Here’s a question I’ve been asked more than once: How do I know when it’s time to give up and stop trying to save my marriage? That’s a tough question, because the answer is one that people usually feel in a very personal way….and you can only feel it when you’re being brutally honest with yourself. You just know it, even if you don’t want to admit it to yourself. And really, isn’t it like that for all big questions we have to answer, and for all big decisions we have to make in life?
Yet people usually want a more practical answer from me than “You’ll just know” or “Your gut will tell you,” so to that end, if you’re at the point of asking that question, I’d like to give you an alternative question to ask, one that can often provide a more clear-cut answer.
The alternative question is this: Is my spouse making choices, or behaving in ways, that show me he or she is truly invested in saving our marriage?
And I’m talking about the big things here. It doesn’t matter if a spouse is saying nice things or making promises, if they’re still refusing to end an affair (for example) even though you’ve done everything you can on your end, even though you’ve given the situation as much time and effort as you feel is fair and reasonable, then I would dare to say they aren’t invested in saving it. For the record, I’m speaking hypothetically here…this may not be what’s happening in your particular situation.
Which leads me to an important point. One thing I try to do in my marriage-saving online programs is to give an apathetic or an unfaithful partner the benefit of the doubt. That is, to give them a chance to return to the marriage in a meaningful and mutually respectful way. That’s why my material contains the kinds of insights and strategies it does – I want course-takers to have a wide pool of content to draw from to reconnect with their spouse.
Yet my programs are not the only resources out there, and if you’re at the point of leaving a marriage or the family home, you might at this juncture be needing to consult with a counselor or other advisor to help you cope or make a plan that will make the transition as easy as possible for everyone. You may need to consult with a lawyer to understand the legal implications.
But back to that question: How do I know when it’s time to give up? My general advice is to answer that alternative question first: Is my spouse truly invested in saving our marriage? Answer it honestly and listen to your little voice. Once you do that, you may find it easier to make that big decision of whether to stay or go, or at least to change the level of effort you’re putting into staying.
A final thought here. It’s sometimes really strange what happens when you do give up and stop trying. I had a friend years ago who could not get pregnant. She took every kind of fertility treatment there was and nothing worked. Finally, she gave up. She just thought, okay, I’m not going to have kids in my life, and I’m going to be okay with that. And as soon as she accepted that she got pregnant. To me, that shows the power of letting go. Because there is a lot of power in that.
As I say in various capacities, when one partner is doing all the work to save a marriage, and getting themselves all worked up in the process, the other partner often pulls further away. That happens for all kinds of reasons, but it is a common dynamic that develops.
Sometimes, when you know there’s nothing else you can do but let go, good things happen. Back when I worked as a divorce mediator, I saw couples who came to me for that service, but then reached out years later to tell me that they got back together and were better than ever. You can’t control everything in life, and you certainly can’t predict it. Sometimes things need to happen on their own timeline.
So remember – giving up and letting go can be strategies too. They can help a person find peace and well-being, keep their dignity, and in some cases, they can even be the one thing that brings people back together.
Debra Macleod, BA, JD, is the creator of Marriage SOS™. She has served as an expert resource for major media around the world, from The New York Times and Entrepreneur to ELLE and Men’s Health magazine.