When do you know your marriage is over, and it’s time to separate?
Next to the decision to get married, this is one of the most difficult decisions in a relationship. As an attorney, and not a therapist, my views on this subject are colored by my experiences with divorcing couples, and I recognize that every professional that works with divorcing couples will have their own opinions on this subject, but here are some basics:
First and foremost, if you have become physically at risk, or your children have become physically at risk, from the other spouse, it’s time to physically separate. As much as you can want a relationship to survive, if violence, or the express or implied threat of violence exists, you are not in a healthy relationship anymore, and it’s time to disengage. No one should be subjected to violence in any relationship.
Similarly, even if there’s no actual violence, but there’s a pattern of active coercion or controlling behaviors by one spouse so that the other spouse has lost his/her exercise of free will, it’s time to recognize that you are in an unhealthy relationship, and you need to make a change. This not only includes situations in which one spouse uses, for example, mind games to control someone, but also situations in which money or assets are used to control the other spouse.
With respect to such behaviors towards children, it’s a different situation because societally, we permit a certain level of coercive control over children for effective management. But even though society allows some coercive control, if one parent is using control in a demonstrably harmful way towards children (i.e., bullying them), then it may be time to remove yourself and the children from that relationship.
If a spouse has begun abusing substances such as alcohol or prescription medications, it may be time to leave if your spouse cannot get their problem under control. Substance abuse issues can sometimes be very difficult to see as the problem it is, because they frequently develop over long periods of time in a marriage or relationship, but such problems can lead to other, more dangerous issues, including the threat of physical harm to another spouse or the children.
Trust is an incredibly important and valuable asset in a relationship, and its breach is another area after which some people feel the need to disengage and file for divorce. Sometimes the breach is chronic, such as when a spouse is what we might call a serial adulterer; sometimes the breach is situational, such as when someone gets drunk at an office party, and has a one-night-stand. The level of breach that’s necessary to end a marriage is probably specific and unique for every relationship, but my advice to anyone on this issue is that it’s important to weigh and distinguish between a stupid mistake and chronic and continuing behavior before making a decision to leave. And it’s also useful to think about how you would feel, had you been in his/her shoes.
Last, when trying to decide whether to end a relationship or not, it’s useful to look at why you got married, or started that relationship, in the first place. I’m not necessarily talking about the ‘standard’ vows that one hears at weddings; I’m talking about the real reasons, the ones that (hopefully) you and your spouse talked about, or bargained over, before the agreement to marry occurred. Did you agree to marry because you were each other’s love of your life? Or to have children? Or because it seemed like a good idea at the time? Did you really agree to both hang around if someone becomes an alcoholic, or a gambling addict and wastes everything in the bank account? Or to stay married, even if you don’t love each other? If it’s not too lawyerly to state in these terms, what was the basis of your agreement? Has there been a renegotiation? And have you both been faithful to those express or implied promises? It’s a different type of analysis, and for some people whose relationship has become less than perfect, it might be enlightening. And such enlightenment may lead to separation, but it also may lead to a renegotiation of marriage terms for the future, and another try at marriage with your spouse.
Regardless of what situation you’re in, there is one piece of advice that everyone is going to give you: if you or the kids are in danger, get out; if you’re not, then weigh the pros and cons with an independent professional counselor or family law attorney, and think about your options carefully before making any decisions.