Why So Many Relationships Don’t Work

Guys, let’s talk about our romantic entanglements

Man with a broken heart illustration Man with a broken heart illustration


Why So Many
Don’t Work

Guys, let’s talk about our romantic entanglements

Sean Hotchkiss

Like every other 12 year-old with a pulse in 1995, I was a big Oasis fan. Liam Gallagher's haunting voice on tracks like “Wonderwall” still gives me chills: Because maybe, you're gonna be the one that saves me.

This lyric in particular stuck, because it describes how I approached the first thirty-six-or-so years of my life. I was always searching for the perfect romantic partner to appear. She would intuitively know how to love me in all the ways I'd been yearning for. She would, to paraphrase that iconic Jerry McGuire line, “complete me.”

As human beings, we are consistently sold the story that the right lover will make everything better.”

If this narrative sounds familiar, it's because it's written into every Rom Com, every trashy drugstore magazine, and, well, nearly all the pop songs penned in the history of the world. As human beings, we are consistently sold the story that the right lover will make everything better.

And believe it or not, men are particularly susceptible to this story, because we tend to have a lot of unmet emotional needs. Since most guys aren't encouraged to be vulnerable with each other—and in many cases even fear the repercussions of coming off as weak—we tend to pile our desire for emotional connection onto whomever we're sleeping with. This savior narrative is reinforced through the movies we watch, the songs we listen to, and even the porn we fire up late at night. It's a savior narrative that no real human person can possibly live up to.

The savior narrative is so subtle, so baked into our lives, that most of us don't know it's at work for us. But what we do know is the familiar cycle of dating, hooking up, and finding ourselves in yet another relationship that doesn't quite hit the spot we'd hoped for. Usually we end up disappointed. Sometimes we get really angry. And then that anger gets projected out into the world and hurts the people we love. Sometimes it gets turned inward and leads to depression, numbness, and stagnation. Either way, the only way to stop the cycle is to cease looking to a lover for relief and, to paraphrase Letters to a Young Poet: Go into ourselves. Because this is when we discover our own lost emotions and ultimately have the opportunity to do the work of unwinding a lifetime of disappointment around never having the love and connection we wanted.

Broken heart illustration
Broken heart illustration

When you're ready to end the disappointing cycle of looking to be saved by a lover or partner, here's how to jump in:

Complete a Relationship Inventory

I learned this game-changing process from an amazing therapist and author named John Lee, and it's an uncomfortable one for most guys: Challenge yourself to write down every romantic relationship, hook up, heartbreak, and intrigue you've ever been involved with. (Yes, all of them.) You'll start to see patterns emerging. These patterns are gold. If you're like 99.9% of us, they will lead you all the way back to your family of origin.

Do Your Family Homework

Our bonds with our parents form the template for how we approach all the relationships in our lives. And at least half of the population, according to Amir Levine and Rachel Heller's bestseller Attached, have insecure attachment styles. That means our parents were abusive, addicted, depressed, emotionally detached, or even just distracted, and because of it, we come into the world looking for our romantic partners to give us the love we never got as kids.

Survey the Damage

It's crucial to understand the beliefs we picked up about how to get love and attention during childhood. Maybe we stayed safe by keeping our mouth shut. (The Lost Child.) Maybe we only got attention when we picked fights, or yelled. (The Toxic Male.) Maybe we picked up the most brownie points for sucking up to Mom or getting good grades. (The Nice Guy.) The script we followed then is likely the same one we follow now, in adulthood.

For me, it was being a Nice Guy. I was so focused on performing for a woman the same way I performed for my mother and stepmother, that I discarded my own needs entirely. I'd meet someone new and move fast. But after the bliss of new romance had worn off, I usually woke up in a relationship with a woman I'd never intended to be anything more than casual lovers with. Then I'd get angry or run away, and everyone would get hurt.

Armed with the knowledge of your past, and how you were programmed to relate, take stock of all your current relationships. How many of them are set up the same way your relationships with your family were? Check to see if there are any judgments you have about relationships (such as: If I reveal my true self to anyone I'm dating, they'll reject me), or any misbeliefs about how you have to act in relationships to get what you want.

Work with Self Compassion

The process of beginning to see your blind spots in relationships can be terrifying. But ultimately, the past is the past. Let the feelings come up. There's probably grief, likely anger, and certainly confusion and sadness to cope with. As these feelings arise, be gentle with yourself. It may be helpful during this process to find a trusted friend, men's group, therapist or coach. Let others support you as you begin to forgive yourself for buying into any misbeliefs about who you had to be to survive and get love.

I have clients say the words out loud: I forgive myself for buying into the misbelief that I had to always say “Yes” to my mother's demands. Or: I forgive myself for the misbelief I could never be vulnerable with my partner.

As this forgiveness happens, many of my clients begin to make healthier choices in relationships: whether that's seeking counseling with their current partner, or choosing to exit a relationship that never worked to save them, and no longer serves them.

Ultimately, this process is about feeling the feelings you couldn't experience in childhood, which lets you become a fully functioning adult man who enters relationships from a secure place, needing nothing, but open to anything life and love might bring.


You’ve now got a life coach at your disposal. Hit Sean up with any concern you’re currently struggling with: Trouble at work? Relationship worries, family struggles or general mental health concern? Let him help you tackle it each month in this column.

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