“For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health, to love and to cherish, until death do us part.”
These are the vows we may have made at a time when the future with the other appeared to be a fairy tale story: “. . . and they lived happily ever after.”
But should we always hold onto relationships until the last breath? Even if we aren’t getting any semblance of the love we seek?
Let’s dive into the absurdness of this expectation.
It’s ok to walk away from other relationships. Why not marriage?
Do we hold on to the belief that we must always keep our friendships no matter what? How about with our siblings, cousins, other family members, or work colleagues? Not at all!
Society permits you to walk away from other relationships without reproval. Without the judgment that you somehow failed or thwarted God’s will.
Thank goodness! Otherwise, it would be the equivalent of your adult self still trying to fit into your outgrown onesie that was once your favorite.
Likewise, when it comes to marriages, people do grow out of what once fit well. Then what?
In an ideal world, you would be free to live a life that allows you to experience happiness and joy. To be able to choose what’s best for you and who is best for you.
Why people stay in unfulfilling marriages
Now let’s get real. As mentioned earlier, many childhood stories have the fairy tale quality, the “happily ever after.” Indeed, this is quite a tale for most marriages— as in “it’s not true.”
As therapists, we have listened to stories from individuals who have been in marriages long past their expiration dates.
Because despite wanting something different and working hard at trying to be happy within their relationship, it’s simply not possible. The marital clothes no longer fit.
However, fears kick in:
- What about the children?
- What will my friends think?
- It’s against my religious upbringing.
- My parents will be so disappointed.
- I’ll be a failure.
- What if this is the best I can do? I don’t want to be alone.
- Maybe I don’t deserve love.
- I will be financially ruined.
Inevitably, personal growth impacts our relationships
As we all know, individuals never stop growing and changing throughout their lives. As a result, many of us have left jobs behind and moved away from our childhood neighborhoods.
As we evolve, our bodies and minds (perspective, thoughts, values, beliefs) change with time and experiences. Therefore, the freedom to change friendships and relationships is paramount and necessary for us to keep up with our evolving sense of self and our pursuit of happiness and fulfillment.
This is a state of being that we are each innately aiming for. Of course, we can’t always find the ideal, but at least we have society’s permission to make those forward movements in life.
So why the exception for marriages? Why do we value the institution of marriage to such a degree that leaving is often judged as something terrible?
The original purpose of marriage vs. what we want now
Let’s take a quick look back into history for context. How did marriages come about, and what was the purpose? In a nutshell, the primary purpose of the origin of marriage was to form alliances between families for political and economic reasons. Love? Happiness? Fulfillment? Not even a part of the equation.
However, as time has marched on into modern days, so have our needs.
In today’s society (at least in the United States), we seek something other than the safety and security of those alliances. We want more. Safety and security, yes. But just as necessary (or even more so), we need love, joy, connection, and physical and emotional intimacy.
A client summarized it best when he said:
“I want my partner to journey with me to support me in becoming my best self.”
It’s time for the idea of “forever” to catch up with the times. If we can set aside fears, religious or societal expectations, we can ask ourselves a fundamental question:
“Does my marriage bring lightness or heaviness into my life?”
The answer to that question can guide you.
Face Your Fears and Find Your Lessons
If you’re anxious about leaving, limited by fear, or unsure what to do, please talk with a therapist, coach, or a spiritual or religious leader who is open to a different way.
Find someone to help you walk through your fears and help you separate yourself from outdated messages. The results can be life-changing.
It’s possible that if you do the work (with a heavy emphasis on you, not just your partner), you can find the joy and happiness you seek in your current relationship.
On the other hand, maybe this is not the right person for you despite your efforts. However, there are always lessons to be learned and opportunities for self-growth in every relationship. So appreciate what you’ve gained, but let go when it’s time for something new.
Allow yourself your most incredible gift: To love and be loved
If you are feeling stuck, I encourage you to choose to empower yourself. Allow yourself the opportunity to find your next partner in life. Thank goodness we have allowed innovation to move us from steamships, horses and carriages, and telegrams to cruise liners, cars, and the internet!
Now let’s do the same for the old idea of “’til death do us part.” After all, to love and be loved is one of the most potent and sought-after human needs.