After a bad break-up or a divorce, you often look back and wonder, “What was I thinking? How did I ever think this was going to work out well?”

Hindsight has long been 20-20. But what causes you to miss things while they are happening that in retrospect seem like they were a nightmare?

Many of us make up a story — your own fairly tale of how things are and will evolve, ignoring the red flags that, at the time, seem easily brushed under the carpet.

If the new love of your life is in superdrive at work and bent on becoming vice president of their company; you love her drive and are thrilled for her achievements. You’ve been told, “My ex was so jealous of my success.” But you’re different.

Or… it isn’t a big deal that your new partner and his ex are still emotionally battling it out. “She can’t accept reality” is the explanation. You’re told she’s “borderline” and although you cringe when you read the ugly texts going back and forth, you believe that he’s the victim.

Creating a fairy tale… 

You took information in — but through the eyes filled with “lust/love,” you only saw what you wanted to see. 

And then, you began to weave a story, a fairy tale basically, of how things will be. What will happen next and how it will be just so wonderful. You envision happiness and contentedness and fulfillment. The things in real life that you’re a little uncomfortable with? They will change for the better, “I just know it.” Those concerns are pushed aside and instead of waiting to see what knowing someone for a year or two will be like, instead of moving slowly toward an increased commitment, instead of listening to see if your soon-to-be partner takes responsibility for their own actions, you joyfully dive in.

It’s great… at first. “Everything’s going to work out,” the little voice inside your head starts chanting. Maybe you get married and begin to weave your lives together. Or you make decisions that change your own life, because it seems important for the relationship Your life revolves around making the relationship work.

But, over time, the patterns that you intentionally made cloudy become much more clear, despite your best attempts to keep them hidden.

And the fairy tale can become a nightmare…

There really are no fairy tales. There’s excitement. And joy. And laughter. And contentment. And the relief from loneliness. But those things can get lost with the invasion of disappointment, anger and unwelcome clarity — brought on seeing things from a totally different perspective – now that you’re very personally and intimately intertwined in each other’s lives.

You appreciate her drive, but even on the weekends when the two of you have both sets of kids, she’s working. You begin to feel like a single parent with a roommate, not a spouse. 

Not only does he still fight with the ex, he now won’t compromise with you. What seemed like decisiveness at first seems like bossy-ness and refusing to be cooperative now. It’s not different with you.

Things you justified — become painful to see but you can’t ignore the issues.

The author Daphne Kingma in her book, Coming Apart, points out that there’s at least one thing you can generally pinpoint when you look back at a failed relationship — one thing that you ignored, denied, or avoided that’s at the root of what you now see as an intolerable obstacle to remaining in the relationship.

How to avoid creating a fairy tale…

How can you avoid this kind of mistake?

1) Be honest about your own emotional health — is your picker broken?

Look at your own patterns and admit your part. Are you creating fairy tales? Are you looking for the magic person who’ll save you or sweep you into their arms? Are you attracted to edgy people who aren’t growing up or are demanding and self-centered? Maybe you’re allowing a sexual connection to make your decisions for you. Maybe you’re way too urgent about finding a relationship and that urgency is clouding your judgment. It could be many things, but looking at yourself in the mirror and being honest can go a long way.

2) Make sure your partner is taking responsibility for their own mistakes.

A blamer often stays a blamer. If they talk about the ex’s being intimidated, and doesn’t say anything about how they also screwed up, that’s not a good sign. It’s rare that all the fault is on one side in a failed relationship. Look for how someone reveals their own vulnerability — their own struggles, and you can be much more reassured that that’s how they’ll act in your own relationship.

3) Wait. Time will tell. Things don’t always surface until a firm commitment exists.

Plain and simple. Time will tell you a lot about someone. We all have unconscious ideas about marriage and partnership. We absorbed them when we were children, and watched our parents try to have a relationship. Often, they don’t come to the fore until a commitment is real. 

4) Make sure you can fight fairly before you get married.

If you’re fighting tooth and nail, or not fighting at all, before you’re committed or married, then something’s amiss. Arguments are natural, and resolution is vital to true intimacy. So, make sure you both can do it, be honest with each other without being cruel, not hold a grudge, and get on with living.

5) Realize the beginning of a relationship shouldn’t be hard.

Unless there’s some kind of extenuating circumstance, like one of you becomes ill or has a sudden loss, then the beginning months of a relationship should be fairly smooth. You’re learning about each other, and you’re fascinated often to do so. If you’re arguing a lot, or it simply seems like you’re spending a vast amount of energy on the relationship, then something’s out of balance. Most folks are on their best behavior when falling in love. And, if this is the best, and it’s really hard, then you ought to consider the relationship more carefully.

Wonderful healthy relationships exist. But there’s no fairy dust.



You can hear more about mental health and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!

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Article originally published on June 16, 2018; updated and republished on April 30, 2022.

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