How Do You Know When Your Marriage Is Over?
Written by: the Editors of goop
Updated: October 22, 2020
Yes, the headline is dark, veering toward the fatalist. And it’s hard to know where any one person is in their relationship (sometimes it’s hard even when you’re the person). This conversation with social psychologist Sara Nasserzadeh, PhD, who sees both couples and individuals in her Los Angeles practice, is food for thought.
Maybe some of it resonates, and your reaction is to look for resources to help get your marriage back to a place where doubt isn’t a common visitor. Maybe very little resonates, and you close the tab feeling that your relationship is strong. Or maybe you already know—you’d say, “in my bones”—that it’s over, and you’re seeking information to guide you toward action.
Nasserzadeh’s advice here isn’t about strategies for prevention, but rather she offers nonjudgmental suggestions of what to think about when you want to evaluate if and how your relationship serves you. Everyone’s benchmark for a successful marriage is different: “There are relationships that are functional. There are relationships that are satisfying but not thriving,” she says. “And that’s okay with the people in them. Normal is whatever you define it.”
(If you have a question for a couples therapist that you think other people might have, too, email us at [email protected]; we’d love to hear it.)
A Q&A with Sara Nasserzadeh, PhD
It’s immensely complicated and difficult and individual, and these kinds of feelings and doubts can change from day to day. One day, you are ready to walk out, and the next, you are not so sure. But there are some common things I tell people to pay attention to.
Let’s imagine that we are dealing with people who really fell in love. They went through that infatuation phase, and then, moving forward little by little, they feel themselves getting annoyed by each other. Little things that were cute and made you laugh, even made you attracted to the other person, start to annoy you. You usually don’t notice it all at once. It’s as if something is being brewed gradually.
We are an adaptive species, so over periods of time, we learn to deal with it. We cope with it. We try to ignore it, especially if there’s the infatuation and love component to it. Over a period of time, we look away, we look away some more, then suddenly we can’t anymore. That’s when it happens: You react in a way that’s completely out of proportion to something they did. Then you hear yourself, your internal narrative about the person, about your relationship with them, about yourself within that relationship—and it becomes tinted with a little bit of darkness. Instead of talking about how lucky you are (like “Oh my god, look at him and the way he looks at me” or “Oh, the sound of her laughter is so uplifting”), you start talking to yourself about them in a very derogatory way.
Then more of a negative narrative emerges, and we try to recruit other people into that narrative. Which is why I say to people who come to me with deep doubts about their marriage: “Talk to me about the narratives in your head. When you are alone and going about your day, what are the narratives that you tell yourself about yourself in this relationship, about your partner, their behavior, their most annoying behavior, their most positive behavior around you—and who agrees with you?” Just to see who else’s voice is in the mix, consciously and subconsciously. Usually we need allies to make sense of our stories. We want to know that we are on the right and sound side of the meaning-making of life, rather than flying solo with our thoughts. Many of my clients want to know if what goes on in their head makes sense to an outsider.
This is where it is helpful to understand your attachment style. Attachment styles or patterns are the ways we relate to others around us, especially those we’re closest with. There are four attachment patterns that we mainly work with: Secure attachment would be people who recognize that they have needs and their partners have needs and offer intimacy and a shared space for the relationship to grow. Those with an anxious/preoccupied attachment style want to have constant reassurance and closeness with their partner and show up as clingy and overly possessive. People with a dismissive/avoidant attachment style usually want to show that they don’t have any needs, and they are not attuned to their partners’ needs for closeness. They tend to shut down and detach themselves from situations that require emotional vulnerability and openness. And last but not least is fearful/avoidant attachment, which can be pretty confusing to a partner. They seek closeness while wanting to keep distance. They would not usually present with a consistent pattern.
These attachment patterns are formed early on in life and can provide us with strengths as well as vulnerabilities in a romantic relationship. And that predisposition can also dictate how you perceive the narratives being shaped in your mind, and which one you’re going to put more weight on.
For example, if you have more of a dismissive/avoidant attachment style, you’re looking for every reason under the sun to keep distance from your partner. Your predisposition tells you everything you need to know to protect yourself and keep yourself away from them, whether helpful to you or not in that particular situation. If you’re more anxiously attached, you want your partner to want you and show you constantly that they would not leave you. You want to be in control. You want to be connected. You want to be dependent on the other person, and you need a foundation for that. Your internal dialogue might shift to a different form: It’s going to tell you to try to change your spouse’s behavior, to try to please them or control them. You’re going to try to be seen more, try to look better, try hard to fix it.
