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Before Calling It Quits on Your Marriage

Stop trying what isn’t working and discover what you don’t know.

Key points

  • Long relationships are a series of relationships with the same person.
  • Deciding to end it is usually preceded either by fighting or (to avoid fighting) not connecting.
  • Not knowing what to do can be the beginning instead of the end.
  • Learn mindful listening and talking, and be open to discovery.
Cemile Bingol/iStock
Cemile Bingol/iStock

A friend going through a tough time with her marriage recently said, “But wouldn’t it be easier to just leave?” I said, “Of course it would!” and we both laughed at the truth of this. We don’t stay and build long-lasting relationships because it’s easy.

A recent NYT article talked about couples who did give up, got divorced, and then later re-married. Though this is a very small percentage of all people who divorce, there’s an idea here that applies to all marriages. In long relationships there will be many comings apart and many comings back together. Long relationships are a series of relationships with the same person.

We stay—and work hard—for several good reasons. There’s something wonderful in longevity itself. Shared history is part of the richness of life. It’s also part of building something larger and more complex. Instead of repeating phase one of a relationship over and over, we proceed from phase to phase, and as we go along both the challenges and the rewards get bigger.

A long relationship is not supposed to be "stable," as in unchangingly the same. This is boring, and because it’s boring it’s actually unstable and vulnerable to dissolving and ending either in divorce or the emotional equivalent. In a long relationship, each of you—and the relationship itself—must change. Growth and resilience are needed instead of stability.

Very few of us arrive in our important relationships knowing how to do this. We learn by trial and error. Too much trial and error with too little success can make us very angry or very distant.

What’s Happened To Us?

Deciding to end it is usually preceded either by increasingly painful and unproductive fighting, or—in avoiding this—no longer spending time together. It’s hard to say which is more destructive of a relationship, the fighting or the lack of connection.

Robert Frost said, concerning whether the world would end in fire or ice, “I hold with those who favor fire. But …for destruction ice is also great and would suffice.”

Don’t Just Do Something

Rarely do couples walk away for lack of trying. Usually they reach that point of wanting to leave when they’ve exhausted themselves trying everything they know to do. So of course, it may seem hopeless. But, as with anything in life, succeeding depends on trying the right thing. No matter how many times you try to shoe a horse using an egg, you’ll never succeed. Furthermore, concluding that the lack of success means that there is something wrong with either the egg or the horse would be a serious misinterpretation of the results of the experiment!

A better understanding of this moment is that what is needed is not more effort with what is not working, but discovery of things you haven’t yet understood, learned to do, or maybe even imagined. These discoveries can only happen when you allow the experience of not knowing.

The Big Leap: Admit You Don’t Know

Yes, we are talking about admitting that you don’t know what to do, instead of concluding that it’s hopeless because what you’re doing isn’t working. At the point you’re considering leaving, you need to step away from the security of knowing and undertake a somewhat frightening and risky adventure to discover new and unimagined ways of perceiving, understanding, and connecting.

Much of this discovery will happen by learning the very difficult art of listening openly and mindfully. Let go of what you think you know from past experience and really listen to what your partner is saying. Mindfulness is undefended awareness and involves a deliberate choice to be vulnerable—trading knowing and defending for not knowing and discovery.

And there’s the crucial conundrum: At exactly the point when your frustrations, disappointments and discouragement have built to dangerous levels, you must plunge into admitting that you don’t know what you’re doing and commit to a kind of learning that requires courage, steadiness, and openness. No wonder we often give up at this point!

And yet, this can be the point that you have the leverage of motivation, the understanding that what you’ve been doing isn’t working, and perhaps the determination to discover.

I’ve often heard the following description of a successful turn-around of a relationship in a nose-dive. "We decided to have one more look at what was going on before calling it quits. We got child care, packed our bags, and went away for a few days. During that time, we talked more than we had in all of our years of marriage. We both were honest about what we were feeling and risked saying and hearing things that we had previously been unwilling to say and hear. We cried a lot. But with more truth on the table it was easier to see how we got off track and what we might need to do. We agreed to keep talking and to make time for this in our lives."

Before Walking Out

At the point that you almost walk out the door, but instead turn around and decide to try again:

  • Admit that you don’t yet know what to do.
  • Make time to be together free from other responsibilities.
  • Talk more, not less, about what you feel and think.
  • Listen openly and mindfully.
  • Have the courage to tolerate, and to let your partner tolerate, difficult feelings.
  • Commit to learning together how to build the relationship you want.
  • Get help if you need it. (A therapist can help you discover what it is you haven’t tried or haven’t yet learned.)

And most importantly, keep talking. This new conversation is big and on-going. You don’t achieve the turn–around in one quick half hour of honesty. (In fact that is likely to do more harm than good.) Begin a conversation that will be a part of your relationship forever. Commit to having it, getting good at it, and even learning to enjoy it.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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