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Why Your Failed Relationship Was Actually a Success

We could all learn something from Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan, the ’90s power couple whose partnership crashed and burned

Hollywood power couple Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan divorced in 2001 after a 10-year marriage and a very public fallout, which included Quaid’s coke addiction and rehab and cheating allegations on both sides. But, as Quaid told Megyn Kelly in a recent interview, he considers it the “most successful relationship” of his life.

What?

A cynical consumer of celebrity sound bites might take Quaid’s comment as a hot load of spin. But nestled in that humble admission is at least some detectable sign of genuine reflection, and it’s something we plebes should note: Just because your relationship ended doesn’t make it a failure.

That’s right: Your “most successful” relationship to date could be one that crashed and burned.

“When we met, you know, I was the big deal,” Quaid told Kelly about Ryan. “And then my career [came to a halt]. … We’d go out on the streets of New York and it would be like, ‘Meg! Meg!’ And I have to admit it, I actually did feel like I disappeared. I didn’t think I was that small, but I was. It was a growth opportunity. I learned from that.”

In other words, she was more famous than he was, and he was a dick about it.

Even if it took 17 years for Quaid to realize it, though, growth is growth. Particularly in a culture hell-bent on insisting that monogamy is king and marriage is forever. We know how this story goes: If you can’t make it last, it may as well have never happened; the only acceptable exit from a successful relationship is death.

But to call every breakup a failed relationship is not just shortsighted, it fundamentally misunderstands the point of relationships — which, no matter how let’s-all-hold-hands-and-form-a-circle-and-say-it-together it sounds, is this: To learn something about ourselves and how to be with other people. That’s true no matter how long it lasts.

Sometimes, that’s true of the shortest relationships of all. If a relationship taught you about yourself and how to better be with others without being abusive, then it was a success. We know a lot about what theoretically makes relationships work forever, but what makes them not work is just as important. If, when it’s over, you can’t see both, then you’re not likely to do much better the next time around.

In that light, ask yourself these questions about your old failed relationships, and see if you can’t see them in a new light.

Was it healthy, supportive and a source of happiness?

“I think if you look back on a relationship and find that it had very healthy qualities, you felt happiness, and your partner was supportive of your growth during that time, it can be viewed as a success,” psychiatrist Jacqueline Duke tells MEL by email. “People need different types of support throughout the ‘chapters’ of their lives. People also need partners that fully accept them while also pushing them to reach their highest potential.”

In other words, you might have drifted apart and gone your separate ways, but that doesn’t negate what the relationship provided.

Did you learn something about yourself?

Quaid notes that playing second fiddle to Meg Ryan’s skyrocketing fame while his own career plateaued was an extremely humbling experience he didn’t handle well. But that’s still insightful and useful, Duke says: “In the interview, Dennis also mentioned that he learned a lot about himself and grew as a result of the relationships.”

Did it change you for the better?

Duke notes that not everyone can stick with you for all the changes you’re going to go through, but that doesn’t mean the relationship was a waste of time, either. “As we move through those chapters of our lives, a long-term partner will hopefully adapt to each change and stage of growth while also moving forward themselves,” she says. “Unfortunately, not all partners can adapt to all the changes that can happen during these times, but it doesn’t mean the relationship was ‘unsuccessful’ if it ended.”

Did it serve a purpose?

Some relationships are, of course, a complete waste of your time. (If you’ve ever dated a musician, you know what I mean.) But this general attitude discounts the way many relationships come bearing short-term gifts.

Sometimes it’s the right person for your 20s. Sometimes it’s the right person after a parent dies. Sometimes, it’s the right person for the summer abroad, or the two years after college, or the period after your divorce.

Some relationships can be important milestones even if they aren’t “The One,” taken together, they show you what the one should look like, even if it’s a composite of the last 12.

Maybe after a sexless relationship with your “best friend,” you realize sex is really important. Maybe after a passionately physical relationship with a jerk, you realize it’s not. Maybe one person teaches you the value of shared bank accounts, and the other person teaches you the value of separate lives.

When it doesn’t work out, all it means is whatever purpose it served is no longer useful for that time. But make no mistake: While whatever adventure you’re embarking on can’t be done with the person in question, it’s possible it couldn’t have been done without them. Sometimes the only way out is through.

“In therapy, it’s always healthy when reflecting on past relationships to focus on what good came out of them,” Duke adds. “And typically those end up being things that you learned and how the relationship shaped you for the better.”

Do you still respect this person?

This is key. The one main exception to all this is that the person you were with, even if they hurt you, even if they broke up with you, even if they weren’t faithful to you, even if things went off the rails in such a way that left things unsustainable, that you don’t actually think they are a bad person. In other words, no matter how much insight you get from an abusive relationship, you shouldn’t call it successful.

“[An abusive relationship] may not have been successful, because I think having a healthy relationship is a prerequisite to a successful one, but you can definitely have learned a lot from an unhealthy one,” she said.

In other words, whatever you might glean from a shitty toxic relationship, it won’t set you up for a good one later. A successful relationship, even if it doesn’t work, is a launch pad to something better.

Do they still respect you?

You might think your ex is great, but does your ex think you’re a scumbag?

I often think of that skit from The Kids in the Hall called “The Jury,” where the defendant, who is literally on trial for being an asshole, realizes that the jury is made up entirely of his ex-girlfriends.

If this is your worst nightmare, you probably don’t have too many successful relationships. But nonetheless, you should still try to glean every little bit of wisdom you can from them anyway. There’s always the next one to hit the jackpot.