Marriage is many things. Marriage is an institution, a love affair, the pillar supporting a family, a shared adventure, an economic agreement, a financial benefit, a comfort, an ordeal and a lifelong commitment. Married people tend to live longer, happier, richer lives. Even though you sometimes may scream at your spouse, overall, marriage is probably good for your blood pressure. Being married is fun, most of the time.
For all these reasons, and more, marriage should not be lightly cast aside. Marriage, even a troubled marriage, is worth fighting for, even if you are the only spouse doing the fighting. You may be surprised how much good you can do for your troubled marriage just by acting on your own, without your spouse’s participation.
But at some point, you may wonder if it’s all just too much. Remember, when you feel that way, what a good physical trainer will tell you – when you’re doing a tough workout, whether running or weight lifting, push-ups, pull-ups, cycling, whatever, the time when your muscles start screaming at you to quit is when you are only 40 percent exhausted. You’ve still got 60 percent left in the tank, even though you feel like quitting. Marriage is like that, too, sometimes. When you feel like you simply can’t go on like this, you actually have more strength and endurance than you realize.
All this can be confusing – few moments in life are more bewildering than trying to decide to seek a divorce or separation from your husband or wife. What signs can you look out for that will tell you if it really is time to end things?
Here are some signs of serious trouble.
This isn’t always easy to recognize or realize, especially while you are still involved in a relationship. Sometimes, you don’t see the extent of emotional abuse or neglect until you have gotten out of the situation and had some time to clear your mind. But if you’re honest with yourself, you can often recognize some types of abuse.
If your spouse belittles you or teases you in a spiteful, hurtful way, particularly if there’s a pattern to the behaviour, that can constitute emotional abuse. Plenty of married people say things in anger to their spouses, things they regret saying, things that hurt their spouses, so don’t mistake normal marital friction for abuse. But if you’ve complained repeatedly about some of the nasty things your spouse says and they haven’t stopped saying them, beware. If your spouse doesn’t show signs of trying to change their abusive behavior, that’s a warning.
Problems with drugs, alcohol, gambling, porn, overeating, or other addictive situations are by no means automatic reasons to consider ending your marriage. Again, what is important is the scope of the problem, and your spouse’s efforts to change. Addiction is like athlete’s foot, except it makes your mind itch. It can be suppressed and treated and managed, but it never completely goes away – ask any sober alcoholic and they’ll explain it to you. If your spouse is getting help, whether medical or from a community resource such as a 12-Step program, then you should not consider their addiction as a reason to end your marriage, provided you take care of yourself, too. Many addiction treatment programs have corresponding groups for the spouses and family members of addicts, to help them manage their own expectations.
When addiction is untreated and raging out of control, then you should pay more attention. If your spouse is endangering their life, or yours (through drunk driving, for example), if they are exhausting your savings, if they are angry and abusive towards you and have no interest in seeking help, then you will, at some point, want to take the steps necessary to protect yourself. That may include ending your marriage. Do what you have to do to save yourself. Don’t get caught up in “what if” scenarios about how your leaving is likely to affect your spouse. It may turn out that losing their marriage is just the shock that is needed to save an addict’s life. You never know.
You don’t love each other
Maybe this seems like a no-brainer, but it is more common that you might think. People get married sometimes when they shouldn’t. Young people and old people (and everyone in between) sometimes mistake emotional excitement for enduring love, and after a period of marriage they realize the difference. People also change over the decades of their lives, and sometimes spouses grow out of love with each other.
If, after a lot of careful, sober reflection, you conclude that you truly don’t love your spouse, or they don’t love you, or both, then it is at least time to sit down and have a serious conversation about it. This won’t be an easy talk to have, not by any means, but it is important to have it. Marriage should be based on honesty and truth, and especially truth about love, the central pillar that supports it. Having this conversation doesn’t necessarily mean ending your marriage, either, so don’t panic. But it could be that both of you made an understandable mistake and that you might both move on to meet new spouses and have happy, fulfilling future relationships.
Physical threats and abuse
These are the “red flags” of marriage. Any kind of physical threats – “I’m going to hurt you,” or “I’m going to kill you,” for example – are serious warnings. Your spouse does not own you and has no right to threaten you with physical harm if you leave or don’t behave in a certain way. Threats are scary, but threatening behavior can sometimes be addressed in therapy and overcome with lots of hard work. But it ain’t easy.
Threats are one thing, but actual physical abuse is another. If you’ve actually been hit or harmed in other ways, you must take steps to protect yourself and escape the relationship. Get help from sympathetic friends or family members, or from the police if necessary. A therapist can also direct you towards community resources to help you.
I say “serial” because cheating isn’t necessarily an automatic reason to end your marriage. Infidelity is incredibly painful and difficult to recover from, but plenty of marriages have survived it. But if there’s a long-term pattern of cheating and no attempt to stop it, that is another “red flag” for you to consider.