Deciding When To Leave Your Marriage: How To Decide If It’s Time To Stay Or Go

Couple exploring when to leave your marriage.

Facing the truth that your marriage is in crisis is hard on everyone. When to leave your marriage is a question that deserves deep contemplation and should not be entered into with a knee-jerk reaction or an “I’m done” declaration.

As marriage counselors for over 40 years, we have seen almost every scenario come through our door. Marriages we thought were doomed have recovered, and marriages we thought were insulated from divorce have ended. There isn’t a cookie-cutter approach. What we know is that the process of deeply thinking about your truth is what reveals the “best next step” for your marriage.

And of course, there are complications that make staying or going harder. You have a history together that has a lot of meaning and memories attached to it. If there are children involved, you may be tempted to stay for the sake of the children. However, being in an unhappy family may make things worse. Kids witness their parent’s unhappiness and internalize their parent’s stress. This pain is then acted on in their lives making it harder for everyone. 

It’s our belief that happy parents help to produce happy children, whether they stay married or not. Feeling unsure or ambivalent is natural. The important thing is to find a way to the truth of what’s best for your marriage. Below are some ideas to help you get there.

As you consider when to leave your marriage, here are some questions to explore:

  • What is it that you really want for your future?
  • What is the likelihood you can achieve that with your partner?
  • Are you afraid to be on your own?
  • Do you feel guilty about possibly ending your marriage?
  • How long are you willing to wait to get the answers you want?
  • What other considerations truly matter to you? Consider your kids, money, living arrangements, your beliefs about marriage/commitment and more.

For many people, figuring out what to do takes time, and the devil’s in the details. Don’t rush yourself, but recognize when you’re avoiding making an “inevitable decision.”

Here are some strategies you might try as you explore your options about when to leave your marriage.

  • Make a list of what you want in a relationship. Have your spouse do the same, and then share your lists in person, by text, or in the presence of a trusted third person.
  • Think about your vision for your relationship. Share that with each other also.
  • Consider your outside relationships. Ask yourself if they are interfering with focusing on your marriage; if so, you may want to distance yourself from them for now.
  • Come from strength vs. need. There may be a difference between what you need and what makes you happy. You may be feeling uneasy about being alone and then be stuck in a codependent relationship with your spouse,
  • Create a plan about what to do next in making your decision together. Maybe spend the weekends together if you are living separately.
  • If you feel manipulated by your spouse, set up and monitor boundaries. Be able to say, ”I am not ok with this.”
  • Check-in with how you are feeling every day. Check-in with yourself and with your partner if you can. You might want to use the “Checking It Out” exercise in our book Lifelong Love.
  • Notice if you feel like you are being made wrong; does your spouse have to “be right”?
  • Consider getting an agreement to see a couples therapist for help making your decision.

Here are two examples of couples we worked with and how they went through the process of exploring when to leave a marriage. 

Sarah & Jack’s Story…

Sarah and Jack ultimately decided to get divorced, here’s how they got to their decision.

This couple, married for nearly 20 years with two teen-age children, worked on their relationship for several months in couples and individual therapy. 

Sarah shared that she could finally see how she was “losing her sense of self and forgetting who she was.” That was a clear sign to her that she needed to move on. She worked in individual therapy on building up her courage and self-confidence. She also accepted responsibility for her part in the relationship not working and acknowledged that.

Jack, on the other hand, thought things were fine the way they were. He just wanted Sarah to go back to the way she used to be. Initially, he couldn’t understand her resistance to getting back together. 

The longer they were in couples therapy, the more Jack became aware of Sarah’s deep unhappiness and the difference between their visions for the future. They each made a list of what they wanted in a marriage, and it became clear that they wanted different things. Jack let go of his feelings of guilt and felt gratitude that he was “finding himself again.”

The lingering challenge for them was their children. Both parents were concerned that the kids would be wounded by the divorce, and they requested that each child have an individual therapy session to share their feelings and concerns. Much to Jack and Sarah’s surprise, it turned out that the kids were not only ok with the decision to divorce, they were relieved that their parents would finally have a resolution that could lead to them both being happy.

For this couple, deciding to end their marriage was the right decision. And after much reflection, was also the healthiest step for their entire family. They worked out agreements for dealing with their separation and created a “co-parenting intention” for their relationship after the divorce: “We co-parent with love, respect and understanding.” They were now able to make decisions by cooperating rather than compromising or giving up what they really wanted. They had learned how to work through their issues rather than trying to work around them and were prepared to take this learning into their next relationships.

Terry & John’s Story…

Terry and John had been married for 15 years and had no children. They had been having marital problems for years. John was very controlling and even abusive at times. Terry finally moved out and started individual therapy. John wanted to get back together, Terry said he would need to get some therapy and work on himself before she would consider it. She worked for several weeks in individual therapy on building up her confidence and self-esteem to where she was no longer afraid to be on her own. She even got to the point where she was going to end the marriage. 

Then, coming from a place of strength, she asked herself if she had put enough effort into the relationship. She had a long talk with her husband, sharing the things she wanted for their relationship: safety, respect, kindness, shared housekeeping, affection and sexual satisfaction. John started individual therapy; they agreed to spend the weekends together and committed to work on the relationship in couples therapy for a few months and then make a final decision about whether they would move together when he started his new job in another state. 

Terry joined a women’s therapy group for support and started taking some medication for anxiety. It was clear that it would take a lot more work on both of their parts individually and together, but they had a goal and a deadline. Terry was clear that she could handle what happened either way: whether they could salvage their relationship or not, she would be ok. 

What these examples have in common

In each of these cases, the partners took the time not just to assess their feelings in the moment. They actually tried to think carefully about and list what it was that they wanted for themselves; then they checked with their partner to see if it was possible to achieve those things together. In each case, getting an outside perspective, counseling, or coaching was important. That outside professional perspective helps you make sure you are not being overly influenced by the other person or manipulated by what they want.

As you consider when to leave your marriage, the question is also “should you leave your marriage”? Both couples explored this in detail and found the best answer for their situation.

Look to the future

No matter what your situation, it is important to look at the future not just into the past. Think about what is possible. While there is no “right answer” per se, there is a likelihood of what may happen if you stay together or if you end the relationship. Look objectively at your marriage, and ask yourself if the glass is half empty or half full.

If it is enough over half full, it is likely you have a strong enough foundation to make it work with some professional help. Don’t be afraid to ask your spouse to get help separately and/or together. Know that it is a difficult process no matter which way you decide to go but that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, as long as you stay committed to see it through.

Let us know how we can help

We have worked with couples in various stages of their marriage for over forty years, and we have seen many variations of solutions to conflict. Please feel free to email or call us for a consultation at 434-971-4701. We are happy to help. 

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