheating girlfriends may be triggered when his current girlfriend becomes friendly with a male co-worker. His behavior — snooping through her phone, following her secretly, accusing her of wrongdoing without provocation — may create the very estrangement that he feared. Unknowingly, he chips away at the foundation of his relationship due to unhealed wounds.
Take a long, hard look at your behavior and how it affects your partner. Be courageous — admit your mistakes and work diligently to avoid them in the future. Only then do you have a real chance at success.
2. Replace assumptions with communication.
No one is born with an inherent understanding of how to communicate in an intimate relationship. Effective communication is a discipline — much like exercise and meditation — that must be practiced (and improved upon) daily.
“Over and over, I see couples who make assumptions instead of talking to their partner. For example, a wife will want to talk to her husband about a problem. When he asks for a ‘minute,’ she may incorrectly assume that he is ignoring her or doesn’t care about her problem. In reality, he may be processing his own thoughts from the day. This misunderstanding — essentially a small problem — blows up into a big fight,” says Aimee.
Take big risks in favor of stronger communication. Speak even if silence feels easier. Tell others when you’ve been hurt. Ask for what you need. Listen and show empathy for your partner.
3. Understand how your history influences your behavior.
Aimee explains, “In childhood, we learn how to relate. We develop good and bad habits. If we are not conscious of the dynamics we create and roles we play within our family, we may unwittingly repeat destructive patterns because they feel familiar."
Take, for example, a woman who was raised by a very domineering mother and a weak, passive father. In adulthood, she may be annoyed by a string of underperforming boyfriends who are “unable to get it together.” She may belittle them, irritated by their failure to “act like men.” On an unconscious level, she is likely picking men who remind her of her father.
To take it a step further, these men also may not be as weak as she imagines, but instead her aggression backs them into a corner. Unbeknownst to her, she is re-creating a familiar family dynamic — even though she eschews the result.
Take a detached, unsentimental look at your family. Carry the blessings forward. Leave destructive, unproductive ways of relating behind. This exercise is integral to creating healthier partnerships in the future.
4. Assess the correlation between fear and intimacy.
Far too many people end up in “lukewarm” relationships. The conversation (if any) isn’t too engaging. The sex is either uninspired or nonexistent. Neither person is too thrilled with the other’s looks, personality, or intellect.
Most “safe” choices are based on fear. Those who avoid risk inevitably shortchange themselves out of chemistry, intimacy, and connection.
“For the possibility of a happy ending, you have to take big risks. You have to pick someone whom you feel lucky to call yours. This may require stepping outside your comfort zone, risking rejection, and confronting familial or societal expectations in favor of the person who inspires the best in you.”
Last, we’d like to acknowledge the courage and determination it takes to forge a new path. Most of us will cling to old, painful, and destructive habits until they become completely intolerable. For example, a woman who continually dates emotionally unavailable men will not take a hard look at herself until she becomes sick of ending up rejected and hurt. For most people, before change will occur, the situation they're in has to be more uncomfortable than it is to make a change.
Learn more about the heartbreak series here.