Wise Mistakes

 

For a good while, I’ve had to talk to numerous people about how to let go of harmful relationships. Getting out of harmful relationships has been a very hot topic in the press for several years. The topic seems relevant to the needs of many. However, there is a danger to such a negative outlook. With such a collective focus on avoiding or escaping from destructive relationships, it’s easy to overlook the natural and non-pathological ways that relationships often do not work out. Many times I have seen people blame themselves mercilessly for having pursued yet another ill-fated relationship, even when the relationship initially seemed to hold much promise. This self-castigation is especially prevalent among the people focussing on recovery from codependence issues. Like most self-blame, it’s destructive as well as unnecessary.

Too many people view relationships from a pseudo-scientific perspective: If you make a wise choice in a partner, then the relationship will work out (assuming you make the “right” moves as well). If you hold this belief as being your own, it may be laying the foundation for accumulating shame and low self-esteem. The problem is that relationship skills are probabilistic at best. You can behave in “better” or “worse” ways to influence relationships but you cannot control them. They are NOT scientific and they don’t rely on exact procedures. There are no “right” choices! The myth of control is dangerous even though it seems reassuring on the surface. If you assume relationships can be controlled, then when one doesn’t work out you will likely conclude that you either did not make a wise choice in a mate (i.e. “dumb choice”) or that you didn’t manage the relationship the “right” way (i.e. “dumb moves”). These messages accumulate more shame and evidence of your being a defective human being, even though your investment in the relationship may have been a good risk.

You are better off with a broader concept of risk within relationships. Instead of assuming that risk is just a matter of feeling vulnerable., you can also assume that you are operating on very limited information. You can assume that there is a lot about your partner that you cannot know, and perhaps a lot that they may not know about themselves. You can assume that you can’t perfectly predict how your partner’s feelings will change as the relationship evolves. You can assume that changing life circumstances may influence either your partner’s emotional investment or your own. In short, you can assume random and unpredictable influences over which you have little or no control. Which brings me to my main premise: That you can take wise risks for a relationship that doesn’t necessarily work out. Even though you may be disappointed with the demise of a relationship, your initial decision to invest may have been a wise one. This is especially prevalent when one person risks investing with another who is undergoing personal change following a separation or divorce. The newly divorced person may be wonderfully receptive, compassionate, and loving but he or she may be understandably avoidant of new commitments and may not have a stable vision of what he or she wants. Investing with such a person has many risks but also much potential. Will it be worth it? There’s no way to tell for sure. How much time do you have to find out? How important is a future commitment and how much do you want to emphasize the present? How vulnerable are you to the pain of possible disappointment? You may weigh these and other considerations when making a wise choice…and you may still be disappointed in the end. If you considered many of these factors, you don’t have to blame yourself for being dumb or pathological. You can instead appreciate your limitations in being able to predict the future.

So how do you know when you are making a “wise” or an “unwise” investment in a relationship? I would suggest that it is unwise to ignore easily obtainable information that can help your decisions. For example, not communicating with your partner can help keep you totally in the dark. The most unsound choices are made when you are ignoring information that you already have on hand. If you ignore a long and consistent pattern of frustrating behaviors by your partner merely because you keep hoping that he or she will change, then you are certainly exercising unwise choices. The bottom line is that unwise choices will involve unsound consideration of available information. Wise choices involve consideration of available but limited information as well as the real possibility that you may still wind up with having made a wise mistake.