Can a Failing Relationship be Saved?
Should it be saved?
Posted November 24, 2013
(I have followed in this post my usual practice of disguising my patients.)
By the time men and women enter into a long-term commitment, such as marriage, they are likely to have been through a number of previous relationships. Something was learned by them during those involvements, about the way they begin and end, and about the way they themselves respond to them, so that this most recent relationship has a better chance of lasting. But still, engagements to marry are broken sometimes and about half of all marriages end in divorce. Not uncommonly, the cause of such a rupture is an ongoing infidelity. If a mature man leaves his wife of twenty years, everyone thinks first of the possibility of his having had an affair. It is often so. Often he will say that the marriage had been bad for years, and believe that to be true, but it was only when another woman appeared on the scene that he decided to leave. Of course, there are many other reasons for divorce.
There are some who think that marriage is inviolable. Different religions may forbid or discourage divorce. It was thought once that the public interest demanded that divorce be made difficult, so that children would not be left homeless. In New York State, divorce was only possible in the context of infidelity, and so men and women would routinely perjure themselves and defame themselves in order to get a divorce. But it is not that way in New York anymore; and divorce has generally become more acceptable. But divorce, like any other serious relationship, is rarely ended without emotional distress.
When a couple has been very close for a long time, the rupture of that relationship is painful. Letting go is not easy and is usually regarded as regrettable. “I invested ten years of my life in that person,” someone may say. It is as if there should be some return on all those years, some tangible remainder of all that effort. It is as if the end of the relationship invalidated everything that went before. It is usual, therefore, and natural, to want to hold on—to recover what has been lost. To fall back in love, if that is possible.
During those penultimate moments, it is reasonable to think twice about what is happening. I often recommend couples therapy even when one or both have made up their minds to leave. I do not think the goal of such treatment should be to encourage the couple, no matter what the cost, to stay together. What needs to be determined is what is best for the two people involved. One person may not want to separate, but if the other is determined to leave, the couple will split apart. Even then, the man or woman who is left behind will have profited from those meetings. If the inevitability of that break-up is made obvious, it is easier to let go. Also, it is worth trying to figure out what went wrong. It may be necessary to rethink the past in order to move on to the future. And, sometimes, it does happen, of course, that the difficulties a couple is having are solvable; and it becomes desirable to reconcile.
Some relationships seem to peter out slowly, but never end. Some end abruptly.
My wife and I went to a dinner party at a neighbor’s house one weekend. It was a pleasant, but unremarkable affair, full of psychiatrists, as are most of the affairs I attend. Four days later, I walked our dog past their house. There were some newspapers on their steps. I rang the bell, and then looked in their front window. The house was empty. The furniture was gone. They were gone. It turned out they were getting a divorce. It came as a surprise to all those psychiatrists who had attended their party. More commonly the ending of a long-term relationship is drawn out over months and sometimes years, even when both attempt to fix whatever has gone wrong.
Not every long-term relationship should last even longer. In this connection I always think of two candidates for the worst marriage ever. One patient was a man, the other a woman. Some of what they endured was similar. Both marriages were childless. The man put up with persistent infidelities on his wife’s part, often with his friends. She did not work, did not take care of their house or dogs, (which she insisted on buying) and was an alcoholic. She sometimes struck him, once with a hammer. She might have been delusional. She accused him of wiring the house to spy on her. When I asked him why he was putting up with her, he said, “I love her.” The marriage only broke up finally when she went on vacation with one of his friends and never returned.
The woman who was in a similarly awful marriage was the sole support of her husband, who did not work. She also took care of his child by another marriage on weekends, when he was typically not home. He too was regularly unfaithful, occasionally violent, and vulgar, and insulting all the time. He rarely wished for sex, but demanded it when he felt in the mood. He routinely expressed contempt for his wife. She finally left him and entered into psychotherapy. A week later she told me she was thinking of going back to him. “I love him,” she said, by way of explanation. She only stopped considering returning to the marriage a few months later when she met someone else.
When people explain to me why they stay in unsatisfactory relationships long past the point where family and friends and everyone else encourage them to leave, they often say, “I love him/her.” I know that that is the real reason. Love has evolved as a powerful device to keep people together despite any defect or deficiency of a partner. Nature requires them to stay together long enough to have children. But it is not a good reason. As more or less rational animals, we can make decisions that promote our own individual interests. People who are capable of falling in love once can fall in love again and again if that first relationship breaks apart. The issue each person has to decide in the midst of a bad marriage or a bad affair is whether it is possible to be happy in that relationship—and, really, whether it is possible to be happier with someone else. Unfortunately, the alternative that occurs to many is not another partner, it is loneliness.
