Why Do Relationships Fail?

February 1, 2012


Hand-holding to Finger-pointing. 

Recently an acquaintance of mine died. She was eighty-three and in poor health so that was no surprise, however the legacy she left behind was. There were family she was not on speaking terms with, friends whom she had had bitter feuds. Although she had travelled much, and had belonged to many social and recreational groups, she died all alone, having collapsed in her bathroom and there was no one there to pick her up or call for an ambulance. She had not been without empathy; she gave much to charity both in time and money, and yet she was often impatient with siblings, she could be irritable with her friends, and co-workers had suffered her insistence on other people’s efficiency.  I do not hold her up as an object of ridicule, but rather as a mirror for myself. Who among us, if we are being honest, has not racked up enough dead relationships to fill up a cemetery?

When I pondered over this question with a young, rather handsome friend of mine, he remarked in utter frustration, “It’s easy to start a relationship, but keeping it, that’s a whole other ball-game.” I had to agree with him. But what could the reason be for that? It’s not as if we don’t get enough practice with relationships. It got me thinking about my own relationships over the years, both the successful ones as well the disasters. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could isolate the single underlying culprit responsible for failure in all relationships.

I began my inquiry with my most successful relationships, which have been with animals ( surprise! surprise!). Personal pets and other people’s cats and dogs instantly bond with me and I to them. Even when a dog has bit me or a cat has scratched me, I did not feel the urge to punish it. Then why not with family and friends? How come I seem to resent their biting remarks, and I don’t always forgive their aggressive behavior. Could the difference lie in the fact that with animals I have no expectations? I seem to expect the people in my life to follow some unspoken script, say the ‘right’ things, act  ‘properly’. Whereas I accept animals just as they are.

I began to think more  about the role of expectation within my other relationships. I do volunteer work at a homeless shelter where I serve food to the needy, and I also visit with geriatric patients at a hospital. At both these places they seem to return my care with love and appreciation. Mind you, neither the homeless nor the elderly are always on their best behavior. The elderly are known to make casually racist remarks. The homeless are ever ready to combat if feeling threatened. But with time I have learned to listen beyond their spoken words and even their tone of voice. I find that I am able to  respect their right to say and act according to their present predicament, I cannot reasonably expect them to conform to my idea of ‘normal’. Yet with family, friends, and co-workers I am less patient of their moods and less accepting of their right to be wrapped up with their own problems. Of course, only a fool would not appreciate that the problems of the elderly, who are sick and nearing death, and the desperate plight of the homeless are so much more obviously urgent than my needs. Perhaps that is why I am so readily able to drop all expectations.

Furthermore,because of the dire their predicament, I fully understand in advance that the elderly and the homeless will never repay me for my kindness.  Thus I am freely able to give selfless service to them. Yet I have fallen out with various family members because there were absent when I most needed them. I have had friendships fizzle out because, in my opinion, I was giving far  more than getting back. What if I had been able to free my personal relationships of this burden of expectations as casually I do in my volunteer work?

I suspect I would have more compassion and forgiveness for my family, friends, acquaintances, and co-workers. Perhaps I might recognize their right to be moody, to be selfish when they are too burdened with their  own problems to be there for mine. Maybe if I had demonstrated more compassion towards them in the past, they too might have responded with more forgiveness towards me whenever I too was preoccupied with myself, was ignorant of their needs, or thoughtless in my words.

While it is impossible to rewrite the past, what is possible is to move forward with lesser expectations. Who knows, perhaps when my end comes, it won’t be while lying prone upon a cold bathroom floor, with no one around me to hold my hand. Though I now know better than to expect it.

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