Many years ago, I was sitting with a couple in my office, marveling about what a “perfect fit” they were: They were both into healthy living, rescue dogs, and hiking. They didn’t argue, their facial expressions were kind, and their nonverbal signals showed they cared.
Despite this, they were talking about ending their relationship. They couldn’t describe what was wrong, but both felt the relationship was empty. I followed the usual process: We looked for places of trouble, which were few, and explored the good parts of their relationship, which were many. However, it was as if a spark between them was never lit. In the end, they felt it was best to part amicably, which they did.
That session was followed by an hour with another couple who didn’t stop arguing from the moment they walked in the door. They had been waiting all week to “tell on the other,” i.e., talk about the agreements each had broken and the far-reaching arguments about washing the dishes or sex, all with a plethora of eye-rolling and grimacing. However, the passion between them was palpable; under the power struggle, there was a lot of interest and passion. We worked hard for months, and they were eventually able to break their destructive loop and spend more time living with the pleasure they found in each other.
These two stories point to one of the most important truths my 35 years of working with couples has shown me. Though we know many of the qualities and skills that make a great relationship—most of which can be learned—there is no rule book for what makes two people work. Sometimes people just know their relationships are over; other times, even though it’s hard, they are willing to do the work to make it good again.
There are times you MUST leave—if there is ongoing abuse or if you are in danger of physical harm, you should only consider staying safe. Repeated bouts of addiction, cheating, emotional badgering, and severe financial abuse need to be handled with extreme care as well. That means finding a safe way to leave is the only sensible possibility. Of course, each of those issues can find resolution, but a partner who is unwilling to change their destructive behavior will only harm you.
Outside of these, there are situations in which you just don’t know if you should leave or stay. Here are three things to pay attention to if you are facing the dilemma of working on your marriage or ending it:
1. Don’t make decisions when you are in an intense emotional state of discouragement, anger, or despair.
Remember that love is a feeling and that relationships come and go. My mother—who was married for over 55 years—once said to me, “No one knows what hate is until they have been married 50 years.” Her marriage was full of deep love, companionship, and joy, but she understood that there are moments when living with someone else is impossible. Then we feel we would do anything to flee.
Just remember that love is a feeling and that a relationship is an agreement that has many seasons. We disappoint one another, hurt one another, and sometimes even bore one another. However, those times that seem impossible in the moment can give more trust and resilience to the relationship overall.
2. Learn about the ongoing arguments, which I call emotional loops.
Often, people think they want out of the marriage when they really want out of a loop. In my experience, most women fear emotional disconnection, while many men feel criticized in relationships. An emotional loop can begin in either place. When one person feels abandoned, she may criticize her partner. This drives him into withdrawing, which in turn makes her more critical. After a while, these positions seem permanent, but I am happy to say that they are not. It is possible to break the loop and find joy in your relationship again.
3. Understand your role in the dynamic.
I have seen so many people leave relationships thinking that the problem was the other person. They discover someone new, and for a while, everything is wonderful. A few years into that relationship, however, they find that the same issues are back. As a very clever book title says, “Wherever you go, there you are.” We bring ourselves with us, and our part of the problem will still be there in the next relationship.
The antidote to this is to do your part of the work on understanding your problems, even if your partner is not willing to. If you are in a relationship that involves unproductive arguments, find a way to stop your side of them. If you cope with your troubles by being defensive, practice being more open and more vulnerable. When one person changes, often their partner does unwittingly.
So unless you are in danger, slow your decision down. Remember, a relationship is a dynamic between two people. The most important outcome is that you heal—and free yourself—from your part of what makes your relationship unhealthy. Your partner may or may not do their side of the work, but your actions will clear the way for a decision based on strength and intuition rather than a reaction to an issue that might later be resolved.
Many relationships can overcome challenges when both people are willing to learn to practice the skills. It not, at least you won’t be continuing the same patterns with someone else. And that’s a step in the right direction.