When a marriage breaks up, it is not only a husband or wife who are lost to each other, it is an entire community—friends, other family, and a chance to be with children together as a family. Also there is an economic price to be paid. Still, I run into people who tell me they regret marrying; I rarely hear of someone regretting a divorce.
But can a long-term relationship be saved? Sometimes yes, sometimes not.
I began to see a woman who had two children under the age of seven. She was considering a divorce from a man I met in the course of treatment. He was a doctor who had dedicated himself to taking care of the indigent. As I got to know this couple, I found myself admiring both of them. They were both intelligent, kind, and thoughtful. They were both not only good parents, but good citizens. They were people that I would have wanted to introduce to each other had I known them personally. And yet they were both determined to separate. There had been too much water under the bridge. Each had hurt the other in petty ways. Each had failed to help the other at times when help was needed. It seemed to me that these circumstances were not fatal, and that both could and should forgive each other and move on. It did not seem to me that what had come between them was so awful, it could not be remedied. But they had—both of them—made up their minds. Despite the stress on their children, despite considerable economic difficulties, they proceeded to make separate lives. And that was where things stood years later.
On the other hand, that old homily, “The two of you need to communicate better,” actually does apply sometimes. Sometimes the awful things that one person may do to the other grows out of a misunderstanding.
The wife of a patient of mine told him she was leaving him because he bought a lamp without first consulting him. When I asked to see her, she explained to me that it was not about the lamp. The problem was he never consulted her about matters that affected both of them. Although she had spoken to him many times, he truly had not understood her. It is not uncommon for someone to persistently misunderstand a spouse if he is asked to do things that seem foreign to him, possibly because of the dynamics of the family in which he grew up. No matter how many times she had spoken to him he had not taken her seriously. In the setting of my office, however, it was possible, finally, to get through to him. He had never intended to ignore her and had not realized that that was what he was doing. They had had a failure to communicate. This problem could be managed.
Often the problems that are truly unmanageable occur when both partners have opposing interests. Here are some examples: one person tries to dominate the other, one person wishes to leave the home whenever he/she chooses, one person reserves the right to see friends all during the week, one person is a philanderer, one person assigns work to the other, one person refuses responsibility for a child, one person begrudges spending money on the other or on the family. Naturally, the other spouse will resent being dominated, or ignored, or taken advantage of. These problems cannot be resolved just by understanding the other better. These are examples of one person putting himself/herself first. When a couple has opposing interests, the problems they develop are likely to prove intractable.
Other problems among couples truly come from one person misunderstanding how strongly the other feels. There are no inherent differences in their individual needs. There is no basic conflict between them.
Some of these problems include conflicts about who does what about the house or who decides what to do on a particular weekend. Other problems dissolve when it is understood– however long it takes to make the other person understand– just how strongly that person feels about certain matters. Examples of these solvable problems are: how much time one person spends at work or away from the other, which chores are really very difficult for the other person, how much sex they should have, how to handle disobedient children, how to spend money as investments or on vacation, how messy or clean the house should be, who does the cleaning, how to deal with fears of one sort or another. One spouse is not made weaker by considering what the other needs or wants.
What is required to fix relationships that are foundering on these issues is good-will—which is, perhaps, just a little different than love. It is kindness and consideration.
I have known very rocky relationships that have sorted themselves out over time and then lasted, as far as I could tell, forever. Sometimes, these new beginnings started in the judge’s chambers when the divorce was being finalized. Sometimes afterwards. I have recently come across someone who married the same woman three times—although it is hard to believe that they have, at last, come to terms with each other. In these instances, it is often the case that the couple had not ever really made clear to each other just how strongly they felt about certain things. (They would say at this point that they told the other person a hundred times just what they felt; but I have been witness to some of these conversations, and sometimes I am left not quite understanding how strong their feelings were.)
If a couple works at being together and trying to understand each other, they may well succeed. I have to admit I feel a little uncertain about this matter. I think if a relationship can be made to work, each person should give it a good try. On the other hand, I don’t think anyone should settle for someone who has to be coaxed into caring for him or her. (c) Fredric Neuman. Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog or ask advice at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ask-dr-neuman-advice-column/