Fragile vs Resilient Relationships

My relationship with Rachelle is very anti-fragile. Even when one or both of us is at our worst or when there’s a lot of turmoil going on around us, there’s little risk to our relationship. We can say or do the stupidest things, and we still stick like glue.

We have plenty of freedom to express different aspects of our personalities, to explore different values, and to make significant career or lifestyle changes, and we can still stick together through it all. It’s hard to find a vulnerable edge of our relationship where one of us might want to cross a hard line for the other person.

This was true of our relationship from the beginning. When I look back on how we first connected, I don’t see a delicate risk that it wouldn’t have worked out if one of us had said or done the wrong thing at the wrong time. It felt like there were more paths where we were going to connect deeply than paths that could deflect that from happening, like we were just meant to be in each other’s lives. I think that if we didn’t connect the way we did, we just would have connected some other way at some other time. Once we got into each other’s spheres, it was only a matter of time before we got into a romantic relationship together.

I have friendships and professional relationships like this too. They were anti-fragile in the beginning and afterwards. They formed with some sense of inevitability, and it would take a huge amount of force to break them afterwards. They aren’t so delicate as to be vulnerable to either person wanting to disconnect regardless of what happens.

I suppose a relationship could have a fragile beginning and become less fragile as it grows, but my experience is that anti-fragile relationships tend to be that way from the get-go.

Resilient Relationship Properties

High compatibility is one property that makes for a resilient relationship. If the compatibility is weaker, it makes for a more vulnerable relationship. A strong alignment of deeply held values that aren’t likely to change can help a relationship stick.

Another factor is the ability to give people the benefit of the doubt. People who lean towards a negative framing of someone’s motives are more likely to have fragile relationships. They’ll find more ways to be disappointed. They’ll assign more negative meanings to events, thereby creating more reasons to leave.

People who appreciate resilient relationships often find another person’s recurring suspicion and distrust tiresome. Such a relationship isn’t such a good long-term investment because it’s probably going to break sooner or later.

Perhaps the most important factor is a capacity for forgiveness. People make mistakes. They step on each other’s toes. They say the wrong things in. the wrong ways at the wrong times.

If you can’t forgive, you won’t likely last long in a rich and meaningful relationship. It’s only a matter of time before the other person screws up in your view, and now you’re bolting because you’ve assigned an unforgivable meaning to that event. What if you could have forgiven the transgression though? Some relationships are worth keeping. Is that issue a valid reason to dump the whole relationship? Could a more forgiving person find good reasons to maintain the relationship?

Rachelle and I both make mistakes, and we’re quick to forgive each other and to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Assigning meaning to events is often ambiguous, and it’s really nice to be in a relationship with someone who defaults to seeing your intentions as being good, caring, intelligent, etc.

It can be good to apologize when you feel you made a mistake, but the capacity to forgive is more important. If you and the other person are good at apologizing, but if even one of you can’t forgive, the relationship won’t endure. You could both be bad at apologizing, however, but if you’re both good at forgiving, your relationship will be more resilient and can endure.

I don’t feel much need for apologies from other people; for me they’re on the “nice to have” list but definitely not essential. Sometimes people apologize to me when I didn’t feel they ever hurt me in the first place. And people have apologized to me years later for events I’d forgotten and imagined transgressions I’d never perceived as such. Has that ever happened to you?

Working on my ability to forgive, by contrast, has been valuable. I used to struggle with that in the past, often holding onto hurt feelings which could slide towards anger, resentment, or the desire for vengeance. Then I read that forgiveness isn’t a gift to the other person – it’s something we do for ourselves. That gave me an important mindset shift. I forgive because it’s good for me, and it’s good for my relationships. These days I see forgiveness as a way of processing stuck energy and moving it through my body and back out into the universe.

Another factor that shows up in my relationships is the ability to trust the person’s ability to grow. This is a failsafe that can preserve many relationships. If a big problem arises, can you trust the other person’s ability to grow and change? Could you also trust your own ability to grow and change? Can you see the potential for this growth and change to make your relationship stronger and more resilient over time?

Since I regularly work with growth-oriented people, I’ve seen some amazing changes in people over the years. I’ve also seen big changes in myself. So I have a deep trust in people’s ability to grow. And in fact, just knowing that someone is growth-oriented helps me trust them more.

Honoring Fragile Relationships

If you invest in a fragile relationship and it breaks, there can be some sadness and grief over that. But if the relationship was indeed lacking in the qualities necessary for long-term resilience, you could say that it would have broken sooner or later. If one final straw incident is what it takes to crack the relationship, it was too fragile to endure.

When a fragile relationship ends, try not to beat yourself up about it. Instead, honor the relationship by acknowledging what you learned from it. It had its time, and now it must move aside to make room for other relationships to come into your life.

Also consider the nature of the fragility that led the relationship to break. Where was the connection lacking resilience? This can help point you towards more resilient relationships.

