My long term, long-distance relationship recently came to an amicable end, thus tossing me back into the world of dating. Philosophers, of course, have two standard responses to problems: thinking or drinking. Since I am not much for drinking, I have been thinking about relationships.
Since starting and maintaining a relationship is a great deal of work (and if it is not, you are either lucky or doing it wrong), I think it is important to consider whether relationships are worth it. One obvious consideration is the fact that the vast majority of romantic relationships end well before death. Even marriage, which is supposed to be the most solid of relationships, tends to end in divorce.
While there are many ways to look at the ending of a relationship, I think there are two main approaches. One is to consider the end of the relationship a failure. One obvious analogy is to writing a book and not finishing: all that work poured into it, yet it remains incomplete. Another obvious analogy is with running a marathon that one does not finish—great effort expended, but in the end just failure. Another approach is to consider the ending more positively: the relationship ended, but was completed. Going back to the analogies, it is like completing that book you are writing or finishing that marathon. True, it has ended—but it is supposed to end.
When my relationship ended, I initially looked at it as a failure—all that effort invested and it just came to an end one day because, despite two years of trying, we could not land academic jobs in the same geographical area. However, I am endeavoring to look at in a more positive light—although I would have preferred that it did not end, it was a very positive relationship, rich with wonderful experiences and helped me to become better as a human being. There still, of course, remains the question of whether or not it is worth being in another relationship.
One approach to address this is the ever-popular context of biology and evolution. Humans are animals that need food, water and air to survive. As such, there is no real question about whether food, water and air are worth it—one is simply driven to possess them. Likewise, humans are driven by their biology to reproduce and natural selection seems to have selected for genes that mold brains to engage in relationships. As such, there is no real question of whether they are worth it, humans merely do have relationships. This answer is, of course, rather unsatisfying since a person can, it would seem, make the choice to be in a relationship or not. There is also the question of whether relationships are, in fact, worth it—this is a question of value and science is not the realm where such answers lie. Value questions belong to such areas as moral philosophy and aesthetics. So, on to value.
The question of whether relationships are worth it or not is rather like asking whether technology is worth it or not: the question is extremely broad. While some might endeavor to give sweeping answers to these broad questions, such an approach would seem problematic and unsatisfying. Just as it makes sense to be more specific about technology (such as asking if nuclear power is worth the risk), it makes more sense to consider whether a specific relationship is worth it. That is, there seems to be no general answer to the question of whether relationships are worth it or not, it is a question of whether a specific relationship would be worth it.
It could be countered that there is, in fact, a legitimate general question. A person might regard any likely relationship to not be worth it. For example, I know several professionals who have devoted their lives to their careers and have no interest in relationships—they do not consider a romantic involvement with another human being to have much, if any value. A person might also regard a relationship as a necessary part of their well-being. While this might be due to social conditioning or biology, there are certainly people who consider almost any relationship worth it.
These counters are quite reasonable, but it can be argued that the general question is best answered by considering specific relationships. If no specific possible (or likely) relationship for a person would be worth it, then relationships in general would not be worth it. So, if a person honestly considered all the relationships she might have and rejected all of them because their value is not sufficient, then relationships would not be worth it to her. As noted above, some people take this view.
If at least some possible (or likely) relationships would be worth it to a person, then relationships would thus be worth it. This leads to what is an obvious point: the worth of a relationship depends on that specific relationship, so it comes down to weighing the negative and positive aspects. If there is a sufficient surplus of positive over the negative, then the relationship would be worth it. As should be expected, there are many serious epistemic problems here. How does a person know what would be positive or negative? How does a person know that a relationship with a specific person would be more positive or more negative? How does a person know what they should do to make the relationship more positive than negative? How does a person know how much the positive needs to outweigh the negative to make the relationship worth it? And, of course, many more concerns. Given the challenge of answering these questions, it is no wonder that so many relationships fail. There is also the fact that each person has a different answer to many of these questions, so getting answers from others will tend to be of little real value and could lead to problems. As such, I am reluctant to answer them for others; especially since I cannot yet answer them for myself.