Knowing how you relate to people can help you evaluate the merit of the narrative in your head. Because whatever narratives you have, you’re going to hang on to the one that is your default. And those narratives are very much constructed to protect us in the relationships that we are in, despite them not always leading to the healthiest and most desired outcomes.
It helps to put those unpleasant thoughts or interactions into one of four categories. Evaluate them: Am I uncomfortable about what just happened? Am I hurt? Am I offended? Or am I triggered? It’s helpful for people to realize and distinguish between these four.
1. Discomfort is something that we can push under the rug. We can look the other way and ignore our internal nudge that something just bothered us. We can talk ourselves out of it; we can vent to a friend and get some validation for our annoyance and forget about it. This accumulates over time and leads to resentment and distance with our partners. Usually the best way to prevent that chasm, that split that grows between couples, is to name the discomfort when it happens. When you’re uncomfortable, tell your spouse, “You just said something that made me uncomfortable.” Or “This didn’t sit well with me.” You might not even be ready to discuss it fully or the context might not be right, but at least you voiced your discomfort and your partner heard about it. Many couples come to me when one partner has years of resentments building up in them that the other knows little to nothing about. Couples who discuss little stuff in the moment have a better chance of staying together long-term, with better outcomes. As my colleague Dr. Dan Siegel says: “Name it to tame it.”
2. If something happens and it hurts you, then you need to be able to articulate the hurt and show it not with anger or aggression but in a way that lets the other person know about your unpleasant experience and gets your needs met. It could be them giving you space to lick your wounds or helping you with it—and hopefully not repeating the same thing that hurt you to begin with.
3. Sometimes your partner does something or says something and you feel offended. This feeling will bring your defenses up and you will show up ready to defend yourself with whatever conflict-management style you posses. You might fight back, leave the situation, or justify yourself. Maybe you’ll feel like you need to push the other person down so that you feel better about yourself.
4. And then the last one, but not least, is when somebody triggers you. You’ll know this is your reaction because you go from zero to a hundred in a split second. It is as if the tiger inside you is roaring and you feel out of control.
The importance of distinguishing between these is that if we are uncomfortable, hurt, offended, or triggered, we show up differently. And the way that we show up differently in that dynamic creates a ripple effect, and our partner starts to show up differently with us. And then the whole thing can escalate or defuse depending on what we put forward. The good news is that we can work on our skills to communicate effectively in these situations and be responsive rather than reactive. We can create the relationship that we deserve and desire in an intentional manner.
There are some realities that are important to notice and pay attention to, from both sides:
1. If there is any physical or emotional abuse present.
2. If the internal dialogues become about hurting yourself or other people. That is absolute.
3. Lack of respect, going in either direction. You don’t respect your partner, or your partner doesn’t respect you.
4. If you find it’s hard for you to feel compassion for your partner, and you feel they don’t have compassion for you. I’m not talking about empathy; I’m talking about compassion and acts of kindness. Looking out for each other, giving each other the benefit of the doubt. When those things are gone, it means that the compassion is diminishing. Compassion is fundamental to a relationship.
5. Another fundamental is shared vision. If your partner wants to live in Nigeria for the rest of their life and they have it all planned out, and you would like to live in Texas for the rest of your life and raise a family together, then we have an issue.
6. If you feel like you’re sarcastic around your partner and you use sarcasm to put them down, that’s an often-overlooked sign.
7. If you find that you are leaning toward self-destructive behaviors to avoid the reality of your life, your partner, or your relationship.
8. Trying to isolate yourself from other people: If you feel like you don’t want to show up with you partner in front of your family or friends. Or if you find yourself defending them often in various conversations.
9. Doubting your sanity: If you feel like you are doubting yourself often because what you see or perceive is always different from what your partner presents, and you are increasingly doubting yourself for even simple things, then it’s time to get a reality check.
Not everyone gets married for the same reasons. Some people want longevity in a relationship beyond anything else. But many people are looking to thrive in a marriage. That’s one of the main reasons that people split—because they feel like they’re lacking that, and they are not themselves anymore. In practice, those thoughts may fall along the lines of: I can’t fulfill my potential. I don’t feel like I’m alive. I don’t feel joy.
Oftentimes, people don’t even know what needs they have or what feelings they are capable of experiencing. And even if they do, they don’t know how to express them, especially if they’ve been in dysfunctional relationships for a while. I tell people to keep a journal of the times that they laugh, of all the times that they are joyful, and to remember the feelings that are attached to those moments and try to re-create them if they can. They don’t even know themselves anymore. Usually, there’s no “self” left for them. They start doubting themselves. It’s normal to change and shed qualities as you grow more mature. But you might have let go of qualities that you liked about yourself—not even because of the relationship but because of the dynamic that you created around yourself. We need to think about who we are becoming because of the relationships we are in.
