Experience is not always the best teacher

Experience is not always the best teacher WP

Lots of people think that dating (and being sexually intimate) with a number of different people before marriage is an essential part of  forming a successful union. But is this kind of  ‘experience’ the best way to prepare for marriage?

Many people think that having a few failed relationships is helpful in preparing them (or their children) for marriage. Some even go so far as seeing the first marriage itself as a ‘starter marriage’; the first of several marriages, and not to be considered very serious. They reason that a negative relationship experience is necessary for them to know what not to do in a relationship.

Experience often does produce wisdom, and wisdom is surely a help in any relationship. However, for many people, experience breeds not wisdom, but cynicism and bitterness.

Too many people learn the wrong things from their relationship failures: they learn not to trust, not to have high expectations about a relationship lasting, and not to invest too much of themselves.

These are excellent self-protective strategies if our goal is to avoid the pain of rejection and failure. They are precisely the wrong behaviours for building a vibrant marriage. No marriage can flourish without trust, hope, and total commitment.

But there is something else that is faulty with this thinking. There is an underlying assumption that the only way to learn about relationship is through mistakes; that we must endure failure and disaster in order to learn and mature.

In truth, we can learn from both failing and succeeding.

In business no one would consider successive failed ventures as a reason for confidence the next time around. On the contrary, most of us would say a history of repetitive failure is more likely to be predictive of future failure. Why? Because repetitive failure indicates an inability (or unwillingness) to reflect on and learn from experience.

Here’s the point: the real teacher is not the experience itself, but the reflection and self-examination that should go with it.

Learning from experience

Experience, negative or positive, only really helps us if we reflect on it, learn the right lessons from it, and change the right behaviours as a result.

To be effective, this reflection needs to examine both extrinsic and intrinsic contributors.

  1. Extrinsic factors would include things such as stressors to the relationship such as a job loss, chronic illness or personality flaws in our partner. We don’t really have a lot of control over these and since there will be stressors in every relationship at some time we can never completely avoid them.
  2. Intrinsic factors would include one’s own personality flaws, destructive habits and attitudes (including the reasons why one might be attracted to a certain personality type in the first place) or how one reacts to an external stressor. These are the things we do have a measure of control over and can adapt our behaviour and attitudes to mitigate their negative impact.

One of the reasons why previously divorced people have a higher incidence of divorce in their second and subsequent marriages, is because they often fail to reflect effectively on their experience. They can easily get distracted justifying their own position, rather than maturely exploring the situation from all angles.

Even for those of us in an intact marriage, we can be fall victim to the blame game. We’re so busy justifying our own grievances and laying blame for our misery on our spouse (or on some extrinsic factor), that we ignore the vitally important intrinsic contributors over which we do have some influence.

Success is also a teacher

There are also things to learn from a success experience in relationship. For example:

  • A healthy relationship can help us go further in self-growth as we encourage each other towards virtue.
  • We are more likely to appreciate and adopt a requested change from our spouse when it is presented gently and in love than when it is angrily demanded.
  • Being loved by another unconditionally also facilitates our emotional healing work which is often the root cause of our destructive behaviour patterns.

What is common among successful couples is a growth mentality. Like successful business owners, couples who thrive do so because they are looking for learning opportunities to instruct them in how to do better. They avoid blaming the situation or their spouse and focus on what they can personally do differently.

And then they do it.

The ensuing cycle of increasing success thus protects them from falling into cynicism and destructive, self-protective behaviours.

A negative experience can teach us what not to do. A positive experience can confirm for us that we are on the right track. Both are valuable lessons.

Learning from another’s experience

While our own experience certainly has a way of getting our attention, it’s not the only way that experience teaches. We can also learn through the observation of others, and in fact we do this more than we realise.

If you’ve caught yourself thinking about your parents and deciding you’d ‘never do it like that’ or being determined to avoid becoming like your messed-up addicted friend – congratulations! You’re learning from someone else’s experience.

Smart people learn from their experience. Wise people learn from others’ experience.

We really don’t have to make all the mistakes ourselves to learn the lessons from experience. True wisdom avoids many mistakes by observing and learning the right lessons gleaned from the mistakes and success of others.

Success or Failure: it’s all in how we process it

Whether it’s our own or someone else’s experience, learning from experience is just an academic exercise if it doesn’t translate into a change in behaviour. Whether the experience was positive or negative, a success or failure, if we don’t reflect on it effectively, experience will fail to teach, or worse, teach us the wrong things.

All relationships have difficulties. The challenge for us all is to grow in wisdom rather than in cynicism in order to triumph over difficulties.

Francine & Byron Pirola

Francine & Byron Pirola are the founders and principal authors of the SmartLoving series. They are passionate about living Catholic marriage to the full and helping couples reach their marital potential. They have been married since 1988 and have five children. Their articles may be reproduced for non commercial purposes with appropriate acknowledgement and back links. For Media Enquiries Please Contact us here

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  1. Christine on May 20, 2024 at 6:28 am

    Beautiful post. I like the reflection on the factors a relationship broke down, because yes, I do adopt some cynicism from past relationships into my marriage. Also how Beautiful to learn from others mistakes as well as our own

    • Francine & Byron Pirola on May 21, 2024 at 5:14 pm

      The critical thing, Christine, is to be open to growth whether that’s from our own or from other’s mistakes (or successes). Thanks for sharing.

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