Dear Ms. Shrink: How do you know when it’s time to separate or divorce?

Dear Ms. Shrink,

In the absence of affairs or physical abuse, how do people know when it was time to go their separate ways and not keep "trying"?

--- Still Married in Marin

The answer to this question is as unique as each of you in the marriage are, and as your marriage itself. This may sound harsh, but from where I sit as a marriage counsellor, I believe that many people tend to put up with mediocrity far too long because it is safe, and I also think folks tend to “move on” before they ever honestly “try” to make it really good. So there is no easy answer. But there is an answer.

So let’s start with this idea of “trying”. When people talk about “trying” I am often skeptical, because so often when I ask couples what they mean, it doesn’t amount to much. Many times both partners have a vague sense that they have “tried to be nicer,” but their partner has no idea what they are talking about. The reason is that is very scary and vulnerable to reach out towards a frozen, angry, or checked-out partner, and so our reaches tend to be lame and not that perceptible. We want to believe that we are a good partner, that we “tried” but trying is a great deal more vulnerable and scary than what most people are choosing to do. And as the partner being reached for, many of us are no more skilled at seeing a bid for connection and meeting it than we are at making one. So some of this is learning the skills of healthy attachment. And of course many of us are trying to figure out how to give unconditional love when we have never received it—we are working without a model.

Nobody is very objective about themselves or our loved ones. When I am lucky enough to help people get a breakthrough or re-connect, the thing I most often hear is something like, “I had no idea you were hurting so much. I thought I was the only one feeling abandoned and hated. It’s so strange that we have both been so lonely.” In contrast, when people end things feeling clear, I often hear something like, “I tried everything to see and understand what they needed, I put myself out there, I tried this, this and this, and they couldn’t be with me.”

So here is what I want to emphasize: in the absence of abuse, but when you are starting to really despair of ever fixing things, the healthy choice is to seek connection and help in the form of your minister, a couples therapist, a couples workshop, or another creative idea. You need an outside, objective party that can look at your marriage with fresh eyes and help you acquire the skills of healthy relationship. Now, couples therapy and these other things are only as good as your choice to show up and genuinely try, so if one of you is already “out” it won’t help. Then the therapy can be used to have a respectful parting and goodbye, but not to repair. But if you are willing to really show up body and soul, and give it your best shot—you may get your best friend and lover back. And that is worth a lot.

A couples therapist is not going to magically fix you, they are going to help you understand what’s going on, the cycle you are in, and how each of you can learn to take the risk to reach for one another again. What happens when you two come together genuinely and honestly is up to the two of you and what you create.

When we fail, many of us want to feel, “I tried my best, I got help, I did what I could, and now it’s time to mourn, to learn from this, and move on.” This is true for relationships too.

Elizabeth Sullivan is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in downtown San Francisco. She specializes in working with all of the pieces of a family: adults, kids, couples and family groups to help people feel closer, happier, stronger and more alive. She is a frequent writer on psychological topics of interest to everyone, and a contributor to Psych Central blog, Psyched magazine, and Your Teen magazine. She trained at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Pierce Street Integral Counseling Center, and at the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis. She is a mom to two boys and thus has learned to love the Warriors. Visit her online at

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