Maybe you’ve been unhappy in your relationship for a while but your partner seems unwilling to do anything to improve the situation. It can be so hard to know what to do. You can feel so incredibly stuck.
I can be even worse if you’ve experienced a significant hurt. Maybe they don’t know know how to be there for you emotionally or physically when you need them most.
Maybe there’s been betrayal like an affair. Maybe you’ve considered looking outside the marriage for comfort. If you have then READ THIS.
But the question we get quite often in our marriage counseling private practices is, “how long should I try to work on things before it’s a hopeless case?” Other questions we get are…”am I crazy for wanting to work on things?” Or “Is my partner a Narcissist just trying to hurt me?”
In our years of experience counseling couples we’ve identified several types of people, and situations couples find themselves in, when they have to decide if they should leave their spouse or not.
So in this post I talk about three of the most common scenarios when a spouse finds themselves on the fence and the best way to decide what to do.
First, we’ll look at why people refuse to work on things. Second, we’ll talk about what you can do about it.
When They’re Afraid To Face the Music
A large majority of you will fit into this group of people. This is where your partner is either afraid to face the problems in the relationship or they don’t think there are any problems. They would rather pretend that nothing is wrong because going to counseling is admitting to something being broken in their relationship.
Sometimes people fear that going to marriage counseling will make things worse because they think it will cause more fights. They’ve seen shows on television where this is what happens. Heck we’ve all seen crap like that and it makes marriage counseling seem so scary. But only bad marriage “help” leads to a bad experience like that.
If you’ve had a bad experience in the past with counseling…It’s usually not you…it’s the therapist.
Something Must Be Wrong With Me
Another reason partners don’t want to work on the relationship is because they feel that it’s admitting to a fundamental flaw in them. They worry that the flaw they might have is so big and bad that it can’t be fixed. They wonder if it’s revealed that they are the problem that it will lead to the demise of the relationship.
So they reason, “why dig something up that can’t be fixed anyway?” Or “Why don’t we just accept that we are flawed and love each other anyway?” This makes sense…but they don’t realize that good marriage counseling isn’t about sniffing out flaws.
It’s not about searching for the bad guy…although some bad counselors are notorious for doing that…Good counseling doesn’t look to pin the problems on one person over another.
What You Can Do
If your partner fits into either of these scenarios then here is what you can do. The first thing to do is start with saying,
“I really care about us. We’ve had a really great relationship in a lot of ways but I feel like we can have an even better relationship. Would you please consider coming to counseling with me? If at any point you don’t feel comfortable, or you don’t like what’s going on, or they start to blame then we will both get up and leave.”
Some find it helpful to consider couples therapy like any other maintenance procedure. You paint your house when it starts to chip. You change the oil in your car regularly. You brush your teeth every day. Marriage counseling is no different. It’s just maintenance for your marriage.
If you feel like they don’t hear you or you are finding yourself starting to check out of the relationship then be sure to communicate how you’re feeling without a harsh tone or critical bent. Consider saying something like this,
“I am not happy with how things are and I feel we both really need to make some changes. I am going to make an appointment for counseling. I will be there and I would really like for you to come.”
Often times if your partner feels afraid that they will be made out to be the bad guy, then it’s important for you to talk about the things you know you need to change. You might even let them pick out the therapist.
Let them know that you want to be the spouse they deserve and say that you need help in making these changes. The therapist really needs to hear from both sides of the equation to make sure they have a balanced and fair perspective.
It’s worth noting that going to an individual therapist, which is any therapist who does more than just couples therapy, is very likely to counsel a person out of their relationship. They are trained and experienced as an individual therapist…they don’t see enough couples to know any better.
Be Aware Of The Imposter
Sometimes therapists will advertise only marriage counseling but in actual practice they will see a bunch of things. Be aware! Ask them questions to see what they would be willing to see so you can know if they are really a specialist.
Ask something like, “if my spouse is an alcoholic would the therapist be able to treat him for his addiction too?” Or “my children also need help coping with our marital issues…can you see them as well?” If the answer is a resounding “yes, absolutely!” You know you aren’t speaking with a qualified marriage therapist. They are a generalist.
The answer they should give is, “I can discuss that with you in the context of your relationship but if as we discuss the issues, if therapy is necessary, then I will refer your family member to a colleague who I am confident specializes in the issues they are facing because I focus exclusively on couples issues.”
When There’s Ambiguity During Or After An Affair
If you discover your spouse has been unfaithful, if you confront them about it, it’s rational to think they would be remorseful and immediately apologize and be hell bent on changing.
Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Some unfaithful partners found themselves in an affair because they are generally unhappy and some are unhappy in their marriage.
This doesn’t always mean they don’t love their spouse. It might mean that they were burnt out in the relationship. It most likely means they don’t know how to ask for wants and needs and the opportunity to stray presented itself.
