Almost no one goes into a relationship expecting it to fail. There are exceptions, of course: one-night stands with no hope of follow-up; people who marry solely for money; people who know they’re doing something stupid but just don’t care. In cases such as these, expectations usually are low for long-term happiness. Those low expectations usually turn out to be correct. Luck matters a LOT in relationships.
The Role of Luck in Relationships
For the most part, though, people go into relationships expecting them to succeed, at least for some period of time. But most new relationships fail, sooner or later. Even those who get married in many parts of the world have a 40-50% chance of the relationship’s failing. Are people stupid, or what?
Actually, “or what.” Some relationship failures are predictable, such as when one meets someone and then ties the knot a few weeks or even a few days later. But most relationship failures are about as hard to predict as when the next Earthquake will strike San Francisco. Luck in relationships matters a lot!
Put another way, if you failed to predict that your relationship would fall off a cliff, you are in good company. To a large extent, those who make good predictions are not only good predictors, but also just darn lucky. This may sound like a downer; it's not. It means that you give it your best shot, but if you don't predict successfully, well, neither do most other people. Their luck is generally no better than yours.
Don’t beat up on yourself if you are in a failing relationship and failed to see it in advance. It’s really hard to predict.
Why Is It Hard to Predict Relationship Outcomes?
1. Intimacy inevitably changes over time and it is difficult to predict how it will change.
In the early stages of a relationship, intimacy tends to increase as couples get to know each other better.
But as time goes on, many factors impede intimacy. Maybe we get busy with work—who has time for deep conversations?
We may have kids—our conversations focus around diaper changes and feeding the kids instead of intimate issues.
We may feel like we have run out of things to say—what more would my partner want to know that they don’t know already, or what else would I want them to know?
We start having secrets—now we are working at least as hard to conceal things as to reveal them.
Regardless of the reasons, maintaining intimacy is hard. We have to work at it even harder later in our relationship than we did earlier, but most people work on it less, not more.
2. Passion inevitably changes over time.
The course of passion is more predictable than that of intimacy. It almost always tends to go down over time. The question is how much?
Passion has the properties of addictive substances. The longer we are with a person, the more we need to keep the same level of passion going.
It’s like coffee. When we drink coffee over a long period of time, one cup gives us much less of a jolt than it did when we first started drinking it.
People often try to restore sagging passion; some succeed, but many fail.
So, how well will a given person adapt as passion tends to decrease? Most of us cannot answer this question for our partner; we can’t even answer it for ourselves! We hope that we will be lucky and we will guess correctly.
3. Commitment often changes over time.
As intimacy and passion change, so does commitment. In the case of a marriage or a comparable legal commitment, one may view oneself as legally or religiously or otherwise bound.
But the commitment in the love-match theory is not about legal or religious obligations but rather about how one thinks about a relationship.
Over time, one’s thoughts change. Often, they change for the worse as problems emerge that one never could predict.
4. We discover that our love profiles or stories are not as compatible as we had thought.
Sometimes, the problem is not that our love profiles (intimacy, passion, commitment) or stories of love (e.g., fairytale story, business story, police story, art story) are not as compatible as we had thought.
When we are in the beginning stages of a relationship, we often tend to gloss over incompatibilities. As time goes on, the incompatibilities that we thought we could live with, we discover we can’t live with after all. Our luck has run out.
5. One of the partners meets someone with whom they think they are more compatible.
You know this drill. You or your partner meets someone else and the current partner seems just so much less attractive than the new potential partner. Of course, over time, that attraction may wear down too, but that’s just so far off!
6. The environmental context in which we live is unpredictable, especially these days.
Would you have predicted, five years ago, that life in the United States, or any country in which you live, would be like it is today? I sure wouldn’t have, and I don’t think I know anyone who would have.
The contexts in which we live change continually in often unpredictable ways. Sometimes we end up with unexpected financial problems, and perhaps we blame our partner.
Or we may find pressure from extended family more than we ever could have expected. Or we or our partner may become ill or injured, upending our life. Or raising children may turn out to be much more of a hassle than we ever expected, especially if we have one or more special-needs children.
Some of us have uneventful lives, but these days, more people than not go through at least some periods in which they feel battered. And such times can bring couples closer together but are at least as likely to tear them apart.
7. One of you undergoes a radical transformation.
Sometimes, people change in ways that are unpredictable. They may become alcoholics; they may change from being atheists to being intensely religious, or vice versa; they may become addicted to drugs; they may change their political beliefs; they may become violent; or they may become excruciatingly boring after once being interesting and engaging. No way you can predict all the radical transformations people may undergo. Sometimes, your luck just isn't lucky.
8. You discover the relationship was built on false premises.
Sometimes one of you discovers that they were tricked, or at least, they feel tricked. This may be because the partner lied, either by commission (they said something false, and it was a whopper) or by omission (they forgot to tell you something that is a whopper).
Maybe that old affair never quite ended after all; or maybe they “forgot” to mention that they have a chronic illness—perhaps even one they infected you with. But discovering that one entered a relationship under false premises can kill a relationship pretty quickly.
My point is not to try to enumerate every possible thing that can go wrong. My point rather is only that lots of things can go wrong, and many of them you could not possibly predict in advance.
My point also is not that you should be pessimistic. More than half of couples work their way through these and other challenges. My point, rather, is that if things go wrong, don’t rush to blame yourself, or necessarily, even your partner. You can make your own luck, but only to a certain extent.
If your relationship is not working out, don’t rush to dump on yourself regarding how you could be so stupid. Trying to figure out how you went wrong can be useful, but it is not where you should be devoting your resources when you need to figure out what to do.
Rather, you should be focusing on how to move forward. Given where you are, what can you do now? That is the question that faces you right now. There will be plenty of time later to ask yourself whether there is any way you can ensure that, whatever happened, it won’t happen again!