"Heads I Stay, Tails I Leave..."
Peter Doskoch, Psychology Today, September, 1997, p 41.

For most of human history, the question of whether to leave a long-term relationship was almost irrelevant. Marriage was seen as an unbreakable contract, and the economic perils of a solo existence made abandoning one's partner difficult, particulary for women. Throw in legal and religious restrictions against divorce and leaving simply wasn't an option. As late as 1930 famed psychaitrist Karl Menninger refused to advise women to leave their husbands--even in cases of repeated philandering or abuse.

Today most of the social and practical impediments to leaving have fallen, but the decision to do so remains psychologically daunting. "There's no litmus test you can give a partner that determines whether you should leave, or whether this person is good partner material," notes family therapist Diane Sollee, M.S.W. So figuring out whether to leave remains a complex and intensely personal calculation incorporating issues ranging from the philosophical--How happy am I?--to the profoundly practical: Can I find somebody better?

The upshot: Nobody can give you a definitive formula for when to try to salvage a relationship and when to move on. But here are some issues to keep in mind:

That's My Story and I'm Sticking To It
When pondering whether to leave, most people retrace the history of their relationship, taking a mental inventory of the good times and the bad. But there's a hidden pitfall in this technique, notes University of Minnesota psychologist William J. Doherty, Ph.D., author of Soul Searching: Why Psychotherapy Must Promote Moral Responsibility. The problem: Our memories tend to be biased by how we're feeling at the moment. So when people are feeling pessimistic about their relationship, says Doherty, they "unconsciously put a negative spin on everything--how they met, why they got married." And they're more likely to overlook happier times.

Let's say you and your spouse eloped right after high school. If you're feeling hopeless about the relationship at the moment, you're especially likely to describe the elopement as the act of two impulsive, foolish kids. "But two years earlier, when you were feeling better about the relationship, you would have told the story in a whole different way," say Doherty. Instead of viewing your teenage marriage as impulsive, you might have fondly remembered it as an exceedingly romantic act by two people passionately in love.

This memory bias colors the relationship history you present to friends, family, counselors, and other confidants. So these individuals may wind up advising you to pull the plug on a relationship that isn't as bad as you've portrayed. (The same bias, of course, gives you an unrealistically rosy view of your relationship during good times.) And even if you don't consult others, your own ruminations on whether to leave will be similarly slanted. None of this means that your relationship history is irrelevant to the decision to leave--only that the evidence may not be as clear-cut as you initially think.

How Motivated Is Your Partner?
"Assessing whether you should leave may require assessing whether you have tried to stay," notes psychiatrist Peter Kramer, M.D. What he means is that relationships take work, and that couples often abandon relationships that would be far sucessful with a little more effort. Indeed, adds Sollee, it's ironic that couples who are expecting a baby "will take months of classes to get ready for that one hour in which the mother pushes out the baby, but they don't take the time to take marital education courses on how to keep the marriage alive."

Given that every relationship requires effort, the fact that a relationship is somewhat rocky is not in itself a sign that a couple should split. What's more important, says Peter Fraenkel, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine, is how motivated the partners are to give each other a chance and to work out viable solutions to their particular problems. This motivation, says Fraenkel, is the best predictor of whether a troubled relationship will succeed. "I've turned around some marriages that were on the brink of divorce," he says. But if your partner isn't motivated to put some work into the relationship, the odds of success fall--and leaving may make more sense.

Advice Depends On The Advisor
Visit three different doctors for your sore throat and you're likely to get similar diagnoses and treatments. Ask three different therapists whether you should leave your ailing relationship, however, and the advice you get may differ dramatically. The reason: a therapist's specialty--marriage counseling, individual therapy, groups--is linked to his or her feelings about commitment.

Marriage and family therapists are, by nature, inclined to keep people together. "I would never advise a couple to divorce, " says Atlanta psychiatrist Frank Pittman, M.D., who feels that telling people to end a marriage is akin to advising a parent to put a child up for adoption. "You don't do it, especially when there are kids involved." (Pittman did , feel comfortable, however, advising a pair of newlyweds to break up when he learned that the wife had cheated on her husband during the honeymoon.)

On the other hand, individual therapists, whose training in treating troubled relationships may range from extensive experience to a single seminar in graduate school,are more likely to see a relationship as something that should be sacrificed if it interferes with a client's happiness. "I read a case study of a woman who stayed with the same analyst through five marriages," says Sollee. "And that analyst helped end all five marriages." Minnesota's Bill Doherty calls such cases "therapist-assisted marital suicide," noting that by repeatedly asking their clients whether they are happy, "the therapist is basically saying, 'Why do you stay?'"

Because therapists typically maintain a neutral stance with regard to what a client does--the better to appear objective--these philosophical differences on the importance of saving relationships may not be immediately apparent. But they're always present, warns Doherty. The lesson for those who seek counsel from therapists: Keep in mind that the advice you get may be more of a reflection of your therapist's personal values than a scientifically-valid assessment of the "correct" thing to do.--Peter Doskoch, September 1997 Psychology Today

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