At this point both the unfaithful partner and the betrayed partner may wonder if they want to remain married…that is what we mean by ambiguity. They feel ambiguous about the relationship.
This is where after the affair is made known, you begin to decide if you want to remain in the marriage or if you want to go.
Before You Go
In any of the scenarios we’ve mentioned above there are a few things you need to consider before you throw in the towel. This information and suggestions are based on thousands of couples we have worked with. Learn from their mistakes and save yourself a ton of head and heart ache.
1. You Have Time
Give yourself time because, in your pain, you can make decisions that are just not the best for you going forward in your future. You may feel differently a few months from now, so give yourself time. Usually the first 90 days after discovery of infidelity is the hardest emotionally. Things aren’t magically better at the 90 day mark but you have a chance to get through the initial massive shock.
2. Give Yourself Room To Change Your Mind
When you give yourself time to cool down without making black and white decisions to quickly then you are giving yourself room to change your mind. 72% of individuals, men and women both (it’s the same numbers) choose to work on their marriage after the affair is made known.
There's nothing wrong with you for wanting to work on your relationship. It doesn't mean you are codependent. It doesn't mean you have some kind of childhood issues. It’s normal for a person to want to work on their marriage after an affair.
3. Feeling Crazy Is Normal
As you work through your feelings of uncertainty, you both may alternate between whether you want to stay or go. One day you might feel like you want to stay, and the next minute, you'll be like I'm getting out of here. You may fluctuate with these feelings throughout the entire process multiple times a day even in the coming weeks for both of you.
Just know that going back and forth between wanting to stay and wanting to go is very normal in this ambiguous time of discovering the affair. For many couples, that can last weeks. Some couples, it will last several months where one spouse is on the fence.
4. Get Help Cutting Off The Affair
Ambiguity about staying in the relationship or not is very common if there’s still an active affair happening. So if the offending partner is still in contact with the affair partner then they will probably have more back and forth feelings.
Lingering feelings about the affair partner can perpetuate the period of ambiguity and prevent the involved spouse from being emotionally invested back into the marriage. So when that happens, it's obviously very hard to rebuild the marriage and to bring new life into the relationship. So that's important, cutting off the affair is very important.
- Do understand that deciding to stay is a moment to moment process. Every little doubt that you lay to rest is a step towards deciding to stay.
- Do realize just because you’re deciding at the moment to stay and work on things doesn’t mean you’re saying that it’s okay this was done to you or that the affair was acceptable.
- Do give yourself LOTS of time before you make a life decision like moving out or getting a divorce. We talk to many people who regret decisions they make at times like this.
- Do things for yourselves during this process. Do everything you can to relax and heal.
- Do acknowledge your feelings and try to focus on the love you’ve felt for your spouse.
Don’t Do This:
- Don't believe that staying is the same as forgiven.
- Don’t believe that staying is the same as healed.
- Don't rush into or out of any major decision at this point. The first 90 days are the hardest emotionally but the first year can be a crucial time for healing.
- Don’t shortchange your healing journey because you feel pressure to act. You don’t have to do anything at all.
- Don't linger on the feelings for the affair partner because remember: where you spend your mental and emotional energy is where your feelings will grow. Where you invest yourself, there you will be.
When They’re Abusive
This is important to be mindful of. I can’t go into great detail in this post but Brad and I will likely discuss this further in a future post. Here are a few things to consider…
First, if you feel afraid of your partner. If you specifically feel afraid for your life or you feel afraid of being physically or emotionally harmed then you need to seek immediate help from a crisis prevention hotline like thehotline.org. Domestic violence is not something to condone.
Second, sometimes abusers threaten to leave if their partner doesn’t do exactly what they say. If your partner threatens to leave if you don’t comply with something mundane then that is a red flag.
Now there are times when a partner will demand a change or they will leave. An example where this is probably acceptable is if there’s been an affair and a partner is saying leave the affair partner or I will leave.
The difference between an abuser and someone putting their foot down is one is about manipulation and the other is about self-defense and healthy boundaries.
So How Long Should I Stay And Try To Work On Things?
This answer is different for each person, couple, and situation. It is not the therapist’s place to drop into your relationship and tell you to separate. That is not fair.
You have a deep bond with this person and we only get to know you for a little bit of time. So we can give you guidelines and information. We can give you options that other people have chosen and allow you the space to make the right decision for you.
If you’re in a situation where you’re afraid for your life, leave now. Call 911. Get help.
If not, then you should really give yourself space and time to sort it out. You don’t have to have the answers right away. Your situation could be helped by doing new and different things to spice up your connection.
All relationships benefit from out counseling. So if you would like more detailed and specific help for your relationship then give us a call 918-281-6060. We have office in Tulsa, Oklahoma City, and online for virtual coaching. No matter where you live in the world…whether you’re in Australia, Belize, New Zealand, Canada, or the good ole U.S. of A…we can help you!