02/20/2014 07:12 pm ET Updated Apr 22, 2014

Just Hang in There -- But For How Long?

The opening line of the chorus of the Kenny Rogers song, "The Gambler," goes: "You gotta know when to hold 'em, and when to fold 'em." How true! Sometimes there's a lot of wisdom in Country Western music. The same could be said about marriage. One thing that most traditions do agree on is that marriage involves a commitment between two people. But traditional vows notwithstanding, it's become quite obvious in these days of no-fault divorce, that "folding" is unquestionably seen as a legitimate option for any married couple. The question of course has to do with the nature of the commitment that both partners are agreeing to make, and for how long? Are there any conditions other than death that can justify breaking that commitment? Apparently for many people, there are. At what point do we decide that a marriage is no longer viable?

There are many reasons that people use to choose to dissolve a marriage. These reasons often come in the form of brief statements that summarize the problem, such as: "I love you, but I'm not in love with you anymore." "I can't be myself inside this marriage." "We've grown apart." "I'm on a spiritual path, and you aren't." "We were too young to know who we were marrying." "Our values are too different." "She cheated on me." "He lied to me." "I thought he was straight when I married him and he turned out to be gay." "We have too many irreconcilable differences."

Some of these justifications may seem more or less valid than others. We're not claiming to know what is or isn't legitimate grounds for divorce. It does seem however, over the last couple of generations, that there has been a swing from hanging in there until "death do us part" to an extreme reaction to assert one's right to end a marriage for practically any reason. Having the opportunity to choose to opt out of a dead relationship is certainly, by just about any measure, preferable to feeling trapped in a hopeless situation. Few people would argue that the freedom to exercise the option to leave a marriage is a bad thing.

Yet in our practices and seminars, we've seen many couples that have chosen to end their marriages without having given the relationship their very best shot. We've also seen couples that have stayed in unhealthy relationships much longer than is good for either of them. As therapists, we don't consider it our responsibility to decide when a couple should or shouldn't call it quits. We've seen far too many situations in which it seemed highly unlikely that a couple could or should "make it" that turned out otherwise, to claim to ever know what anyone should do or what is possible. We've been wrong enough times to have developed the humility that comes from knowing that we don't know.

What we do know is that when things go bad in a marriage, by the time the couple gets to a counselor, if they ever do, they may have been suffering for years, not days, weeks, or months. And when they do get help, the situation has often broken down to the point that what may have begun as a relatively minor difference has deteriorated into an entrenched impasse that may be unresponsive to even the most skillful efforts. Some cancers exist in the body for years before the symptoms emerge. The same can be true for many marriages. And early detection is crucial in both cases.

By the time one or both partners are ready to call their marriage off, they may have been holding divorce as a solution for a long time. During most of that time, they may have been collecting data to justify their decision. So that when the announcement is finally made "This just isn't working for me anymore", they have gathered enough evidence in their own mind to prove to themselves and perhaps a number of their friends as well, that this is the only rational thing to do.

The point at which a commitment to the marriage is overridden by a commitment to get out of the marriage is often long before the announcement of the desire for divorce. A person may not even realize that he or she has actually already made the decision. During that time one or both of them is collecting evidence for the decision they have already (consciously or unconsciously) made.

The time to deal with our grievances (and yes, they do occur in all relationships from time to time) is when we first become aware of them. At this stage of the game issues are much more responsive to our efforts and more manageable in scope. A therapist's intervention may not be necessary at this point, but it will in all likelihood, become necessary if both parties don't openly address the situation early on.

We have seen many couples who waited too long. Their marriages could have been saved if it hadn't taken them so long to get help. Many people who have told us "If I knew then what I know now, I'd still be married." What it is that they wish they had known has to do with ways of more skillfully managing differences, and that problems don't go away when they are not acknowledged. In fact not only do they not disappear, but if unattended, can erode the very foundation of a marriage. When this occurs, the temptation to rationalize a divorce and seek a justification to end the marriage is strong. At that point, just about any reason or excuse to divorce will suffice.

Of course some marriages don't deserve to be saved and some situations are so destructive that even catching them in the early stages won't make any difference. Some couples truly are mismatched. Some situations are genuinely unworkable. Some people really have given their very best shot and their efforts have proven to be inadequate. Yet in our experience, there are many more people who quit before they have done all they can do, than there are people who stay in a broken marriage too long.

The need to be willing to raise the difficult questions, express concerns, share feelings, and confront issues directly and openly is the best way to prevent the possibility of a long drawn out deterioration of your marriage. The willingness to respectfully, sensitively, and honestly confront the issues, whether with or without professional help, is the best marriage insurance there is. It won't insure that your marriage will last till death do you part, but it will insure that regardless of the outcome, you both will have the knowledge that you've done your absolute best. At the very least, the two of you will have brought a deeper level of integrity and truthfulness into your lives. And if you do divorce, the recovery period for both partners will be shorter and less painful than it would be otherwise. And by the way, you will also have increased the likelihood of not only staying together, but of deepening the love that brought you together in the first place.

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