All’s Well That Ends


Let us begin with a mathematical axiom: all relationships end. Even the most successful ones reach a conclusion when one of the two parties dies. Okay, yes, I suppose there are those stories about the couples who are together for fifty or sixty years and who die within hours or days of each other – or couples who die together under more tragic circumstances (thanks, Shakespeare) – and I suppose for them it could be said that the relationship never ended because even though it technically did, from their perspective it didn’t end so much as everything ended… so okay, fine. Let us begin with a revised axiom: 99.9% of relationships end.

Though this sounds like a cynical statement, endings in themselves are not inherently bad; they just are. Certainly, some endings are terrible: Rhett walking out on Scarlett just after she finally comes around; Robert Downey Jr. walking out on Ally McBeal to go back to rehab (and forcing that bizarre donated-egg-daughter season); every relationship at the center of any Lifetime movie. Even the good endings are usually sad in the moment. But since most of us will experience significantly more relationships that do end than relationships that don’t (a number limited to one), we might as well accept that things will (probably) fall apart.

I find that after the end of every relationship, I experience a little moment of relief. Usually, it is a few days after all of the talking, crying, hair tearing, and chest thumping is over. Once the dust of the ending has settled, I’ll find myself out driving, or walking, and I’ll let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding and think, “Ah. So that’s how that ends.”

It is almost as if I have been waiting to find out how it ends, or frustrated by the unknown of it all. Actually, the truth is worse. From the moment I even consider pursuing a relationship with a guy, I am actively speculating how it is likely to end.

Sometimes the picture is great! He and I will both be successful artists; we’ll have smart and creative children, start a family band, and live to the end of our days the envy of all we know. Usually, these scenarios go along with me pining away for years after some narcissistic writer or musician who would barely notice if I dropped out of his life entirely – which I eventually do. That’s how those actually end.

With some people you just know from day one that you are going to have to end it. Maybe you nip it in the bud right then, or maybe you keep him around for a bit out of affection, or cowardice, or because he is cute and you might as well get a few more good make-out sessions in before you bring down the hammer. No matter the details, you know the end will be some form of “we have to talk,” and you just hope that it won’t also involve the strong desire to punch him in the face.

A couple of times, I have been pretty sure he was going to die young. This was liberating, because the pressure was off to feel he was “the one”. If he wasn’t, I’d probably have a second chance down the road as a young widow. For better or for worse, my own health issues stopped me from pulling the trigger on those relationships, and now that I am older any possible second chance is more and more likely to involve an artificial hip.

My most relaxing experience was the relationship that I knew would end in one of two ways: either amicably once we were a few years older (we loved each other but were never going to marry each other), or because he snapped and murdered me in my sleep. Sure, I hoped for option A, but either way I wasn’t going to have to be the bad guy.

The worst are those relationships that you just know are too good to be true. You’re crazy about him, but the odds are definitely not in your favor, so you know they will end, but have no idea how. Maybe he’s young, or you’re young; one of you is too-recently out of a major relationship, or both of you; he’s anti-marriage, or anti-family; or every single one of his ex-girlfriend stories involves them being psycho – which means he is the problem. In the best-case scenario, this guy turns out to be an asshole and you are free to hate him. Worst case, everything you knew would be a problem turns out to be a problem and you both wind up with broken hearts.

Still, it occurs to me that, while I have experienced all of these endings (and more), I don’t wish that I hadn’t. Not even a little. What, then, is the point of the mental exercise? Self-protection? Cynicism? Just the compulsion of a story-telling mind?

I love stories that involve time travel, if only because it is entertaining to watch their authors try to deal with the paradoxical problems inherent in stories about time travel. But one I read recently also made me think about two big questions. First, if I knew for sure how a relationship was going to end, would I do it anyway? And second, how does knowledge of a possible future affect my behavior?

The first question is easy – probably. When you’re in a relationship, you are in it presumably because it is making you happy, and as a species we humans do enjoyable things that we know won’t end well all the time. Like eating spicy food, or getting drunk, or having unprotected sex. Often all in the same night! We also have the emotional bravery to face unpleasant experiences in exchange for the benefit at the end. Experiences like law school, boot camp, and child birth.

Even if I knew about my most painful breakups in advance, I probably wouldn’t have sacrificed the relationships that preceded them, because the worst breakups usually end the best relationships. And also, despite the evidence of everything I have written so far in this piece, I am a stubborn optimist. You tell me this relationship is going down in flames, I am going to work that much harder to show you it doesn’t have to – and I will probably win just to spite you. Go ask my mother.

Which leaves the second, more difficult question: what effect does future knowledge have on current behavior? This is a big problem for time-travel stories, because once something new is known, the knower is slightly changed and thus her future is also changed. Unless the future result was already contingent on the player’s prior knowledge of it, in which case the question becomes which came first, the future result or the past knowledge? And that’s when our heads start to spin.

But even in this world, where I cannot know the future, how much does believing I know it change my outcome? There have certainly been friendships that I have not pursued further because my expectation that the relationship would end meant risking the friendship too. By not exploring the path, maybe I saved a friendship, or maybe I missed a possible “one that doesn’t end.”

More upsetting to me is the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy. If I go into a relationship with a certain expectation or prediction for its ending, doesn’t that make it more likely to come true? Heck, how many times have I not even started because I was so certain it would never work out in the end? Sure, you have to trust your gut, and with most of these guys I was probably right, but there is something to be said for the merits of our criminal justice system; perhaps I should operate under the idea that I’d rather see several guilty men get dates than one innocent man left with a self-protective rejection.

Plus, the time has come for me to recalculate the odds. When I was nineteen and in love, the odds of it working out were pretty low. Frankly, I would have been disappointed if I had ended up with my first love – story-wise, it’s pretty boring. But I am nowhere near nineteen anymore, and I have already had many relationships that came to an end. To think that the next one could be my “one that doesn’t” is not that big a gamble anymore. Instead of listening to the warnings of my future self, I think the time has come that I finally take that bet.