When a relationship ends, we often label it a “failed” or “bad” relationship. It didn’t last, after all. Maybe we never think about it, again. Ever again. Maybe we miss our ex from time to time. Maybe we recall the fights and bad memories. Maybe we blame our ex, and fixate on what a total jerk they were. Maybe we simply move on, and when our thoughts do turn to the relationship, we dismiss it as a disaster. Nothing more.
Of course, relationships end for all sorts of reasons. Cheating. Lack of trust. Lack of respect. Physical distance. Emotional disconnection. Different values and priorities. Endless bickering.
But whatever the reason for their demise, your “failed” or “bad” relationships can actually be great sources of wisdom. That’s because every relationship can teach us something that we can take into other relationships, including the relationship with ourselves. A powerful way to learn from past relationships is to ask ourselves probing questions.
Below, couples therapist Julia Nowland shares a variety of key questions for you to reflect on.
What was my part in all of this?
It’s rare that one person is to blame for a breakup. “Rather the ending of a relationship happens when both partners have stopped interacting in a flexible, responsive, sensitive manner,” said Nowland, also a qualified trainer and experienced speaker. Which is why it’s important to explore your own role—and make any changes you’d like.
How did you talk about things that were bothering you? Did you bring up issues right away or stew about them? Did you act in passive aggressive ways? How did you support your partner? How did you react when they brought up problems in the relationship? What was your behavior during fights? Were you more interested in being right or winning an argument than in resolving the issue or correcting the miscommunication? What was your role in the breakup?
“Having insights into our own behavior and an awareness of how we interact with others gives us an opportunity to choose a different way next time.”
Has anyone else told me the same thing?
“Sometimes our behavior repeats itself when we’re faced with a situation that triggers hurt, shame, guilt, or sadness,” Nowland said. For instance, your last ex told you “Nothing I ever did was good enough for you”—which is very similar to what other partners have said. This might be a sign that the way you respond to a partner leaves them not feeling good enough, she said.
What was I not willing to change, negotiate or settle on?
Maybe your relationship ended because your partner wanted you to change something about yourself. First, Nowland said, it’s important to acknowledge and address any behavior you’re not willing to alter.
On the other hand, maybe you weren’t willing to tolerate an unhealthy behavior from your partner. “Being clear about this means that you know how you feel about that behavior next time you enter a relationship and can help you set clear boundaries from the start.”
Who or what is contributing to my belief that I’m a failure?
This is an important question to ask if you’re blaming yourself for the breakup. For instance, according to Nowland, you might be thinking: “I’m not good at relationships” or “I have bad luck when it comes to love” or “How did I get it so wrong?”
Pay attention to where these beliefs are coming from, because well-intentioned friends and family might be igniting or perpetuating them. They might say: “You’re not very lucky when it comes to love,” or “You just can’t seem to hold down a relationship.” They also might second-guess your decision to separate by saying statements like: “He was so nice. Are you sure you made the right decision?”
“If you find that people in your life are co-signing those unhelpful beliefs, then it’s time to find people who can support you and be more flexible in their beliefs about relationships,” Nowland said.
What was my relationship like with my parents? What was their relationship like?
“Reflecting on the relationship we have with our parents, and the one they have or had with each other, can give us valuable insights into the way we interact in our intimate relationships,” Nowland said. That’s because we learned how to relate to others by watching our parents.
For instance, she suggested contemplating these questions: How did your parents or caregivers fight? When you were a child, were you encouraged to appropriately express your anger? Were your parents or caregivers openly affectionate? Did they have specific gender roles? Do you see any similarities to your past relationships?
What is my relationship like with myself? How do I treat myself? Who am I?
Many of Nowland’s clients realize that they don’t have a solid sense of who they actually are or what they want. Others feel unworthy of being treated the way they really desire and deserve, she said. “Ultimately, the relationship we have with ourselves deeply impacts the relationships we have with others.”
Likewise, our relationships with others, even the “failed” or “bad” ones, can teach us important lessons about ourselves. We can learn what we want and don’t want in a relationship. We can learn how to ask for our needs to be met—and how to meet our own needs. We can learn what our needs are in the first place. We can learn how to compassionately communicate and assert ourselves—and how to listen to others. We can learn what our values are—and how we’d like to spend our days, how we’d like to spend our lives.