When I was young, I thought marriages could be divided into two discrete categories—good and bad. Both of my parents had been divorced prior to meeting each other, and having seen first-hand their happy second marriage, and their contentious interactions with their exes, it was clear to me that they had chosen better the second time around.
Those experiences led me to believe that there were fundamentally good and bad marriages, and the deciding factor was whether you picked the right person. Marriage then, was like the cup scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; only one shot to get it right, and an authoritative knight declaring at the end, you chose poorly, or, you chose wisely. Complete, of course, with till-death-do-us part stakes.
Then I got older, and got married, and eventually became a couples therapist, and my view of the good/bad marriage dichotomy shifted. Certainly, there are people who should never be married to each other. And when they somehow wind up together, it’s a heartbreak for all involved. But it turns out that marriage, much like every other social contract or human behavior, lies on a continuum. There aren’t good marriages and bad marriages. Wait—let me walk that back, there are definitely good and bad unions—but the vast majority lie somewhere in the murky middle.
This all may seem obvious, and maybe it is on some level. But I have been a part of many conversations with couples (and individuals) about whether or not they should be together, and whether or not they’re meant to be. In other words, they want to know which category their relationship falls in—bad or good. And how could we all not struggle with this in some way? Our culture gives us two somewhat competing ideas about marriage; we need to make sure we find the right person, and also that we should work really hard at it. Logically, each idea makes sense on its own, but it’s sometimes difficult to reconcile these two maxims in real life.
Because if we’ve found the right person, then why do we have to work so hard? And how do we know that all this work we’re doing wouldn’t be better served in a different relationship? What if it would be easier or better with someone else? The people that I talk to don’t mind doing the work to improve and maintain their relationship, but they want to know that they’re doing it with the right person and for the right reasons.
Unfortunately, no one can provide these answers. We can never really know for certain if we are making the right choice to keep working at it, or to move on; we must make our way in the dark. The best definition I’ve heard for how to know if a marriage is too much work, is that it’s when you don’t want to do the work anymore. You’ve stopped putting in the effort to be connected, to build, to repair, and you have no interest in going back. This is the point where your marriage begins to die.
Because the truth is that a marriage is a living thing. It is either growing or rotting away on the vine, but it is never inert. I wish I could say that you get to a point where you’re done. You’ve picked the right person, and you’ve had enough time or experience or whatever, and it assures you a happy ending from this moment on. I wish I could say that’s true. But it isn’t.
So instead of trying to piece out whether your relationship is kismet, it seems to me more helpful to focus on how much effort you and your partner are willing to put into it. You can’t know if you’re destined to be together, but you can know if you’re willing to try to meet their needs, and clearly express your own, and repair whatever mistakes you make along the way. You can know what you’re willing to do each day to foster emotional connection, encourage intimacy, and to let go of whatever’s not worth holding onto. If you are both committed to doing the work, then at the very least, you will know what you have together. It’s not a guarantee that your relationship will go the distance, but it’s the only thing that will give it a chance.
If you find yourself spinning, not knowing what direction to turn to in your marriage, don’t look towards fortune for an answer. Don’t try to go back and figure out if you made the right choice oh so many years ago. Search your heart not for feelings of love, but for a willingness to roll up your sleeves and get to work.