When people suffer disappointments in romantic relationships or careers, they are sometimes told: It just wasn’t meant to be. Does that make any sense?
Something could be meant to be if it fits with the intentions of God, the universe, fate, destiny, or karma. But there is no evidence that God or the universe has a specific plan for people’s personal relationships and job prospects, so disasters in love and work cannot be viewed as contrary to such a plan.
Similarly, fate and destiny are supernatural hypotheses lacking in evidence, and people have no more chance of figuring out their personal fates and destinies than identifying God’s plan. Perhaps life’s outcomes result from karma – whatever goes around comes around, but that doctrine is implausible as I argued in a previous blog post. The idea that some things are meant to be could be a consequence of the principle that everything happens for a reason, which is also implausible.
However, without invoking any of these kinds of supernatural intentions, there is another way of interpreting the remark that some things are or are not meant to be. When you get out of a bad relationship or job, the outcome is basically good for you even if the loss has short term consequences such as disappointment and sadness. On the other hand, the end of a satisfying relationship or job may actually be tragic in the sense that you and other people would have been much better off without the loss.
What makes for a good relationship, the kind that it would be tragic to lose? Many features, can be listed, such as caring, love, commitment, emotional and sexual intimacy, trust, shared fun, common goals and values, good conflict resolution, and other kinds of compatibility. Then a relationship is meant to be if it has these features.
On the other hand, if a relationship is marked by disinterest, contempt, discord, silences, criticism, distractions, and infidelity, then it makes some sense to say that it wasn’t meant to be.
A study by Epstein et al. identifies seven relationship skills as important to the maintenance of long-term romantic relationships.
Communication: knowing how to listen, sharing one’s thoughts and feelings honestly,
Conflict Resolution: staying focused on the topic, staying focused on the present, being ready to forgive or apologize, etc.
Knowledge of Partner: knowing how to have fun with one’s partner, knowing about his/her preferences, caring about one’s partner’s hopes and dreams, etc.
Life Skills: managing money responsibly, exercising and staying fit, being able to find and keep a job, etc.
Self Management: knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses, striving to overcome one’s weaknesses, identifying and reaching one’s goals, etc.
Sex & Romance: inquiring and caring about how to please one’s partner sexually, setting aside time for intimacy, staying attractive for one’s partner, etc.
Stress Management: using imagery techniques, thought management techniques, planning and organizational skills, muscle relaxation techniques, etc.
The competencies that best predict self-reported outcomes in relationships are communication, knowledge of partner, and life skills. If you and your partner share these competencies, then perhaps you were meant to be, even though God, the universe, fate, destiny, and karma were not doing the meaning.
Epstein, R.; Robertson, R. E.; Smith, R.; Vasconcellos, T.; & Lao, M. (2016). Which relationship skills count most? A large-scale replication. Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, 15(4), 341-356.