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Hopeful and Hopeless Relationships

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Yitzchok Kirzner

How do we know when to hang on and when to let go?

One of our most critical needs as human beings is to share our lives with another person in a deep and meaningful relationship. With infinite wisdom, God created human beings in a manner so that our true fulfillment cannot be achieved by living a life alone; by the very way we were created, then, we are driven to search for that individual with whom we can enjoy a lasting relationship -- with whom we can share our life.

In our eagerness and need to find this relationship, we very often come upon people that seem to fit at least part of our expectations, yet who lack some characteristics that are important to us. In some cases, we acknowledge the disappointment, let go and move on to pursue the search anew. Sometimes, though, we hold on in the hope that what is lacking in the relationship will eventually appear and develop. While it's true that hope is noble -- indeed, it's the basis for all true growth and change in our lives -- it's critical that this hope be rational and reasonable.

A relationship that is being preserved on the basis of hope is a very delicate, sensitive situation. First, we've acknowledged to ourselves that we have an important need, and at the same time we're keenly aware we're not getting it. By definition this is a painful situation, endured only because we hope for future improvement. If this hope is rational and reasonable, tolerating the pain for a while makes sense. But if the hope is not reasonable, we're opening the door to pain that has no end in sight. In fact, the pain will get only worse, because as we invest more time and energy, both physical and emotional, in a relationship, bonds will be created that become increasingly more difficult and painful to sever.

The secret to happiness is to invest our energy in people and projects that have a reasonable chance for fulfillment.

Very often we close our eyes to this reality because we can't bear to face another failure that returns us to our loneliness. We prefer not to see that we will have to face that very same pain -- in aggravated and intensified form -- at that inevitable date in the future when we finally let go.

Sometimes, we're not even fooling ourselves. We consciously accept false hope because we are desperate for certain needs to be fulfilled, and we know full well this will never be a long-term relationship. We need to realize how deeply we hurt ourselves by this process. When we consciously compromise even provisionally who we are because of desperate need, we inflict horrible wounds upon our self-esteem and dignity that result in great anger and disappointment with ourselves.

Because the stakes to our well being and the impact on our self-respect are so great, we have no choice but to live with reality, and not self-delusions. The secret to happiness is to invest our energy in people and projects that have a reasonable chance for fulfillment. We must have the emotional honesty to know when our use of "hope" is nothing more than a sophisticated camouflage, allowing us to fulfill our needs in the absence of a true relationship, and when, on the other hand, hope is a sincere, rational belief in the eventual unfolding of human potential and beauty. Only if our hope represents the latter, and springs from a strong bond and commitment to the other person, can we afford the odds. So what constitutes a rational, reasonable hope? How do we know when to hang on and when to let go?

To begin with, we must know ourselves. Several factors are involved. First: Can we be happy in the interim, waiting for this need to be fulfilled? Or is it such a basic need that its absence harms us and destroys the relationship? Some people exaggerate their need for something they want and don't have. Because they don't have the desire fulfilled now, they panic, thinking they will never get it, and they end the relationship prematurely. But if they can be shown that the situation will improve, many times the crisis passes.

The opposite situation occurs in people who are martyrs, who underrate their own needs so much that they tolerate being victimized. If we accept abuse, severe emotional neglect or basic disrespect, we are destroying ourselves, however saintly we may be in accepting our suffering. These are hopeless relationships without question, because even if the other person changes over time, there will be nothing left of us by then.

Second: We must know our threshold of pain. How long can we hold out? We must be honest here in order to determine if hope is truly reasonable for us in this relationship.

And if we choose to hang on, we must allow the other person sufficient time to change. It's human nature to expect changes in other people a lot quicker than what we expect or demand of ourselves. But change is hard; it can take five or 10 years, sometimes even longer. To last that long and stay sane, we must have sufficient satisfaction from the relationship without the change.

Finally: Are there other "hidden" costs for us in waiting? Is the unfulfilled need stifling or immobilizing of our own ability to function and grow? If so, the price of waiting is probably too high.

The next range of factors depend on the other person.

Does the other person want to change? If not, there's nothing to hope for.

Does the other person want to change? If not, there's nothing to hope for. A glimpse into the background and history of the other person can give us clues as to whether or not the person is capable of change, and how long might be needed. The history of the relationship also might reveal the person's sincerity and commitment to change.

Next, what kind of change are we hoping for? Is it something indeed changeable? Or is it a deep-rooted element of their personality? If we enter a relationship hoping to cure the other person of a deep-seated emotional problem -- one that needs professional help -- we may be investing disaster. The old adage can't be ignored: Never marry someone to become their therapist.

On the other hand, communication skills, consideration, and learning to appreciate another person can be learned by most people with time if we give them positive encouragement and their are willing to change. If they sense we love and appreciate them right now for who they are, if we take pleasure in their positive traits and compliment them and don't become preoccupied by the trait we want changed, we've provided an atmosphere in which growth can flourish.

The last range of factors involve the relationship.

Do we share a higher goal that is significant enough to both of us? If we do, it enables us to be more pliant in all other issues. If there's no higher goal, then all needs compete. I don't want to compromise my issues, and you don't want to compromise yours, and all forward movement is stagnated. A higher goal brings us together.

Can we truly respect each other as we wait for change?

Equally important, can we truly respect each other as we wait for change? Respect is perhaps the most crucial clement of a healthy relationship.

Determining the hopefulness or hopelessness of a relationship is extremely challenging, in part because it's so subjective. It is very helpful to seek out a person who cares deeply for us and has the wisdom and experience of life to view our situation with objectivity. Ultimately we must make our own decisions, but an advisor can alert us to possible self-deception. An advisor can also help us in weighing the alternatives for the future. Sometimes we feel so miserable about the relationship we see only the problems and don't notice the advantages until it's over. Good objective advice can bring peace of mind, more valuable than diamonds.

Finding and developing a meaningful relationship is one of the most awesome tasks of life. Fortunately, when we find that special connection, the rewards are so great they eclipse all the efforts and struggles we endured in the search.

This article originally appeared in The Jewish Women's Journal (c/o The Jewish Renaissance Center, 210 W. 91st Street, New York NY 10024).



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