How to Know When Your Marriage is Over (or if it can be saved)

Even when getting divorced is a good thing, it’s sad to end a marriage.  It’s the end of a set of hopes and dreams.  It means a change in trajectory for each partner.

Making this decision is one of the hardest choices that a person can make.  So, it’s important to make the right call at the right time.

Before I get too far, let me tell you that, I never try to predict whether a couple will stay together or not.  I’ve specialized in working with couples for over 20 years. I’ve seen amazing and wonderful things happen when couples are in crisis. Even when it looks hopeless when I meet them.

  • are living through a marriage-crushing crisis, 
  • argue too fiercely, or 
  • feel a deep disconnection.  
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A crisis is an opportunity to look at the relationship and make changes.  Many of these couples fix their relationship problems.  They go on to live happy, close, connected lives together.

There are, however, signs that your marriage might not bounce back.  Here’s what makes the difference: 

1) You or your partner are mentally exhausted.

This happens when one of you has lived with the problems for a long time. You’ve tried many ways to solve it, but nothing makes a lasting difference.  You’ve asked, begged, and threatened your partner for help in fixing the problems. But nothing permanently changes.

2) What’s happened can’t be forgiven.

Some relationship injuries are too big to overcome.  It might be one catastrophic event, or death by a thousand cuts.  Either way, you realize that you will never be able to fully get over the hurt.  When this happens, it becomes impossible to build trust and move on.  That problem always stands in the way.

3) You’ve already disconnected from one another and are living separate lives.

In this situation, you or your partner already quit on your marriage.  You just didn’t formally call it over.  You are each making independent decisions with little consideration for one another.  These couples spend little time together and no longer know each other deeply.  They used to know each other, but now they are out of touch.  They may have started other relationships.

4) You need something that you can’t give up that your partner can never give you.

Surprisingly, there aren’t that many of these scenarios.  In my work, I’ve met couples with a handful of situations that they truly couldn’t compromise on.  They include: 1) desire to have a child, 2) need to live in a specific place, and 3) an open or closed marriage.  There’s little middle ground on these problems when each partner is firm in their position.

5) You have tried everything reasonable to save the relationship.

When people end their marriage, they usually have some doubts or reservations.  The time to leave is when you can look yourself in the mirror, and feel confident that you have tried everything in your power to save the relationship.  There’s a sense of closure that you are making the right decision.

6) You’ve worked with at least one good couples therapist and nothing changed.

In couples therapy, the therapist understands and describes the dynamics between you. Their job is to guide you from your current patterns to healthy, supportive, and loving interactions.  They help you find insight and teach new skills.  You need to try these new skills out in real life to make sure that they work for you.  Then, you need to practice them until they become habits.  It’s normal to see a drop off in new behaviors after a few months.  But things shouldn’t completely return to their pre-therapy patterns.  If they do, it may be a sign that you and your partner won’t make changes.

Each of these is a hard situation to live through.  When faced with these challenges, you need to make big, complicated decisions.  It’s rare that the choice comes down to one problem or a single part of the relationship.  

Ending your marriage represents a massive shift in the plans for your life.  It may affect many other people, too.  And it requires breaking the many threads that hold you together.  

Getting divorced takes longer, is more complicated, and hurts more than people expect.  For many, saving the relationship takes less work and involves less heartache than getting a divorce.

Before you give up entirely, let me describe some of the situations that couples have recovered from:

  • multi-year affairs.
  • getting divorced and then reconciling.
  • divorce almost finalized, but starting again.
  • years of unequal workload that built up resentment.
  • blended families with many outside interferences.
  • harsh and hurtful arguments.
  • deep disconnection.

If you fit into any of these categories, you could fix the problems and change the course of your marriage.

1) You both have a strong commitment to the relationship.

Many couples talk about calling it quits, but their actions tell a different story.  Every day they still choose one another.  This may even be true through a catastrophic event or a divorce.  Their love draws them back to one another even when it’s hard.  This kind of connection shouldn’t be ignored.  It can push you through the rough spots to a renewed relationship.

2) The affair is over.

It is hard to recover from a hidden relationship that threatens the marriage.  If the affair is truly over, there’s room to rebuild the trust and regain the connection in the marriage.  There can be true reconciliation through openness, transparency, and joint support.  This becomes harder, but not insurmountable if the affair lingers after its discovery.

3) There is resentment, but there is also like, love, or fondness.

Hurt, disappointment, loneliness, and frustration turn to resentment if the situations that caused the feelings don’t change.  Sometimes, it’s about unreasonable expectations.  More often, they require changed behavior.  Either way, the marriage can be saved if the resentment is cleared away.  Resentment is toxic to love.  It forms a wall between people.  If it goes unchecked, it will kill the love.  It can also be repaired when you learn from past events and use that wisdom to change your future relationship.

4) You can see that your partner is a basically decent person or has redeeming qualities.

We all screw up at some point.  Even with the best of intentions, we let our partners down.  If you can see beyond the mistakes of the person beneath, you will be able to put the problems in perspective.  Every relationship has some good things along with problems.  If you can see the good, it balances out the bad and helps you work through the problems.

5) You are both committed to learning to live well with one another.

You both are ready to work on making the relationship better. In a truly great relationship, both partners learn to understand one another on a deep level so it’s easier to be generous and flexible. They work out compromises so each partner feels like they are living a good life together.

Whether you stay together or break up, there are some good and easy parts, and some problems and challenges. In marriage and love, there is no path that guarantees to protect you from hardship. And, as in all things, you can’t know what the future will bring. So, you will need to make the best decision you can keeping in mind that there isn’t a perfect situation.

In fact, that’s all that’s required of you: do the best that you can, knowing that it will be messy.

At the Couples Counseling Center, we specialize in helping couples communicate, connect, and repair relationship injuries. The first step to learn how counseling can help you and get an appointment is to schedule a free phone consultation. That’s the best way to get your questions answered.


Meet Cheri Timko!

She is a seasoned Couples Psychotherapist with over 20 years of experience. Certified in Gottman Couples Therapy and Relationship Enhancement, she’s dedicated to helping couples overcome challenges and cultivate extraordinary relationships.

Cheri’s passion lies in providing a personalized roadmap for each unique couple, instilling hope, and equipping them with the tools for lasting success. Discover the transformative power of a great relationship.

Want help for your relationship? Schedule a free phone consultation to learn how Couples Therapy can help you.

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