Fragile relationships may be temporary, but they can still be deeply meaningful. When such a relationship comes to a close, whether or not it’s of your choosing, it’s good to reflect on it and acknowledge what it means to you. What you can appreciate about it?

Investing in Resilience

What does a resilient relationship look like for you?

Here are some qualities I’ve noticed about mine.

One critical quality is laughter. Laughter helps us bond and serves as a pressure release valve. It strengthens the capacity to forgive. It helps us focus on our commonalities instead of our differences. It gets us off our high horses and brings us down to earth. A relationship with a high capacity for laughter is more resilient. When the laughter evaporates, the relationship becomes a lot more fragile.

Another essential quality is play. See the Core of Play article for more details on that. When a relationship loses its core of play, its fragility increases. Play goes hand-in-hand with giving someone the benefit of the doubt. People can make the most ludicrous moves in life sometimes, but if you can frame their actions through the lens of play, you can forgive easily and avoid unnecessary hurt and resentment, if only by recognizing that in any game, people tend to pursue their own self-interests, and there is no need to hold that against them.

A resilient relationship gives people space to learn, grow, and reinvent themselves. If your relationship frames you or the other person into a corner, it will be more fragile. If your framing gives you and your partner some room to roam and explore, there’s less chance of running into a final straw moment that breaks the connection.

A common reason that people reject me and run, even after years of reading my blog, is that they’ve framed me into a corner of their minds. They’ve built a false image of me that doesn’t give me room to actually be myself. So when I inevitability violate their expectations (which were unreasonable to begin with), the relationship cracks on their end. Sometimes they’ll blame me for violating the false image they built, as if I was even aware that I was supposed to follow those rules.

Yet there are readers of my blog who’ve been with me since the first year or two, and nothing I’ve shared since them has caused them to bolt. Their image of me gives me space to be the explorer I am without their having to “ring the bell” and quit on me whenever I get into something new.

Fragility Testing

Some people who have a lot of relationship experience will deliberately test other people to see how resilient or fragile the connection is likely to be. This can occur at any time during a relationship, but it’s especially common at the beginning.

It’s like indirectly asking: What will it take for you to quit on me?

Personally I’m not into this as a deliberate practice because I find that this sort of testing will happen on its own. When I connect with someone new, it will be relatively easy for them to discover a reason to reject me early on. I’m open enough about my life that fragile connections tend to come to light early.

I actually like it, however, when someone does this kind of testing on me. It tells me they’re probing for fragility, and I actually see that as a respectful thing to do. It helps me them figure out whether to invest more in the relationship or if it will hit one of their fragile edges.

Even so, fragility testing won’t identify all of the potential points of fragility. How can it? Could you devise a thorough disclaimer for all the reasons someone may find to reject you and share that upfront? You’d have to identify all possible explorations you haven’t done yet (but might someday), decisions you haven’t faced (but might someday), changes you might experience, etc. So that’s an impossible task, and this means that despite all of your best efforts, you will encounter some fragile relationships, and they may not reveal their fragility right at the beginning.

Beautiful Fragility and Beautiful Resilience

Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, I can see the fragility in my first marriage was there from the beginning. I can see how easy it would have been to knock it off track in the first few weeks or months by making slightly different choices. There were forces pulling us in different directions that we had to overcome. There were near-breakups in the first few years.

Even though we stayed together for 15 years, that fragility was always present, and we had to keep avoiding the fragile edges to preserve the relationship that long… until we were no longer willing to do so because we needed to grow beyond those edges.

In my heart I honor and appreciate that relationship. Despite its fragility, it was a good relationship for us both. We learned and grew a lot together. But there’s also this feeling that breaking up was inevitable. It was just a matter of time. There’s no regret or blame about how we might have done things differently. There’s beauty in fragility.

There’s also beauty in resilience. I love the spaciousness and freedom of resilient relationships. I love the mutual trust. I love the long-term investment potential. I love the flexibility. I love how such relationships stretch and bend yet don’t break. I love feeling deeply accepted as I am.

Human relationships can be fragile or resilient. By accepting this instead of resisting it, it helps me regard my relationship with life as always resilient – by choice.

Life always maintains a resilient relationship with me on its end. It always forgives me. It always invites me to play. It always gives me the benefit of the doubt. It always unconditionally accepts me as I am.

By recognizing that this relationship is always anti-fragile on life’s side, I must acknowledge that any fragility in this relationship isn’t coming from life or from other people. It can only be coming from me.

And that reminds me that fragility is a choice.

We always have the option to tread cautiously around other people to avoid running into any fragile edges. Or we can live more like free spirits and be fully ourselves, smashing those fragile edges to smithereens whenever we encounter them. What’s left when all the fragile edges break? What’s left are powerfully resilient relationships with people and with life – the kind that we couldn’t break even if we tried.

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Steve Pavlina

Steve Pavlina is an American self-help author, motivational speaker and entrepreneur. He is the author of the web site and the book Personal Development for Smart People.

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