What I Look For To Know If A Person Should Leave Their Marriage, As A Counselor
"I think it's time to leave my marriage," Maggie told me in our first Zoom session. "Brad is so withdrawn and shut down. He doesn't pay any attention to me. We can't talk about anything anymore, and he doesn't want to spend time with me. When I try to talk with him, we just end up fighting. We have two children, and I know it's going to be hard on them, but I'm too lonely. It's like living with a zombie.”
I hear some version of this over and over with many of my clients. After working with couples for over 50 years, I can generally spot the underlying system within the first session.
When to leave vs. when to heal.
If Maggie had said that Brad is physically violent or emotionally abusive, I would have encouraged her to leave as soon as possible, and, if there is physical abuse, to make sure that she leaves to a safe place without him knowing where she and the children are.
If she had said that he's a severe alcoholic or drug addict, or that he has a gambling addiction and is putting her family at financial risk and has no intention to receive help, I also would have supported her in leaving.
If she had said Brad refuses to work and does nothing to help with the children or around the house, and the whole financial burden, child-raising, and chores fall on her, then I would have supported her in leaving.
But what Maggie told me indicated to me that she and Brad were in a typical control-resist system, and this system can be healed. In fact, if Maggie didn't stay and do her inner work, she would take her controlling, self-abandoning behavior with her into her next relationship and eventually create the same system.
Even if she had said that she discovered Brad was having a sexual or emotional affair, I would have encouraged her to stay until she had healed her end of the system. While it might seem as if one partner having an affair is always entirely that partner's issue, often it's indicative of a dysfunctional system between partners.
"Maggie," I said, "I encourage you to stay to learn about and heal your end of this system. Your job is to learn how to make yourself happy rather than continue making Brad responsible for your feelings. Leaving just delays this learning because you won't get triggered into your protective controlling behavior when you are not in a relationship. Everyone learns various ways of protecting, avoiding, and controlling when we grow up, and these behaviors are what creates a dysfunctional relationship system."
What happens when you do the inner work first.
When one partner is as withdrawn as Brad, which is a form of covert control, this almost always indicates that the other partner is overt controlling—using blame, anger, criticism, tears, threats, and so on to try to get the other partner to give them the love and attention that they are not giving themselves.
I worked with Maggie on learning how to love herself—how to take emotional responsibility for her feelings of anxiety, depression, emptiness, and anger. I helped her learn how to take responsibility for her happiness, self-worth, and sense of inner safety so that she would stop pulling on Brad to do this for her.
Even without Brad learning how to take responsibility for himself, their system significantly healed to the point where Maggie and Brad were again able to connect and to talk about conflict without fighting. And as so often happens with the people I work with, Brad was so impressed with Maggie's changes that he decided to do some work with me as well. Over time, their relationship improved so much that they were again making love, which hadn't been part of their marriage for years.
I'm always deeply gratified when at least one partner, especially when children are involved, is willing to do their healing work. Even when a partner is having an affair, the relationship can be healed and get even better than it was previously, especially when both partners are willing to do their inner work to learn how to love themselves and take responsibility for their feelings. When each partner does this, they stop blaming each other, and they learn to fill themselves up with love to share with each other rather than trying to get love or avoid being controlled—which is what was happening with Maggie and Brad.
If Maggie had done her inner work and Brad had stayed shut down and withdrawn, then it would have been time for Maggie to leave, if that is what she wanted. Then she would have known that Brad wasn't ever going to connect with her, and she would have had the skills to create a loving relationship with someone else.
If you are in immediate danger, call 911. For anonymous and confidential help, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224) and speak with a trained advocate for free as many times as you need. They're available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also speak to them through a live private chat on their website.
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