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When Relationships Fail: The Death of a Thousand Cuts

Susan and Richard starting dating in college.  The relationship took off fast and was intensely romantic. Susan and Richard couldn’t get enough of each other.  It was the kind of relationship both had never thought would be possible for them.  And there it was. 

The relationship blossomed and, as time went on, it became more and more intense. By the time they were seniors, Susan and Richard were madly in love, even after two years, and they got married. If there ever was a marriage made in heaven, this seemed to be it.

They then moved on to further schooling, Susan to medical school and Richard to a graduate program in chemistry.  They found one school that accepted them both and they chose it. 

They were thrilled that they were fortunate enough to be together. They had been seriously afraid that they might have to go to advanced schooling in different states or maybe even different countries, as medical schools are so hard to get into. 

Everyone knows that medical school is demanding, but Susan had not realized just how demanding.  The days were long; the nights went late. 

Richard had not expected his graduate program to be a cakewalk, but he also had not realized just how far from a cakewalk it would be.  The courses were really challenging and the homework assignments, long. The lab work seemed to be unending.  

At the same time Richard was taking courses, he soon also was expected to do independent research, although he really did not have time for research. 

Advanced schooling was so demanding that Susan and Richard found that they had to put their relationship somewhat on hold.  There was scarcely any time for it. 

They occasionally went to a movie, and they had a regular eating-out schedule, but they found they could not even stick to that schedule. 

Sex became less and less frequent.  They just didn’t have time, especially with Susan’s long hours at the hospital.

 The years went by.  They got through their schooling and moved on, Susan to a residency and Richard to an assistant professorship at a university.  Again, they miraculously managed to find placements in the same city. 

But their new life, unexpectedly, was even more challenging than their old life.  Richard had not really taught before, except for a few teaching-assistant jobs, and now had to prepare four new courses from scratch. 

Susan found the residency exhilarating but the hours appalling.  Now she had frequent night on-call hours and, despite what she had been told about regulations, found herself working 16 and sometimes 18 hours a day.  She had a 30-minute commute each way from home and so her sleep was brief and often disrupted. 

Richard felt he hardly had time for sleep.  He could barely keep up with his course load and the chair of his department had made it clear he would be expected to do research—and a lot of it if he planned to stick around. 

So, Susan and Richard saw even less of each other. Their scheduled dates went totally to hell and they hardly ever even ate meals together.  Susan was often on night call at the hospital; Richard was away during the days. 

The marriage lasted eight years, at least on paper.  In practice, it lasted maybe three or four. 

By eight years, they hardly knew each other.  They did not argue; they had little friction.  Rather, their marriage had endured the death of a thousand cuts.

Most relationships don't end in a big blow-up

A relationship dies the death of a thousand cuts when there is no one big thing that actually ends it.

There is no affair; no big blow-up; no big scene; no big nothing.

Rather, two people just never quite find the time or the energy for each other.  Every day they fail to engage with each other is just one little cut.  It doesn’t hurt much; it’s hardly noticeable.

But it’s there.

Or maybe one partner tries to find the time, but the other doesn’t or feels they can’t, and so the efforts of the one partner are for naught.

Young people understandably want to set their path to success.  And they realize that if they don’t set it early, they may never set it.

Day after day, week after week, month after month, the partners’ preoccupation with everything else in their lives except each other takes a toll.  The blood begins to run, but just little trickles at a time so that they are hardly noticeable.

It may be careers that distract them. But it may be anything, really. The kids may consume a lot of their energy (although Susan and Richard never got around to that).

They may have hobbies; they may get into television; or they may have separate friends or organizations and spend a lot of time in their individual lives.

They may have a period when they are sick, or when they have to tend to sick relatives.  The distractions are endless.

Don't make the mistake of thinking your circumstances are special - they're not

They may think that everyone else has lots of time for each other, but their circumstances are special.

In fact, everyone’s circumstances are special. Who isn’t busy these days?

But every day, it’s cut, cut, cut--a little cut here, a little cut there.

So many of us these days live busy lives.  No question about it.

Who really has lots of time for a relationship?

We often are too busy finding ourselves outside the relationship, exploring who we are and what we can be.

But as we attend to everything else in life, the result is—cut, cut, cut.

I often have told my students that they won’t find time for the relationship they are in.

They have to make time—create it when it seems like there is no time in the day from which they can even make their creation.

But if they put their relationship on hold, always hoping that the next day, or the next week, or the next month, or the next year, they will have more time, they will never make it.

Because there likely won’t be that additional time, unless they can make it through to retirement.

Don't let your relationship go unnoticed

So, the message of this blogpost is simple.

Make the effort.

Make the time.

Make the connection.

Deepen it.

But don’t let it go because you are too busy. Everyone is too busy.

You have to make the time.  Make the relationship your priority even when you feel you have no effort left to make, no energy left inside you, and no time left to spare.

If you don’t, your relationship risks the death of a thousand cuts.  No one cut will kill it; but those thousand cuts will.

I can’t tell you how to make the time—it all depends on your life. Every life is different.

But you make time for everything else.

If you value your intimate relationship, you cannot put it on hold. It can’t wait, and wait, and wait.

Make it your priority.  I know this: If you truly value your relationship, you’ll be glad you did.

These days, jobs come and go.  Career successes come and go.

You can make your relationship last forever.

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