David and Eleanor knew they each had found the right person. Not only did they know it; so did all their friends! And their family! And even the people with whom they worked!
So why are they now on the verge of breaking up?
The obvious question to ask, of course, is what went wrong?
But what makes everything all the worse is that nothing in particular went wrong.
It is more that things didn’t go right. Even there, though, it is hard to say what didn’t go right. They used to have fun together; now they don’t. They don’t have a terrible time; they just don’t have fun.
Even when they go out, it feels like a feeble attempt to make things work. It used to be that when they made love, it felt, well, explosive! When they make love today, there is no passion and it feels like a duty.
Any excitement that once might have been there is gone. When they go out, their activities sometimes are mildly diverting, but not because they are doing the activities together.
Their togetherness is almost a burden.
They used to think about what a great experience it would be to grow old together; now they don’t even like to think about what it will be like the next day. Their expectations were so high and so, well, colorful?
Now the reality has sunk very low and it is gray and colorless.
How can close to half of marriages end in divorce? Virtually no one goes into a marriage expecting to divorce! What could have happened?
The answer, unfortunately, is surprisingly simple: The success of marriages, and even other long-term relationships, is largely unpredictable! No one is good at predicting their success, even psychologists and psychiatrists who study love for a living!
Why relationships are so unpredictable
Why is the success of a marriage, or really, any intimate relationship, so maddeningly unpredictable? There are lots of reasons, but here are three major ones.
1. The core components of love - intimacy, passion, and commitment - change in unpredictable ways over time
Intimacy, passion, and commitment show unpredictable courses over time. The question is not whether they will change, but how.
According to the triangular theory of love, they always change. It is inevitable.
What is not inevitable is exactly how they change and how one perceives the change. Also, not inevitable is what one does about it.
2. People are not aware of their love stories
People rarely—really, almost never—know or understand their stories of love—what is it they really want?
They have a hierarchy of stories, some more preferred, others less preferred.
But because we usually do not know our stories, we often pick the wrong person, or a person whose set of stories is different from ours.
Or we may pick someone whose story is in our hierarchy, but lower down in our hierarchy than would have been ideal.
So we either lose interest or meet someone else who better represents our hierarchy of stories.
3. We cannot predict life events
We just cannot predict the events that will happen to us. What does life hold in store for us? We never know until it’s over.
And some of the events that happen put stress on our relationships, at times past what we can deal with. As they take us down, they may take down our relationship with us.
This is only an incomplete list of mental states and events that can bring down what couples once thought would be eternal relationships.
But hopefully the list makes the point that we often cannot predict what life has in store for us, even with a relationship that we are convinced is forever.
What you can do to increase your chances for a successful relationship?
If you want your relationship to last, what can you do at least to increase the likelihood that it will last as long as you anticipate? Here are some things you can do:
1. Take a look into the future
Love isn't quite as unpredictable as it may seem. In our research, we have found that some love stories are correlated with unhappy relationships more than others.
Likewise, what you feel you have or lack in terms of the core components of love (intimacy, passion, and commitment) does predict your happiness in a relationship.
Make sure to take our free assessment that will show you where your relationship is headed.
If you like it, our in-depth assessment of the core components of love will be available on our website. If you receive our newsletter, you'll be the first one to know. If you're not but would like to stay in the know, you can sign up here.
2. Plan for the problems you already know you'll have
People often don't change all so much. If there are things that are grating points between you and your partner, or if your partner has some habits that annoy you, expect these issues to stick around.
If you are aware of some of the persistent issues in your relationship, you can make a plan as to how to deal with them.
If you feel you could use some help in figuring out how to proceed, you can find a workbook here.
3. Identify the components of love where you and your partner don't match and decide what to do
Symmetry is important in relationships. If you crave lots of intimacy but your partner is rather distant and feels comfortable not sharing too much about themselves, one or both of you may not be so happy. The same can happen when partners have different ideals and needs for passion and commitment.
If you'd like to learn about these asymmetries and what to do about them, read here.
4. Embrace the uncertainty and move in harmony with it
Just like anything in life, relationships are somewhat unpredictable. Depending on your need for security, this may be easier or harder to live with.
But even if you can't plan out everything in detail, you CAN make sure that you and your partner have the same goal.
Do you both have compatible love stories? Make sure that your love story is flexible enough to adjust to changes in your life.
Additionally, be sure to agree with your partner on where the two of you are headed in terms of your relationship and to compare course and destination of your journey from time to time.
5. Develop confidence in your relationship!
Beginning in our childhood, we get to see and experience many different love stories. But most of them do not reflect so well life as we actually live it.
Think about the many love stories you've seen in movies or read about in books. Those stories do not represent real life.
A book or a movie also ends at some point. Yes, the love story that was so absolutely adorable may have represented true love to you. But the book or movie did end, didn't it?
Relationships change and go through different phases. Even the dream relationship you saw in the movies like would not have stayed that way if the movie had continued over a lifetime.
You also need to realize that most love stories in the media propagate just one ideal, but there are as many love relationships as there are people out there.
You don't need what the media tell you that you need. You also don't need what you see in your neighbors.
What you do need is to create a love relationship that fulfills your own needs and those of your partner. That is the only thing that counts.
Don't aspire to other people's ideals; aspire to your own!
6. Realize that the key to true happiness lies in you
In our research, we have found time and time again that what matters most for your relationship satisfaction is how you perceive your partner and their feelings for you.
Your partner can love you with all their heart - if you don't feel that love, if your partner's words and actions do not come across to you as filled with love and as fulfilling those special needs you have, then you will be unhappy.
Think about what you truly want and need from a relationship, and whether you get that from your partner.
Your partner is not a magician who can read all your wishes from your eyes, so make sure to tell them what you need.
But also, now and in the future, begin to actively look out for acts of love. Those signs of commitment and love may be there but you may not see them in the busyness of everyday life.
Be mindful as you go through your days and watch out for those signs of love.
Did your partner come out and help you bring the grocery bags inside? Did your partner give you a back rub when you watched TV? Or did they suggest you get takeout from your favorite restaurant?
If you are mindful of your partner's behavior, you may find more than you expected.
7. Time passes but does not have to take a toll on your relationship
Yes, relationships change with time, but even as they change character, that doesn't necessarily mean they have to deteriorate.
8. Think of love as a journey
When you travel, unexpected things happen all the time. A good trip is one where you embraced the uncertainty and the things that didn't go so well and made the best of them.
The same applies to love. You may not know exactly where you are going and if you really will end up where you're headed, but if you conceive of your relationship as a journey, you'll be more flexible and prepare to make the best of if.
Although you cannot avoid disasters—no one chooses to get critically ill or to make bad investments or to find themselves being sued—do all you can to avoid the disasters. This may sound like empty advice. But ask yourself what you are doing that may precipitate a disaster later! The disaster may not only take your health, self-confidence, or money—it may take your relationship with it.
Talk with your partner about how you would handle potential catastrophes together. Some catastrophes are unpredictable, but others you see coming. Talk about the ones you see on the horizon, and how you will get through them together. By the time they arrive, it may be too late.
If you are fully committed, then make sure your partner knows it. Just knowing you intend to be there for keeps can make a big difference, especially when someone is going through an exceptionally challenging period in their life.
Use disasters to grow together rather than apart. Of course you know the expression, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” Take it seriously. If you can get through a really difficult period together, you will grown as a couple and your relationship can and may end up better than ever before.
Good luck in your relationship and in all the challenges you encounter in your life!