Why Failed Relationships Aren’t Actually Failures: 5 Lessons on Love That Doesn’t Last

“Tis better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.” ~Lord Alfred Tennyson

I’ve always loved relationships—the euphoria of early romance, the comfort of built intimacy, and the experience of adventuring through life with someone else. While there are some pretty snazzy parts of being single, I was a sucker for love from a young age.

Now, I also didn’t meet my fiancé until I was thirty—which means I’ve seen my share of the romantic downside as well. With the highs of love come the lows of romantic breakdown: heartache, loss, and the grief of things not working out. Regardless of how they happen, breakups aren’t easy, and it’s common to think of a relationship’s ending as a failure.

But is it?

The dictionary defines failure as “the nonperformance of success or expectation.” If the point of a relationship is to be together until death-do-us-part (or until we ride off into the sunset and the credits roll) then yes, a breakup is not exactly a success.

But what if that’s not the point? Maybe we can still strive for a love that lasts while reframing our ideas of the loves that didn’t.

The following is a compilation of lessons I’ve learned from my own “failed” relationships, a mixtape of why “failed” love isn’t actually a failure at all.

While our definition of that word may vary, I encourage you to read on with an open mind. There just might be more success in your own past than you previously thought.

1. Relationships teach us about ourselves.

Whenever one of my previous relationships was coming to an end, it usually began with the finding of incompatibilities—disagreements as small as where to eat or as large as whether or not to have kids.

The inconsistencies in beliefs often showed me more about myself than they did the other person. I had to date an atheist to find out how much I really wanted to believe in God. I had to date someone who liked to stay home to realize how much I liked being social. While finding these incompatibilities was anything but fun, in retrospect I see they were a map to finding myself.

2. Relationships show us where we can grow.

There’s a saying that I’ve always liked: “Relationships pour miracle grow on our character defects.” When I was in a relationship that pushed my buttons, I realized which buttons were there to be pushed: things about myself I wouldn’t have noticed until another person made them glaringly apparent.

For example, dating someone with a lot of female friends showed me that I was pretty insecure; while at first his social circle seemed to be the problem (how dare he hang out with other women, right?) over time I realized that it was my own self-esteem that needed attention. Although this “button pusher” relationship didn’t stick, it showed me where my work was.

Through examining my buttons (rather than the button pusher), I was better equipped to do the self-work that would allow me to show up more fully for every future relationship, romantic or not.

3. Relationships allow us to practice vulnerability.

It’s pretty scary to open our hearts up to another person. After all, none of us really know what the future holds, right? Those of us who have experienced our fair share of heartache have even more reason to be cautious: We know what it’s like to lay our hearts out on the line and give someone the option of smashing them to smithereens. (While it’s helpful to avoid this heart-smashing type of relationship, it happens to the best of us, and the possibility is always there.)

Yet, being vulnerable in the face of potential loss is truly the bread and butter of life. Sure, we could play our cards close to our vest and lessen the likelihood of possible harm—but in turn, we also lessen the likelihood of truly being known.

Regardless of how a relationship has ended, when I’ve allowed myself to fully open my heart to another person I am reminded that it was not a waste at all; it was a brick in the road of living my fullest life.

4. No love is ever wasted.

When in the throes of a relationship, we often have our heart set on not just our partner, but on our future with that partner. This is often the hardest thing about a relationship ending: You don’t just lose what you’ve shared, but the imagined future that you’d included the other in.

When that future vanishes, it’s common to look back on the shared past with regret. But what if expressing love, kindness, and shared intimacy is an end in and of itself?

As humans we love to keep our eyes on the outcome and the finish line, but forget that it’s the journey to that mountaintop that shapes us. As the quote above reads, “Tis better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.”

Whether the act of love is in the present or the past, it existed all the same—and if we allow it to do so, it can remind us of the most beautiful side of the human condition.

5. Our past loves played an important role in our lives.

Each person that journeys beside us on the road of life not only shapes who we will become, but also how we feel as we get there.

My first love and I moved across the state to pursue our individual dreams. While our relationship didn’t last, we were a safe haven for the other in an unfamiliar and daunting time.

On the flip side, those unhealthy relationships that, on the surface, appear all wrong can help us more wisely choose a partner in the future.

While it would be great to learn lessons from other people’s experiences, most of us have to find out what we want by trial and error—from dating a few (or a bunch) of the wrong people before we can identify the right one. Even the most painful relationships in my past helped me learn who I wanted to be with (as well as who I wanted to be) in the future.

Some endings are inevitable. Being able to see the positives in our past doesn’t mean those relationships have any business in our present. It does, however, mean that instead of looking at what we lost when something ended, we can remember what we gained as well: perspective, strength, and experience.

If failure is the nonperformance of success, then let’s demand to expect only growth from ourselves, and define success as the amount of love that we gave. Because love is never lost…

It simply changes shape.

About Melissa Pennel

Melissa Pennel is a coffee drinker, over thinker, and empowerment coach in Northern California. Find more of her writing on her blog. Catch up with Melissa on Instagram, Facebook, or on her website.

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  • aanchal

    This is so true…. I have been through multiple relationships which changed shape and form over time…..however, I have always found myself coming out more resilient, self-aware and worthy……it has also helped me understand things which are absolutely non-negotiable for me in my future relationship……not every ending is a failure and in hindsight it actually defines us….we are constantly changing and growing…..while it is imperative that we never give up hope in anticipation of that one “perfect” relationship, it is equally important to love and nurture yourself…..our vibe does in fact attract our tribe :)…

  • Greg Cruthers

    True. Long marriage ended… took time, but after learning to be happy alone, then and only then have I come to understand what I would like a future long-term relationship to be like.

