The short answer is: it all comes down to the level of character development of the two people in the relationship and the reason why they entered into the relationship.
Deeply decent people have it within themselves to make a good situation better. Less decent people generally don’t–and I realize that this may read as being harsh or judgmental to some, but, as unpleasant as it may be to hear or consider, it just also might be a relevant fact–that the less decent a person we are, the more likely we are to make a good situation worse by simple virtue of the fact of who we are as a person right now (i.e. our level of character development, or lack thereof).
We cannot escape ourselves.
Simply put–and speaking without any softeners–character-development (or our level of *solid self*–the level of conscience, courage, virtue, self-awareness, basic goodness and humaneness–that we bring with us anywhere we go) is not something that most of us have focused on, or had focused on, in our personal development and education.
It’s likely not something that was focused on in a front and center way in our upbringing by our parents and teachers. Instead it was likely treated as a peripheral or ancillary concern, as an afterthought or a “by the way”–meaning that as situations arose, character, right and wrong were discussed. But right and wrong and our moral development and courage and goodness were not treated and taught like multiplication tables, the alphabet; it wasn’t a required course in school.
Put another way, moral/character development isn’t a fundamental part of our curriculum in our life learning; it’s not something most of us focus in our efforts to become a better and happier person–“I want to improve my life and become a better me by improving my character and courage and really developing getting in touch with my small still voice–i.e., my conscience.” This is not the way most people opt to grow as a person. In fact, this is usually the *last* alternative people consider–as in, ugh, do I really have to!?–because it’s the least fun, least easy, least appealing (Just look at all of these things that I have to do that I will have to give up! Ugh, the cure is worse than the disease! 😦 ).
So at best, developing our character is an elective in life. And so, at best, it’s something that happens incidentally and only very occasionally for most of us, as a lesser part of some other and more primary pursuit.
The growth and development of our conscience and character and our level of moral reasoning and basic goodness just isn’t a primary concern for us; it’s at best an afterthought.
And it shows.
That’s the really tough to swallow part–it shows.
“Character teaches above our wills. Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment.”
And where it shows up most explicitly and overtly for most of us in our relationships—in terms of why we’ve opted to enter into the relationships we have, and in terms of how we end up conducting ourselves in the moment to moment dealings that comprise those relationships once we’re in them.
And so as such—as a result of this lack in our education—this shortfall/oversight in terms of the level of character development, goodness, conscience, and objective thinking that most of us enter into adult life (and hence long-term relationships and or marriage with)–most of us end up unwittingly being a burden on a relationship instead of an asset to it–part of the problem instead of part of the solution, not yet the right person for a relationship.
And because of this, that means two things: it means that the reasons why most of us enter into long-term relationships are suspect to begin with—the reasons will essentially be for either for reasons of passion or utility/need, or a combination of both. And, moreover, our level of goodness—the level of goodness and virtue (i.e., character)—we have attained and that would be required to make the best of these relationships and allow us to consistently bring our best selves to the relationship is also severely lacking from us.
Paraphrasing and riffing on a few of Aristotle’s thoughts on “Friendship” from Book VIII of the “Nicomachean Ethics”—
When two people are truly friends, justice is not required because it happens automatically.
But where two people are simply just and fair with each other, friendship will still be required if their treatment of each other is to be truly just, because “that principle which is most truly just also partakes of the nature of real friendship.”
Those whose motive is need or utility have no real friendship or love for another; hey will remain related only insofar as and for as long as some good or usefulness arises for them from the other.
Those whose motive for a relationship is utility only value their partner for what they gain from him or her; those whose motive is pleasure value their partner only in terms of the pleasure he or she provides; in neither case is the “beloved” person loved or valued as a person, as a “real” human being, but only insofar as he or she is useful or pleasurable.
It is the nature of utility/need not to be permanent but constantly varying, so when the motive which brought two people together dissolves, the relationship also dissolves, since it existed and originated relative only to those circumstances.
