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Stay or Go?

How do you know when you should leave a relationship?

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The young, very tired, sad, and tearful client had just finished telling me about what sounded like a disastrous relationship. Her husband had spent all but a few months of their eight-year marriage behind bars on drug charges. They had two young children conceived during his brief periods of freedom. Now released from his latest prison stay, he was using drugs again, refusing to look for work because he considered it demeaning, was being verbally and physically abusive to her and emotionally abusive to their children. He also spent most nights away from home, cheating on her with a variety of other women whose naked photos he kept on his cell phone.

“I don’t know what to do,” she said, wiping her eyes. “I love him. I want to help him. But I’m starting to think I can’t.”

We talked about how, for most of their marriage, she had been a single mom, working hard to support her children and build a decent life for them.

Then her face crumbled into another bout of sobbing.

“I’m afraid,” she whispered through her tears. “I’m afraid of change and being alone!”

Even under the worst of circumstances, it isn’t easy to make the decision to leave an unhappy, dysfunctional relationship.

Some people hesitate to leave due to religious beliefs that preclude divorce or because of financial considerations. (The latter is especially common for older, long-married couples with resources too limited to support two households).

Some are reluctant to call it quits because of the time and effort invested in the relationship or because of concerns for their children.

Still, others decide to stay out of concern for their partners. A recent study at the University of Toronto found that people are less likely to initiate a breakup when they believe that their partners are dependent on the relationship, even if it is a tempestuous or quietly miserable one.

So there can be many reasons to stay in relationships that are largely unhappy.

What are some reasons to leave?

1. If your health and/or safety is at risk. In the case of domestic abuse and violence, an exit needs to be well planned with help from family, friends and support services and shelters for victims of abuse. The danger of harm can be greatest when an abused partner is trying to leave the relationship, but that’s not a reason to stay put. It means that in order to be safe you need an exit plan and support from others arranged in advance.

Overt abuse isn’t the only threat to health and safety. Sometimes a desire to help a troubled partner can blind one to danger signs.

My dear friend Marie seemed to have it all: a successful career as a journalist and a loving marriage to an ambitious young lawyer. But her life wasn’t quite what it seemed. Two years into their marriage, her husband began to have episodes of depression with suicidal thoughts.

She urged him to get therapy and, when he resisted, she made a counseling appointment for him. Her parents, seeing his mental instability and fearing for her safety, begged her to come and stay with them until he got therapy or medication. Close friends and her siblings also sensed the peril and urged her to step away temporarily. But for Marie, the choice to stay at his side was the only one she would consider. “I’d never forgive myself if anything were to happen to him,” she said.

Her concern for her husband cost Marie her life. The night before his therapy appointment, her husband killed Marie while she was sleeping. She was 28 years old. His reason: “She was going to prevent me from committing suicide.” He never committed suicide. He was found innocent of her murder due to temporary insanity, was subsequently diagnosed as bipolar and given medication. In the 45 years since, he has remarried, had a family, and is still practicing law.

Another friend, whom I’ll call Dave, also had a seemingly idyllic life with a successful, high-profile career, a family of delightful, accomplished children and a wife who was smart and resourceful. However, long-time tensions between Dave and his wife escalated through the years. Marriage counseling didn’t help. His blood pressure rose. He gained weight. He began to tell close friends and family that the marriage had become so stressful that he felt he would die if he didn’t leave.

Finally, years after the last child left the nest, he did, too. He is still convinced that he is alive today only because he finally was able to leave. The years since have seen some painful times, but their daughter reports that both of her parents are enjoying better health since their split.

2. If your children are in jeopardy. If a spouse is abusing one or all of your children physically, emotionally or sexually, it’s vital to get them out of harm’s way. This may well mean leaving the marriage.

3. If your relationship has become intolerable because your spouse refuses to consider changes that would make it possible to continue to be together. Making a troubled marriage work means compromise and change by both partners. If one absolutely refuses to change, to seek help or to modify troublesome habits and behaviors, it’s time to consider what you can live with — and what you can’t.

4. If your life has become about walking on eggshells around a volatile, controlling partner. The pattern may have developed gradually over time and may be punctuated by periods of kindness and peace after an emotional storm. In mulling the decision to stay or leave, look for patterns. Does he or she violate boundaries by reading your emails or texts? Is your partner trying to isolate you from your extended family or close friends? Do apologies and olive branches come mostly from you? Do periods of calm almost always follow times of conflict? Does your spouse refuse to see that this behavior has become a pattern and is problematic? It may be time, once again, to consider what is tolerable and what isn't.

5. If you’re convinced, after many attempts to make things better, that the marriage or relationship will never improve and that your life would be happier without him or her.

It’s important to consider that, in any relationship, there will be ups and downs, periods of conflict and periods of peace, times of closeness and times of distance. But if the relationship has become all conflict or distance and impervious to change, it may be time to consider an exit, keeping in mind that the grass isn’t always greener, that the answer to a happier life may not be jumping into another relationship right away, but spending time making peace with yourself and with your past before moving on to additional life changes.

Staying or leaving: neither is an easy decision nor an inevitable conclusion. Leaving doesn’t necessarily mean non-stop bliss and staying doesn’t necessarily mean lifelong misery. Either way, making a decision is a leap of faith into an unknowable future.


Samantha Joe, Emily A. Impett, Stephanie S. Spielman, Geoff MacDonald. How Interdependent Are Stay/Leave Decisions? On Staying in the Relationship for the Sake of the Romantic Partner. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2018; 115(5): 805 DOI 10371 pips 0000139

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