One television show that made an impact on me was “The Affair.” I found it gripping, suspenseful, and emotionally moving. Sitting, riveted through seasons one and two, watching to find out what would happen between this small handful of main characters. What would unfold as they continued sifting through the complicated layers of their relationships with one another.
However, the reason I mention the show isn’t to review it, and actually, this article has nothing to do with the TV show.
Instead, I mention it because of a specific line delivered by one of the characters mother’s, which I found a resounding and poignant summation of what human relationships truly are.
This character was having a conversation with her daughter, during which her daughter asked “why aren’t you off traveling with Dad?” The mother paused before responding that in fact, he had left her. Her daughter draws a quick intake of breath before telling her mother how sorry she is.
Her mother responds with the line, “don’t be. We’ve just come to the end of our story.”
Brilliant. This line is so simple and honest. I believe it’s the line that sums up the core truth of all human relationships (though particularly romantic ones).
“The end of our story.”
Die hard romantics, those who are deeply religious, or those with a strict traditionalist mindset will find many reasons to disagree with and fight against this line of reasoning.
That is what every romantic relationship is, though. A story. And all stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Most romances tend to go something like this: They meet. Sparks fly. They begin dating. Hopes are high, hearts aflutter, dreams fill their respective heads, romance runs abound. Texts and emails are compiled and saved. The two cannot get enough of one another, yearning to talk every day, to see one another as much as possible.
Sweet gestures are given, declarations made, vacations taken. They meet one another’s friends, and later on, each others families. They will eventually move in together. Children and marriage may or may not follow.
Dramas are sprinkled between all of this loveliness along the way. Arguments, disagreements, tensions will arise at points throughout the relationship. When these variances of drama do occur, they are often followed by analytical and in depth discussions. As well as rehashing things out with our nearest and dearest.
And somewhere along the way, the relationship might eventually plateau…peter out…or even come to a close. (The latter occurring only if we are brave enough to allow this natural unfolding, without fighting it or grasping, which most of us aren’t able to do).
Things start to feel…off or different. The couple may no longer have the same connection, the depth of closeness they’ve shared prior, or they may no longer want the same things in life. Maybe too many resentments have built, or one has hurt the other deeply (a straw that broke the camels back, so to speak). The reasons will be varied.
Of course, there are some relationships that endure. When I say “endure” though, I am not referring to couples that simply stay together but aren’t especially satisfied, happy, or healthy together. Thus, I am not referring to the act of simply remaining a couple in title, or putting on the act that one is happy or deeply fulfilled when one isn’t.
The number who stay together and are actually satisfied, in love, and generally well suited to one another is a small number. It’s a beautiful number. An inspiring number. But a small one.
The reason that number is so small is because only one thing is certain in life. That is change.
Nothing will ever stay the same, despite us trying desperately to make it so. In Buddhist culture, impermanence is the only permanent thing. There is a natural progression, to life, to relationships, to seasons, etc. Things grow and bloom, then they wither, and eventually come to a close. This is a normal, natural, and unavoidable aspect of life.
The ones who cling to a relationship that is no longer right out of history, fear, laziness, security, or habit, these are the ones who are fighting tooth and nail the real aspect of human relationships, which is “we have come to the end of our story.”
“We can’t be afraid of change. You may feel very secure in the pond that you are in, but if you never venture out of it, you will never know that there is such a thing as an ocean, a sea. Holding onto something now, may be the very reason why you don’t have something better.”
Our society has built up incredibly high expectations for both romances and marriages alike. Our romantic partner is supposed to fulfill us socially, sexually, financially, and emotionally. As in friendships, our media strongly perpetuates the idea that our long term romantic relationships should last “forever.” We promise to spend our entire life with someone, no matter what. And if for some reason, that changes, we are deemed the ultimate failure. It’s a ridiculously narrow scenario.
With our romantic partner, we must be sexually and emotionally loyal to them (whatever “emotionally loyal” means), serve as their emotional support, therapist when needed, best friend, possible co-parent, and live-in partner. All of this, a wildly tall order.
The intent to love someone deeply and remain close with them throughout your life is an honorable one. A special, deeply romantic one. It is a worthwhile intent and aspiration, no doubt. But for the majority of the population, it doesn't necessarily work out that way.
People change. They sometimes grow apart. Their life wants can fork and differ. Someone might hurt their significant other quite deeply, in such a way that cannot be forgiven. A deal breaker might come into play such as children (or not), drug addiction, religion, someone needing or wanting to live in a vastly different part of the world than the other person, etc.
Therefore, with all these unpredictable variables (aka Life), it’s nearly impossible to truly know with regards to committing the entirety of your life to another person. You just cannot know what will happen down the line.
The line “we’ve come to the end of our story,” is worthwhile in drawing attention to the idea that if we were able to re-frame our relationships in such a way, they could instead be aspects of our lives that we might enjoy more, to the fullest while in them (however long they last, whether 1 year, 11 years, or 29 years, you get the idea. We cannot possibly know this number).
A romance, like any relationship, should be something you revel in, as well as learn from. And then whenever it does come to an end, allowing it to do so naturally, with grace and bravery, rather then clinging to it like a drowning man in the ocean, terrified to let go.
If we were able to let go when the time is right (and if we listen carefully with honesty and courage, our own hearts will tell us when this time is so- if it does arise), we could prevent ourselves from wallowing through immense self torment. From wasting years of our lives stuck on something that is no longer right, experiencing unnecessary stress, and straddling a fence of uncertainty as time stretches on in our short, laden-with-potential, wonderful time here on earth.
It’s become normal in our culture to think of breakups as failures. People who have been divorced tend to think of their marriages as failed. Those whose relationships have ended often cope with feelings of trauma, regret, and self-doubt, wondering why they have yet another “failed” relationship under their belt. “Why can’t I ever get it right?” they may feel like. One book famously tells us “It’s called a Breakup Because It’s Broken.”
But what if breakups aren’t failures? What if instead of seeing breakups as failures, we saw them as a natural and normal part of what it means to be human?
What if our intimate relationships don’t exist to survive forever, but because they’re to teach us valuable lessons?
What if our relationships are meant to be fulfilling, beautiful learning experiences, something that fills our heart and changes our life, but ultimately are a temporary experience (of which the time duration is uncertain)?
Nobody can claim that huge transitions in life aren’t supposed to be scary and painful. They are. That is beside the point though. Just because something hurts does not mean it isn't necessary or right.
Breakups will usually be heart wrenching and immensely difficult. After all, someone we love dearly is moving out of our lives. That is a major shake up in our life, and it’s painful and frightening to see things shift, especially when it’s not a shift you would have considered ideal.
But it’s possible that much of the pain of many a breakup is because of our clinging to the idea that relationships should last a certain amount of time, and that certain things should come with them (marriage, kids, rings, dogs, house with a picket fence).
What if relationships aren’t about this fantasy life, or ticking off particular boxes, or about lasting “forever,” but about joy and experience, about learning, growing, and evolving?
And what if breakups mean that both we and our ex-partners are ready to move into another phase of the person we are becoming, sort of like a butterfly leaving the chrysalis?
Or simply, that things always change. That nothing will ever remain the same. And that most of us will eventually come to “the end of our story” with many of the people we love. And that this is normal, unavoidable, and even beautiful in its own way.
“Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it.”