Should relationships last ’til death do us part?

First published in Daily Life, January 14, 2013

“I wasn’t looking to get into a relationship at all,” she said, as we gently agreed that we were no longer seeing one another, “but when someone like you comes along, you can’t not at least try.”

It was the single sweetest thing anyone has ever said to me, and it was the perfect end to a short but lovely relationship.

Yeah, enjoy it while you can, stock photo models.

Yeah, enjoy it while you can, stock photo models.

Tania* and I had been seeing each other for a couple of months and it had been superb – not least because she is an incredible cook and had a spectacular habit of making us dinner before we went out. We saw bands; we watched DVDs; we propped up bars, stayed at each other’s places, and even had a little weekend away with her best friends. And it was around then that we realised that it wasn’t to be a love for the ages.

It was predictable, really: both of us were not far out of long-term relationships, neither had envisaged getting into anything serious, and it became clear that, much as we liked each other, this was not It.

And so we transitioned into being friends instead (in fact, I’m writing this before attending a picnic she’s throwing). She’s still one of my favourite people and I’m proud to have introduced her to the awesomeness that is Party Down – and delighted to have learnt how to pan fry peaches in brandy.

It’s easy enough to look at a short-lived relationship and feel relatively sanguine about it; but it’s harder when it’s a long term thing that you honestly thought would end in holiday dinners surrounded by grandkids and a tearful eulogy at your partner’s funeral. Sure, we all know that most relationships end – cue the appearance of the oft-cited a-third-of-Australian-marriages-end-in-divorce statistic – but I believe that that US sex and relationship advice columnist Dan Savage put it best in a recent podcast: “Every relationship ends until you find one that doesn’t,” he said to a fresh dumpee, “and you only know which one that is once you’re dead.”

Yet it’s nearly impossible to see a relationship as anything but a failure once it ends. Why is it so difficult to accept these things might have a use-by date and yet that our lives are still the richer for having experienced them – even taking into account the pain and loss that involves?

After all, a marriage that ends in divorce is invariably described as a “failed marriage” – and I have one of those myself. My divorce was the hardest thing I ever went through, and by the standards of most splits I’ve seen happen it was relatively amicable. However, I had to let go of a 16 year relationship, pretty much my entire adult life, and recalibrate my expectations for everything from having a family to my financial security to my own self-image as A Husband.

And it hurt. It hurt impossibly. And I wasn’t the same man after it as I was going in.

These days, however, I keep in regular (if not especially frequent) email contact with my ex-wife, who now lives in Montreal with our cat, and we’re continually recommending books and records and films to one another. I’ll explain why she needs to hear Melodie Nelson, say, and she’ll send a long nerdy rant about things Prometheus got horribly, horribly wrong knowing that I’ll violently agree with every point. It’s easier for things to be convivial since we’re separated by an entire planet, sure – but regardless of our current status, her influence on my life has been immeasurable. For all of the agony of losing her, I wouldn’t be who I am if it wasn’t for our time together – and even at this remove, I’m glad she’s still part of my life.

Conversely, I’m not on speaking terms with my last serious girlfriend and may well never be again. However, the Moon globe marked with the Apollo landing sites that she bought me for my birthday still has pride of place in my kitchen, and those memories remain precious. We may never want to be in the same room again if either of us can help it, but I don’t regret our time together. And I never want to be the sort of person who would.

Because ultimately, every union ends one way or another – until, as Savage says, we’re in one that doesn’t. We get our hearts knocked about, and all of us end up marked by the relationships we’ve had. We love and we lose; and when we lose we cry and we drink and we fuck and we bitch and we promise that we’re absolutely never going to do this again, and then we notice that the bruises have adequately faded, brace ourselves, take a deep breath, and plunge back into the fray.

By the time most of us are in our thirties we’re covered in smudges of old loves and while they fade with time, they never vanish entirely. And while that process can be exquisitely painful – and it is, dear god it really is – who wants to see out their days unspoilt and pristine? Like a good pair of boots, you want your life to be properly lived-in before giving it up.

I would hate to feel that any of the people I’ve loved represented time wasted, because – for better and worse – they’ve been strongly responsible for most of the best parts of the person I’ve become.

Every love leaves its mark and, for all of the pain it’s involved along the way, I hope to be well-mottled by the time I get to the grave. Some loves aren’t meant to last forever, and you know what? That’s actually OK. Because when someone like that comes along, you can’t not at least try.

*Names have been changed.

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