Relationships based on passion also form and dissolve rapidly, since passion being a matter of impulse and based on pleasure changes often—often in the same day.
Real friendship exists between those who are genuinely good and whose similarity consists in their goodness, for these individuals wish one another good in similar ways. Insofar as they are good—good in themselves—the relationship between them will continue to exist for as long as they are good, which should be for a very long time, for as we know goodness has in it a principle of permanence (it tends to be a character trait). This type of friendship, however, is rare, because people such as these are rare.
Bad people may be friends of a sort with one another, or good people may be friends to bad people, or people of neutral character can be friends with someone of any character whatever. But non-egocentrically and non-exploitatively, for the sake of one of another, only the good alone can be truly friends; because bad people have no pleasure, no happiness, within themselves unless some advantage arises within them from their association with another person.
And this is why Nietzsche wrote:
“Those with the capacity for true friendship will get the best husband or wife, because a good marriage is based on a talent for real friendship” (“Human All Too Human,” #378).
Most marriages and long-term relationships lack this crucial element of true friendship; these relationships are based not on virtue or goodness, but on a combination of utility/need/opportunity and pleasantness/passion—in other words, not on virtue and two people’s strengths–their “fullness”–but on their weaknesses, their lacks, their incompleteness, their deficits and deficiencies. Which is why Schnarch wrote–
“We get married for wrong reasons because we haven’t matured enough for right reasons to exist yet. Struggling with wrong reasons for getting married can produce right reasons for staying married” (“Passionate Marriage,” pg. 50).
And why Nietzsche wrote:
“Marriages that are made for love (so called “love matches”) have Error as their father and Necessity (need) as their mother” (“Human All Too Human,” # 389).
Which means that as soon as the original passion fades and the original utility/need passes, the relationship and the other person tends to become highly disposable and each person’s treatment of the other tends to predictably deteriorate and become more and more capricious and careless and unloving–unless—unless—each person is of decent character! If each person is of decent character, has an active and working conscience, is basically a good and decent human being at his or her core (not all of seem to be), then each person can begin making the transition from immature love (from having to feel loving in order to act loving) to mature love (behaving lovingly irrespective of whether one first feels like it or not). (See Fromm’s “The Art of Loving” and Peck’s “The Road Less Traveled“)
What all of this says about us and what Aristotle is saying about us is that in all likelihood it’s not so much what the other person is or is not doing to or for us that’s the primary issue in why a relationship is no longer going well, rather, the issue is us–who we are as a person, and our own less than noble reasons for entering into a relationship in the first place—either impulsivity and or exploitativeness and or “passion” and or incompleteness, and or some combination of all of the preceding—as well as our shortfall in character and our shortfall in our level of basic decency or goodness. If we were better human beings—meaning less exploitative and less impulsive and more oriented to the Good and guided by principle and conscience (i.e. had a higher level of differentiation / emotional maturity)—then our relationship would also likely change for the better.
And so this is the crux: it comes down to the same thing: if we want to improve things around us—improve our relationships, especially—then we have to begin by improving ourselves morally, i.e., improve our character, our level of basic and solid goodness, become more firmly dedicated to truth and reality and less addicted to comfort, ease, the path of least resistance, dishonesty, half-truths, deceptiveness, compartmentalizing things. As we improve ourselves–our self-awareness, our self-control, our basic level of goodness and honesty and compassion and understanding, so too our relationships will likely bear witness to that fact and change for the better.
But it’s not a guarantee, however, that our relationship will change for the better.
We may change for the better and the other person may not, he or she may refuse to, in fact he or she may regress and change for the worse.
But at least this much faith we must have: We must go first and lead by example and be the change we wish to see in the world (Gandhi). And part of that change must be that we become more loving, compassionate, understanding, in tune with reality, and guided by truth. We must have faith that doing this will, in the long term, work for the best for us and be for the best for us and for those we love, as well as for our particular community as a whole.