How do you define relationship success?
What is success? It’s a question we often think about when it comes to our professions. But one we rarely ask it when it comes to our relationships… and knowing the answer could open up so many new opportunities for us.
To be happy in any area of our lives, we need to start defining what success means for us in that area. One of the main reasons clients – particularly women around the age of 30 and 40 – come to counselling is for support with their relationships. Their challenges come in all shapes and forms.
The challenges of being single
If you’re not in a relationship, you may feel a lot of social pressure to find a partner. This is especially true for women, who may feel pressured in this life stage to have (biological) children before their body’s “deadline” kicks in.
Alternatively, if you’re not sure you want kids at all, you may feel like you constantly have to justify your choices to others.
When our relationship status is different to what society tells us is “normal”, we can also feel that we don’t quite belong.
Both men and women who are single and/or without kids – whether by circumstance or choice – report feeling at a loss sometimes, especially if their social circle mostly includes married couples with kids. This change in the dynamics of your social group can be confusing! Old friendships may not resonate anymore, for example, and time with friends may become more scarce or structured, as friends prioritise their partners and / or children.
It can feel like everyone but you has hooked up and that your choices are limited. If you’re older, you may feel that there are fewer options than when you were young, or that the people you like are already in relationships. You might find yourself saying (or thinking) things like, “All the good men / women are taken”, or “I’ll wait for him / her to come out of that relationship – after all, many relationships do come to an end”.
The challenges of being in a relationship
Every couple has to overcome obstacles at some point in their journey. Some will work to deepen their relationship and create a meaningful partnership. Others, however, stay together out of a sense of duty or because they have fulfilled “society’s standards” – achieving a home, a partner and a family. There are many people who are miserable in their relationships, but feel pressured to maintain “the perfect image”.
Expat couples can find it especially difficult to separate, as doing so will collapse their “whole world” abroad. Unhappy couples abroad might also stay together for their children, because their kids have little support or family nearby. In cross-cultural relationships, where one is local and the other feels like the "weaker" part of the relationship, many responsibilities may lie with the former partner and this can start to feel unbearable for both partners.
Why defining your relationship success is important for your happiness
Here is an example. Which of these do you think is successful?
- Two people who have been crazy in love with a passionate, dynamic, beautiful relationship, only to realise they cannot move on to the next level together?
- Two people who have spent years and years together but have outgrown each other and continue to stay together?
Actually, either is okay… as long as the people involved are happy and aligned with their definition of success. For some, being in a beautiful relationship that won’t become long-term is still successful. For someone else, not being in a relationship is experienced as a failure.
The point is: how do you define success in your own life?
The story you tell yourself
The story you tell yourself about “success” or “failure” affects how you think about yourself and your relationship status:
- What you tell yourself affects how you think...
- What you think affects how you feel...
- How you feel affects what you do...
- And what you do, of course, has consequences.
So, how can you tell a new and more helpful story? Let’s take another example: a single woman of 40 who considers herself a “failure” for not having found a life partner. How can we reframe this?
We start with the stories you are telling yourself. Instead of saying “I’m miserable, 40 years old and I’ll be alone for the rest of my life”, we can look at it this way: “I’m 40 years old and I now have the criteria to be able to choose the right guy for me. Now, I’m going to take actions based on my criteria towards what I really want” (whether that’s a relationship or to become a mother, for example).
If you’re in a relationship and don’t feel it is successful – for example, you sense that something is missing – you can reframe that too. Again, what are your options, based on your criteria for relationship success?
There are always options… and seeing them depends on the story you are telling yourself.
Once you have answered the question – what does success mean to me? – the rest will come as you take actions in alignment with your values and feelings. The process may involve constant evaluation of what success means to you, reflecting your growth as a person. Remember, “success” is a relative term. Whatever your definition is, say “hell yes!” to that choice and take your "yes" seriously.
How do you define relationship success? What are your thoughts on this article? Feel free to share below.