What Defines a Successful Relationship?

When I was teaching one of my live workshops last year about triads and threesomes, I had someone in the crowd stump me with a question. They raised their hand and told me they had never seen a triad relationship last past 5 or so years. They said they hadn’t seen a successful triad in the long term, and they were wondering what that meant or if it meant that triads were never successful. I didn’t have a good answer.

Now, a year later I know exactly how I would have responded to this person:

How do you define the success of a relationship? Is it how long it lasts? Is it that the people never break up, that you live together until one of you grows old and dies? It it endless love and a happily ever after? If you start to think like that, you begin to realize pretty quickly that the real world almost never works like that. In non-monogamous relationships (and in my opinion all relationships) you should be defining what success of the relationship means to you, because there isn’t one universal rule.

Happily Ever After

Romantic relationships are fucking hard. We have all had them fail, from the first date to marriages of 20+ years. My favorite blogger ever (who probably wonders why some weird sex blog always links to him) recently wrote an article about why romantic love sucks. The idea of romantic love in its current form is a relatively new concept in human history, only a little while back romantic love was avoided at all costs because people act like idiots in romantic love. Romantic love doesn’t always come from the base of strong partnership, compatibility, and community. Above all else, romantic love and the culture we have created is almost doomed to fail because no one stays in that ‘new relationship crazy love’ phase forever, and by the romantic love story definition that means the relationship has failed.

Anyone who knows even a little bit about the concepts behind polyamory knows that polyamory partially means rejecting the traditional ‘love escalator’ of relationships where certain steps are expected to happen (moving in, getting married, etc). If breaking up is considered the failure of a traditional relationship, maybe it doesn’t mean the failure of a polyamorous one.

(I feel a little relationship anarchy rant coming on)

What Counts as Success?

To find some of my favorite metrics of success in relationships, I thought about all relationships in my life. Non-romantic, romantic, something in between, teachers, bosses, anything that came to mind. I thought about the relationships that had the biggest positive impact in my life, and those that made me feel the best about myself and the other person.

We often forget that all of these connections in our life are also relationships that we set standards in, create boundaries and grow bonds. Many of these non-romantic relationships are actually the more functional of our relationships, because there are less culturally built in expectations that we need to live up to. There are a lot less movies about people meeting their best friend or gym buddy and passionately becoming best friends for their entire life and living happily ever after.

So what makes these relationships a success? Or what could we count as successes when relationships are hard to quantify? Here is a list of attributes I attach to successful relationships:

  • You learned something valuable from the relationship. Like a new skill, how to say no when you’re uncomfortable, or how to be patient with someone who is more disorganized than you
  • You can give each other feedback and learn from their criticism
  • The time you spent/spend with that person enriches your life, meets your needs and helped you become a better person
  • The partnership gave both of you support in daily tasks and helped you accomplish your goals
  • You had a lot of fun together, and a lot of good memories that will stay with you your whole life
  • The trust in the relationship means that people people don’t spend time worrying about what the other person is doing behind their back, you trust them to talk to you openly

You might notice that my list has nothing to do with how long you two were together. It says nothing about growing old together. In fact, they don’t have anything to do with the end of a relationship. All of these characteristics could be describing a relationship that in fact, has ended.

In fact, many of the most successful relationships in my life have ended. I no longer see some of the most influential teachers and coaches from my childhood, and live half a world away from them. My longest dance-partner relationship is also separated by an ocean now. We let those relationships end because we have a more healthy understanding that they don’t last forever. One day you need to move on to another grade of school, or you need to move on to a dance partner that matches your new style. That doesn’t discount the relationship in any way.

Lessons from the Circus

The most beautiful, functional and ideal relationships I’ve ever had are with dance and circus partners. Our partnership depends on us having a full understanding and trust of the other person. There must be balance in what you do, or you’ll crumple to the ground. Mistakes will be made and you accept that in one another and grow from every mistake. You are invested in caring for the other person, and they are invested in you. You have to give feedback that isn’t sweetened, about a grip position or a move you’re doing and you can’t afford to spare their feelings. The amount of joy you feel accomplishing your goal is amazing. And you didn’t even bang each other.

Now I’m not saying all of you need to start using another person as your jungle gym (though I highly recommend it). What I am saying is that success in a relationship is about what you grow and build together. My ideal relationship is when there is a true partnership, where you each benefit in a way you wouldn’t if you didn’t know each other. This could be in some tangible way like creating your art together, or in something a little harder to grasp, like how they allowed you to be vulnerable for a period of time and fostered that feeling.

In polyamory, we are allowing flexibility in the type and quantity of these connections. We are acknowledging that all of our needs as a person are probably not met by one person, and we might see value in other connections. I think sometimes we still think of breakups in the same way that monogamous people do, as the end. What if we thought of it as an opportunity for both us and our now ex-partner to find new connections and grow in other ways? If the relationship doesn’t work out, it doesn’t mean that you failed at something.

Back to Triads

Success of a triad has nothing to do with how long it lasted. It could have been a one night stand, or could last for ten years. What matters is that everyone in the arrangement learned something and found some value out of the connection. As long as the triad was arranged in a way that all of the participants were treated fairly, then it could have been a success.

If you all had a good time, feel like you got what you wanted out of your relationship and think back and say “that was awesome” – Congratulations! You’ve had a successful triad relationship or threesome.

So if your expectation when you are thinking about triads is that it’s just like a monogamous pair but instead there are three, you need to slowly pull your head out of your butthole and remember: Triads are not 2 +1, they are something completely different. Define your own success, and learn to let go when relationships end because they always end.

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