If you have been following The Thread for a while, it's now obvious to you that I'm passionate about making relationships work well in the long-term. But what if the relationship or marriage you are part of is in a confusing stage of not being fulfilling while still being quite functional in some aspects? How do you decide between continuing trying to improve things and calling it quits, and how much time and energy do you devote to such questions and process?
If it's of course impossible to write a definite list of decision-making criteria, understanding what makes relationships happy and healthy as well as getting some clarity on the kind of marriage you are part of could help you make a decision.
When a relationship or marriage is not working well, I think it's because of one of three general scenarios:
1. It's a marriage that should never have started in the first place:
Lot of people get married because they're in love, feel that it's "meant to be" and hope for the best, and they skip the careful and methodical evaluation of their long-term potential as a couple.
When one or both partner(s) have serious character flaws, an undiagnosed/untreated mental illness or addiction, is unable to stay faithful and committed and/or when there is serious compatibility issues of life goals and lifestyle between partners, it's best to call it quits before getting married.
If you realize your mistake after the fact, as heartbreaking as it is it might actually be wiser to get a divorce before making even bigger decisions, such as having children or making big financial commitments.
2. It's a marriage that was promising and could still be happy and healthy if only...
When both partners have been able to love one another in ways that speak to one another, are compatible in life goals and lifestyle, have good intention and a decent character and have been able to stay committed, everything seems to be going well - sometimes for decades - and the relationship is still promising in the long-term.
And then, life happens. What seems to be going well on the surface is more appearance than reality - at least for one partner. Busy-ness has led to neglecting the nurturing of the relationship, old wounds have been (re)activated, unexpected problems with the kids have surfaced, financial issues have added stress,... After a few years or decades of neglecting their bond, otherwise compatible and committed partners could realize that a huge rift has arisen between them, as well as perhaps a feeling of "having grown apart" or of not being compatible any more.
By the way, this is when infidelity is most likely to happen... with all the other problems that occur when such mistake is made.
Leaving a relationship that has good foundation with the hope of getting in another one that will feel more fulfilling right away is tempting because although it's a heartbreaking decision, it's still the easier decision to make than the even more painful one requiring too look deep within and getting serious about personal healing and grieving old disappointments and unmet expectations that are part of a normal life.
Calling it quits at that time before doing this personal work and making some serious changes could be a terrible mistake because the issues that have led to these relationship difficulties are very likely to lead to the end of future relationships as well.
In a marriage, we're called to grow and develop oursleves throughout inevitable life changes and the changes that our partner go through. We must continue to learn about ourselves, our partner and life. We must continuously recommit to our own personal healing and to our practice of loving another imperfect human being, regardless of what curve balls life throws at us.
If you decide to embark on a personal and relationship healing journey, it would be wise to give it a general timeframe (maybe a year or two), so that you can fully commit to giving it your best with adequate time and support for the amount of effort required, and also not take the risk of getting stuck in an unhappy relationship for many years.
It goes without saying that such journey takes two to tango, and if your partner is unable or unwilling to take responsibility for their own part in the relationship difficulties and do their own personal development work alongside you, you might still have to accept the inevitable. In any case, it's worthwile trying to make changes on your own first, especially if children are involved.
3. It's a marriage where everything was on track... until one partner unexpectedly changed for the worse:
In some rare cases, the relationship has good foundations and has been going well for a long time, and then - maybe as a result of a traumatic event - your partner develops a serious mental illness and refuses to seek treatment, or becomes addicted to a substance or behavior and does not make it a priority to get sober, or engages in a criminal activity.
I believe that this kind of situation is rare because signs for such tendencies (including denial/defensiveness and the refusal to take responsibility) usually show up early, most likely in the first or second year of dating, before a decision to get married takes place. However as mentioned above, life happens... and if you find yourself in this situation of having done your due diligence and having had a great relationship for years until such unexpected and tragic change takes place, the outcome will depend on your tolerance level and capacity to forgive. You need to define your own limits and decide what is best for your family.
As human beings, we are called to practice Unconditional Love. We must be willing to stretch ourselves if we want to enjoy the delights of a happy and healthy marriage. However there should not be unconditional relationships; we must have boundaries for every relationship we are part of. In some cases, we must accept that some relationships are not possible and make the choice to love from a greater distance than within an intimate partnership.
And it's ok.