  • Courtney Bisbee

    This was a really nice post. I feel like the same words of wisdom can be used for failed friendships. Just had a friend “breakup” after a nearly 10 year friendship. The friend disrespected myself and others deeply by having an affair (she was married and my bridesmaid) with my married wedding videographer (both of them had kids too) during my wedding. It opened my eyes to what types of friendships I really want in my life and forced me to reevaluate the type of person she was. Long story short, I realized there was no room in my life or my family’s life for a person like her. We just don’t share the same values anymore. I will always cherish the memories we had growing up together, and hope to find comfort in the advice “no friendship is every wasted.”

  • Courtney Bisbee

    love this “our vibe does in fact attract our tribe.”

  • R.A. Dodd

    I think that every person you choose deliberately is a perfect character in your movie. You might outgrow a relationship and have plenty to say about your ex, but in the beginning they are PERFECT for you.

  • Cate

    Such a thoughtful post. Relationships that don’t last when that’s the intent are, indeed, failures, and I think that’s important to acknowledge: Recognizing a failure for what it is re-motivates us toward success; conversely, denying or soft-pedaling that reality is a way of avoiding accountability that does nothing to foster growth. At the same time, your suggested definition of success (self-growth, the love we give) is wise and wonderful and –unlike the ultimate outcome of a relationship — within our own control. Bravo!

  • Melissa Pennel

    I love that too! Vibe=tribe

  • Melissa Pennel

    Greg, so glad you were able to grow and learn from that experience

  • Melissa Pennel

    I agree Courtney— this could apply to friendships too. I’m sorry to hear about your friend, but so glad it’s given you perspective and growth.

  • Melissa Pennel

    I like the “characters in a movie” idea. A quick perspective shift. Thanks for that!

  • Melissa Pennel

    Thank you Cate, and thanks for your thoughtful comment as well. Intentions matter

  • ammarion

    I agree with you, Cate. Couples try to build a life together, get married, have kids, take on mortgages, build businesses together, move across states (and countries), etc. It’s always heart-breaking to see those relationships end. When you’re starting a relationship with the hopes that it will turn into something longer term, I don’t consider it a “failure” when it end (even if the heartache makes it feel as such). We can all learn so much from each other! I read the Book of Buddha with a former boyfriend; trained in ballroom dancing with another; learned how to cook South American food with another. All these experiences shaped me into who I am today. The key is not to hold any grudges or animosity towards your exes. If they were “toxic” (it happens!), we need to gently release them and make space for healing.

  • Gena Yuvette Davis

    I really enjoyed this post. It showed me that relationships ending is simply a mirror and we do learn so much about ourselves in the process. I feel more confident and self-assured now because of the relationship ending, I can see myself clearly: my strengthens as well as the areas that need improvement. Thank you for this post. It is not about the other person so much as it is about what did we learn about ourselves. I know, for a fact that I have to trust myself, be more thoughtful and mindful in my decisions and move forward with grace and courage.

  • Catherine Pleasants

    With each decade of my life, I’ve learned more about the concept that our varied relationships have a wide range of timelines. (Where did I get the misconception that family relationships should be any more permanent than other kinds of relationships?) So, your article has a very helpful perspective for me on those various levels, especially where family is concerned. Your essay prompted me to see that it would be much better for me to simply appreciate the closeness that a family member and I had enjoyed when we were younger, than to continue grieving indefinitely what we’ve lost, for whatever reason the separation occurred. And equally helpful is your focus on celebrating the growth I experienced in two marriages which ended, rather than allowing my focus to remain on the failed goal to remain together. Thank you, Melissa Pennel.

  • Mr Gentleman Loser

    Learning form previous experiences, seeing these mistakes and possibilities… However, breakup itself is painful. My relationship ends just now, acting cold, ignorance, feeling like a fifth wheel to this cartage. As much as I care about and love her, I also hate her, for hurting me once more.
    You know, words are the worst weapon that can be used against us. Telling someone who supposed be the best person I’ve ever been with, and then stabbing your back, avoiding chance to compromise or go even a single step to explain. It hurts… But also, its another knowledge that I have to learn from. My vulnerability, emotions I couldn’t control, standing on the guard to help and support, even when its never been appreciated. My own words thrown away and never fully accomplished. Plans I did make, without realizing undercovered thoughts – leading me nowhere as to the dead end.

  • Melissa Pennel

    Catherine I’m so glad that reading this stirred something in you; it sounds like you’re quite self-reflective and aware, and I wish you the best of luck with those relationships. xo

  • Melissa Pennel

    Breakups can indeed be painful, so painful, but I have the utmost faith that as time passes, your perspective can shift into a lens that reveals so much growth. I wish you the best of luck in your healing process.

  • Melissa Pennel

    Gena, so glad that you are able to reflect on your past and see a bigger self-trust, thoughtfulness, and mindfulness on your part. That’s amazing, and something to be celebrated.

  • Catherine Pleasants

    Well said, Cate. It’s all about perspective. And the imagery of “releasing” the ex is so true, without animosity. As I have been the one to leave, twice, I conclude that my leaving was not the failure. Divorce was my logical answer to our failure to grow together. Then, with my pain from having been “left” by a family member who assessed us to have “conflicting values and priorities,” I must keep reminding myself she released me and I continue to release her.

  • Catherine Pleasants

    I feel your pain and am encouraged by your identifying yourself as a gentleman who has lost. Gentlemen are winners in the long run! You have an opportunity to seek counseling as soon as possible and share there what you shared in your post. I don’t want to sound preachy, nor do I want to downplay your pain. My goal is to encourage you to feel optimistic for growth toward your light.