I invite people to sit down with themselves. With a sober mind—not angry, not hungry, not tired, not drunk, not overcaffeinated—and think about your needs in the following categories.
1. Physiological needs: What are my physiological needs as a human being? Sleep, eating, etc.—and for some people, sex. And are they being met? Is it because of the relationship or the dynamic or because of how I am showing up in this relationship? I’ll say here: Some people blame their partners when they themselves are the ones who don’t take space in their relationship. They back off, so the other person takes the space, and then they blame it on the other person. Those nuances are important to consider.
2. Psychological and emotional needs: Are they met in the relationship, whatever you understand them to be? I always put joy in the psychological and emotional needs category. Joy is a feeling that we all know even if we cannot articulate how it feels. Every person needs to feel joy from time to time. Not that you’re always out there and bubbly, but it’s important not to forget that feeling of joy and what brings you that. Once in a while, if you’re leading a healthy life, you should be able to induce joy, experience it, and express it to the people close to you.
3. Relational needs: Different people describe relationships differently and expect different things from them. Are your relational needs being met? This is where closeness, intimacy, love, being seen, being heard, being cared for, security, and sex come up. For some people, financial needs are a part of the equation for marriage. Maybe that was the main reason they got married or one of the major reasons that they got married. Where are we with that? What is this relationship offering you?
4. Geographical needs: I have clients who married somebody in another country or another city or another state. And they find themselves uprooted. Some are doing well, of course; some thought they would do well and they are not. They miss home. Geographical needs can change, and they matter.
5. Social needs: Let’s say you’re with somebody who doesn’t allow you freedom to socialize with people you like. Or your lifestyles don’t match each other’s.
This exercise is one way to evaluate whether this relationship is serving you—or not—on multiple levels. It’s dysfunctional when you feel like you are living in a constant argument or fear. You are walking on eggshells; you find yourself constantly justifying who you are, what you do, what you think. You feel things are hard to make sense of.
These are the things that I like to put out there, so that people can rationally assess. And then it becomes a choice—whether they want to continue and how they want to continue. At the end of the day, normal is whatever you define it. There are relationships that are based on the sexual chemistry between the people in them. Certain relationships are simply functional and practical. There are ones that are dysfunctional but still ongoing, and some are satisfying but not thriving. None of these components determine the length of a marriage or a relationship. The quality of a relationship and the length of it are not necessarily correlated.
This is a delicate context to navigate. When a couple comes through the doors of my office and says, “We want to do our best by our children, but we’ve made the decision to divorce,” one of the things they need to realize and accept is that everything they knew about their relationship is completely over.
I usually give the couple a rope, and I ask both of them to cut it with a scissor, together. It’s up to them what to do with the rope that they cut. But from the moment they decide they want to go separate ways and cut the rope, it’s a totally different relationship. This is important. Why? Because if they get confused—if they bring their hurt, their emotional baggage, their hope to get back together, the tug-of-war of power, so to speak, into the conversation of co-parenting—it will be miserable for everyone involved. They are going to create a whole new way of relating to each other with new expectations, rules, and boundaries; otherwise, it is not going to be a successful journey.
I ask people to look at a list of seven commonly cited types of love, including romantic love, familial love, committed, and companionate love. I ask my couples to read through them. And I ask them which one they see their relationship transforming into. This is often a very helpful and hopeful exercise. Because when we start a relationship, we expect that that partner should check the boxes of every type of love. When the romantic side of our relationship suffers (divorce or not) we feel empty and disconnected from each other. It is as if all forms should be present or none will be possible. Recognizing that there are different forms of love allows the transition between different forms. This will help with a healthy continuum of a relationship, especially if the couple has to keep regular contact because of children, shared pets, shared assets, or any other reasons.
Marriage is a socio-legal contract. So marriage itself has nothing to do with at least six of those categories of love. If you decide that your marriage is over, you’re not going to court each other in the romantic way anymore. You’re going to stop having sex with each other in most cases. Those categories of love, they don’t exist between the two of you anymore. Maybe you choose to have friendship love. Maybe you choose to have altruistic love; maybe you choose to have different sorts of love combined. The more intentional you are about it and the more you create a shared vision as a couple around it, the better you can move forward.
Sara Nasserzadeh, PhD, is a Los Angeles–based author, clinician, and social psychologist specializing in sexuality, relationships, and intercultural proficiency. Nasserzadeh is a certified supervisor and senior accredited member of the College of Sex and Relationship Therapists (COSRT) in England and a certified sexuality counselor and approved training provider through the American Association for Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT).