As a marriage/couples counselor, I try to keep up with the cycle of information trends, and something I’m noticing more and more lately gives me pause. I’m seeing an increasing number of online “relationship advice experts” giving the message that any marriage or relationship can be saved, no matter what. This concerns me for several reasons.
First, not every relationship is salvageable, nor should every relationship be saved. There are many instances where couples get married for reasons that are not conducive to a healthy and lasting relationship (e.g., to escape an abusive household, because of family/social pressure). While many of these couples may be able to make their relationship work, many won’t—in these instances, the very foundation of a loving and healthy relationship was never set, and so “till death do us part” is an inappropriate mindset.
Second, there are numerous marital/relationship events that a person may rightly need to flee from (an abusive partner, repeated and incessant lying and deceptiveness, serial infidelities, a partner who is chronically disengaged and unmotivated to put any effort into making a marriage or relationship work).The ongoing suffering that occurs from such conditions is too much for many to endure without any hope of a stable relationship. In those instances, self-care should come before couple-care, and self-care might very well mean disconnecting from the relationship for emotional and/or physical protection of the individual. Therefore, to look at those cases as failed relationships would be missing the point.
“Saving” a relationship at great cost to an individual’s sense of health and well-being is no victory at all.
Relationship Reality Check: Many Divorced Couples Fought (Really Hard!) For Their Marriage/Relationship
I’ve treated several clients whose marriages failed, even after herculean efforts from one or, on occasion, both partners. Several of these individuals came away not only feeling devastated that their marriages failed, but moreover, they came away believing that they were failures because their marriage or relationship ended. (This couldn’t be further from the truth!) Part of the therapy work was to help these individuals pick up the pieces of their lives and to stop the full-frontal, debilitating assaults of self-blame associated with a marriage/relationship that did not survive. Sending these couples the message that their marriage/relationship could have or should have been saved only hurts those who are already hurting.
Furthermore, judgments about someone else’s marriage/relationship are frequently made through a personal lens and therefore often won’t fit the couple: Too often, the people who claim that every marriage can be saved are using their own marriage as the prototype, without taking into consideration the intensely personal, unique, complex and painful reality that other couples may be struggling with.
Many people who decide to end a marriage or relationship make this decision after prolonged and painful deliberation aimed at saving their relationship. I’ve worked with (and personally know) many people who were highly committed to their relationship, did not want divorce and tried for many years to resuscitate a relationship that simply could not survive (for whatever reason). Many even sought professional marriage/relationship help, consulted with clergy, read relationship help books, participated in marriage retreats/workshops, etc.
Yes, these individuals could have stayed married (in name, or on a superficial level); yes, they could have remained a couple out of some sense of social or moral or familial obligation, but the psychological and emotional cost to them would have been devastating. Couples who have tried to make their relationship work but ultimately feel they must make the painful decision to divorce (or end a relationship) need our support to help them move on with their lives, not reminders of what should have been.
Until next time,
Dr. Rich Nicastro