The Problem with "Failed" Relationships

What Women Really Think
June 18 2009 9:24 AM

The Problem with "Failed" Relationships

Kerry: Returning to Tsing Loh, for a sec, I want to second your point: It is odd to describe a 20-year-old relationship that produced two kids and a lot of domestic support as a "failure" just because it doesn’t last until death do us part and all that. Like you, I find it troubling that we routinely describe marriages and relationships that end with this evaluative language. "They had a failed marriage," we say; or, "He had a failed relationship with a ballet dancer."

But some-maybe even many-of these relationships are not "failed" at all. They are relationships that worked well for a period of time, until, say, one partner changed, or needed something new (passion, in Tsing Loh's case). You may leave such a relationship with warm memories, nostalgia, feelings of love, and, sure, regrets. Yet this rhetoric of failure, it seems to me, has the funny effect of robbing us of the experience of our own lives, because in America we tend to think of failures as something to hide, reject, put behind us.

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By contrast, consider this startling (or actually, utterly predictable) statistic from a new survey by AOL Living and Women’s Day about women and marriage : 72 percent of women surveyed say they have considered leaving their husbands. Does that mean everyone who stayed with hubby in the end is in a "successful" marriage? Hardly. That’s why this rhetoric is absurd; we'd be better off thinking about love more holistically as something that evolves, changes us, teaches us about our selves, and may or may not last "forever."

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.