By Michele Gruenhage, M.A, C.C.C., R.C.C
Frequently people come into my office unsure about whether their relationship is worth saving or if it is beyond repair. As couples tell me the story of their relationship I hear them describe the ways they each feel hurt, lonely, and discouraged. Sometimes couples come in soon after they recognize they need support in communicating with each other in better ways. They haven’t had much conflict and they feel terrible about the things they recently said to each other in the heat of the moment.
More often, however, couples have been coping with their painful dynamics for years, and their level of discouragement is high, and their hope is low. They have ingrained patterns of fighting – yelling, screaming, name-calling, and/or silence. The Four Horsemen are running rampant. They feel embarrassed and worried about how all of the fighting is affecting their kids. Maybe there has been an emotional or sexual affair. Maybe one or both partners struggle with addiction – gambling, pornography, drugs, and/or alcohol.
I often ask clients “Why do you stay in this relationship?” Or “What is your commitment to working on this relationship?”. These are some of the answers I hear regularly:
I still love my partner
I don’t want to break up our family
I don’t want to give up because I made a vow/commitment
I think there is still hope
I am in 100%
I have one foot out the door
I don’t even know why I’m here
My faith/culture doesn’t believe in divorce
I’m only here because my partner made me come
I’m committed as long as my partner is committed
I have lost hope but feel stuck
My job as a therapist is not to tell couples whether they should stay in their relationship or end their relationship-
I do help people understand the strengths that exist in their relationship, and the places they need support. In this way, I help clients figure out what kind of effort they are willing to put into their relationship, or if it’s time to end it. If both partners are willing to try, I help them gain new skills in healthier communication.
There does come a point for many people where they are weighing out their reasons for leaving and their reasons for staying. They go back and forth in their minds trying to make the best decision, but it is not clear. Their partner is not horrible ALL the time. They have a couple of days without fighting and feel themselves relax a bit. But then their partner uses that tone, makes that face, or says something critical, and once again the idea of leaving seems like the only choice. A wave of guilt hits as they think, “But what about the kids?” Is it better for the kids if I stay? Should I or can I sacrifice my happiness for my children’s happiness?
In his book Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, Gottman explains:
With so much evidence pointing to the harmful effects of divorce on children, unhappily married parents may wonder whether it’s best to stay in a truly miserable and undeniably hopeless marriage for their children’s welfare. Our research, and that of others, answers this question with a definite and resounding no. That’s because certain kinds of marital conflict can have the same deleterious effects on children as divorce. In other words, it’s not necessarily the divorce that hurts kids, but the intense hostility and bad communication that can develop between unhappily married mothers and fathers and may continue after the divorce. (p.145)
I think a key point here in determining whether it is time to leave is if you can say you are in a ‘truly miserable and undeniably hopeless marriage’. That is a hard thing for a lot of people to know for certain. Can you rally the energy to try something more? Will you and your partner both commit to trying? Have you already given it your best effort?
Many people experience being in a type of ‘limbo’ as they go back and forth in their minds about staying or leaving. Many others feel unable to decide and, essentially make the decision to not make a decision. I think it’s important to say that it’s ok not to know and to be in this place. Many people stay in this place for quite a while.
So what’s the answer to the question – When is it Time to Say this Relationship is Over?
The truth is only you can say. Other people might suggest it’s not that hard, but it’s not so simple when it’s your relationship. Take your time. Get some support. Be kind to yourself.