It probably comes as no surprise that I believe in marriage. I’m a marriage and family therapist so it kind of comes with the territory. I believe in the power of commitment and I believe that most marriages are worth the work it takes to stay together. It takes great courage to stay and ride through the storms with another person; and I see far too many couples throw in the towel when things are hard or they can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. They give up on the struggle before they consider the repercussions.
But there’s another side to the story. There are countless women who do see the light at the end of the long dark tunnel- and that light is shining on a life without their current partner. And I believe that there is immense courage in being the one to choose temporary heartbreak in order to free yourself and your partner from a life of suffering. Sometimes, staying isn’t the right decision. Sometimes the right decision, the courageous decision, is to stand up and say enough.
Staying together when you know that you do not have the foundation for a healthy, loving relationship is not a sacrifice that serves anyone. Yes, fight for your love and your family but you also need to be honest about what you had, what you have right now, and most importantly how hard you both are willing to work on what you might have in the future. Understanding these three elements can help you move closer to clarity about the next step for your relationship and choose the healthiest path for everyone involved.
One thing that used to surprise me as a couples therapist is how many couples, when talking to me individually, would confide that from the very beginning of their relationship they didn’t believe that their relationship was built to last. For some people, they still thought about an ex or had feelings for a friend while dating their current spouse but pushed those feelings aside, thinking marriage would make them closer. For others, a period of depression, self-doubt, or insecurity led them to believe that the person they were with was the “best” they’d ever get.
Marriage is one of the most inconvenient, challenging tests of our personal growth and capacity for love; it is not a journey to take on with someone who just happens to be there at the right time or in the right place. Settling for just any spouse instead of taking the time to be sure you found the right spouse for you is like deciding to climb Mt. Everest and just picking up the first mountain climber you see as a guide. There will inevitably come a moment when you realize that your misguided choices at the beginning have led you to a situation where there is no way to move forward together.
So what happens if you in fact, you chose the right person but things seem to be falling apart? This is often the hardest, murkiest, phase of marriage. It is also the most universal. Every couples will have moments of struggle and even doubt in their marriage. Sifting through your disappointments and frustrations and hearing your spouses list of complaints is painful and overwhelming. It only pales slightly in comparision to the lonliness of sharing a life with someone who is emotionally disengaged and feels like a stranger. These awful feelings can convince even the most faithful and committed among us to question the future of our union. So how do rise above the pain and begin to determine where to go next? Time and self-reflection will help. If you’re lucky, there is more good than bad when you take a close look. Or at the very least the good outweighs the bad so much so that it’s easy to decide to stay and work it out. But for many couples that’s just not the case.
The road from where you are to where you want to be is steep and rocky and requires the work of TWO people to make the journey complete. Which brings us to the third and most critical question- what are you each willing to do to move forward? As a colleague of mine likes to say, marriage has two votes and when it comes to staying together and working out the issues, large and small, you both have to vote yes. No matter how hard one of you wants things to get better, if the other person isn’t invested in doing the work of repairing what’s been broken and forgiving what’s gone wrong, there isn’t much room for growth.
And that is where the courage steps in. It takes courage to be honest about your own willingness and ability to keep trying. It takes courage to say that what you had is no longer there and it takes courage to be the one to decide whether or not you are in place that you can build something new together. I am always amazed at the strength and perseverance of the couples who stick it out and create a new, more loving future together. But make no mistake, I am equally in awe of the men and women who bravely choose heartbreak and separation rather than let a failed relationship quietly steal the joy from themselves, their families, and the partners they once loved. Staying together is hard but so is letting go. And anyone willing to stand up and take responsibility for the direction of their relationship is a hero in my book.