Is Your Marriage Worth Saving?

Hearing world class family therapist Terry Real in conversation with GP at the recent In goop Health in NYC—and then getting to watch him help a couple process some of their issues, live on the stage—was a mind-heart-shifting moment. Boston-based Real (founder of the Relational Life Institute and author of The New Rules of Marriage) is known for helping couples who’ve hit really tough roadblocks—people often go to him on the brink of divorce, only to emerge from his office re-connected and re-engaged. If the relationship can’t be transformed (Real doesn’t believe in mediocrity), then his focus is on helping partners let go and eventually ready themselves for a second chance at love elsewhere. Here, he talks through that decision: Is it time to call it quits, or is the relationship salvageable—and how do you fight for it?

A Q&A with Terry Real


You’ve coined a concept called “relational reckoning.” What exactly does that mean?


Relational reckoning is a tool you can use whenever you’re feeling unsure about where things stand between you and your partner. In its most fundamental form, it’s a way of clarifying an answer to a nagging question many people struggle with: “Should I stay or pull the plug?” But it’s also a useful way of putting things into a fuller context whenever you’re feeling resentful, trapped, or confused in a relationship.

Ask yourself: “Am I getting enough in this relationship to make grieving what I’m not getting worth my while?” In other words, is there enough that’s good here to make up for the pain I feel about what’s not good? Make no mistake about it: In every relationship that truly matters, you will occasionally feel pain and you will grieve. No relationship, no matter how terrific, will meet all of your needs.

“What we most deeply long for, if we’re honest, is the divine, a perfect god or goddess who will never let us down. Of course, what we get instead is a mere human as woefully imperfect as…well, as we are.”

My wife Belinda’s idea of a nighttime wind-down is a thirty-minute chat—thoughts about the kids, our friends, the state of the world. By contrast, left to my own devices, I’d be asleep five minutes after hitting the pillow. We’ve learned to compromise with a timer set to fifteen minutes. Now, as my wife lies in bed listening to me contentedly snore, does she feel a pang of loneliness? In her heart of hearts, does she long for a partner who would, enthralled, deeply connect into the wee hours? Well, actually, yes, she does.

How does she handle such a micro-disappointment? What does she do with her yearning? Over the years she’s told me she’s learned that her best answer is—nothing. She just feels it and usually recognizes that it’s no big deal. But sometimes, on some nights, it’s annoying, and on others it can cause a pang in her heart.

Now if you’re reading this, thinking: “That poor woman! I have nothing like that in my marriage!” I’d say it’s time for a deeper dive and a more honest assessment. We all have moments of disappointment and disillusionment with our partner.

What we most deeply long for, if we’re honest, is the divine, a perfect god or goddess who will never let us down. Of course, what we get instead is a mere human as woefully imperfect as…well, as we are. It is precisely this collision of your human imperfection with your partner’s—and how you both handle it—that is the heart and soul of real intimacy.

So, say your partner loses his cool from time to time, or your sex life isn’t what it used to be. First, you stand up for what you want; you fight for it. But if it’s clear it’s just not in the cards for you right now, it’s time to ask yourself: Can I handle this pain? Do I want to? Am I getting enough that’s good to offset what’s lacking? If the answer is “no I’m not,” then you need to take a hard look at why you’re still there. But if the answer is, “yes, there is enough good,” that’s your cue to open your heart and be grateful, rather than skulking around like a big resentful victim.


Many couples come to you on the verge of divorce. When is it clear to you that their relationship is too far gone to salvage?


Love is fundamentally a two-handed game, and if one partner wants out and won’t budge, the naysayer wins. As a therapist, even if I may think the relationship is perfectly salvageable, I don’t get a vote, especially when therapy is a drop-off with one partner sending the message: “You take care of him; I’m outta here.” But most often the people I see haven’t made up their minds and are sincerely wrestling with the question of whether to stay or go.

To orient myself with a new couple, I usually ask a few key questions: Are there kids, and, if so, how old? Did you ever love this person to begin with? Was there passion at the start? If there are no children, there’s less reason to stay. And if either partner never loved the other to begin with, that’s most often a deal-breaker. Rather than push toward saving the relationship, I actually prefer that the non-loving partner let go and give their spouse the opportunity to find someone who really wants them.

Other deal breakers are unattended-to issues I call preconditions. There are three categories of preconditions:

  • Addictions: alcohol, drugs, sex, porn, gambling

  • Untreated psychiatric conditions: depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, etc.

  • Acting out disorders: either sexual (infidelity) or aggressive (domestic violence)

Any of these conditions must be dealt with for a relationship to be healthy. The end of the line comes when one partner stubbornly digs in his heels and keeps insisting on his right to inflict misery on those who care about him. I routinely empower partners to stand up for health in their families. “Hey Bill,” I might say. “It’s your body and you would absolutely have the right to be depressed and do nothing about it—if you lived alone. But once you bring a wife and kids into the mix, you must understand that every day you spend in bed is a day you’re hurting the people you love.”

For example, in my practice, I require that any partner with substance abuse must be sober and in effective addictions treatment. I’m old school. I firmly support 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Sex Addict Anonymous. By the way, don’t doubt for a minute that sex, including pornography, can be addictive. I treated a high-powered executive who couldn’t get through a long business meeting without faking a phone call, running off to Fenway Park for anonymous sex, and coming back to finish the meeting. I’ve known of surgeons walking out in the middle of their operations for a quickie in the closet. These extreme patterns of out-of-control behavior are real, and they destroy peoples lives—both the addict’s and those who love them.


What do you make of couples with “less extreme” issues?


Nowadays, things don’t need to be that extreme for someone to want out. Perhaps a partner feels demeaned, or overly controlled, or ungiven to and lonely. A generation ago someone, particularly a woman, complaining of such things would be sent home to her spouse. But in our new world, it is just such “quality of relationship” issues that push people out of long-term unions.

As a therapist surveying the scene, I feel particularly sad about such couples because, with the right therapist and enough hard work, many of these problems can get better or even resolve. People can learn how to listen non-defensively and how to speak from the heart without blame. But the reality is that most therapists are not as helpful as I would wish them to be. Clients need someone who is not afraid to roll up her sleeves and tell them exactly how they’re defeating themselves and then teach them how to do relationships differently. Couples therapists need to be active and get down into what’s actually going on. A therapist saying to a couple, “Oh, huh, that sounds rough, tell me more about it,” just doesn’t cut it.


What are the primary causes of relationship deterioration?


Relationships rot when we stop taking each other on. To stay vital and alive, they require something I call fierce intimacy, which is rooted in the courage to tell the truth to each other about how you really feel, daring to rock the boat. The first casualty when you choose not to deal with your partner is passion. When you don’t fight for what you need in your relationship, you don’t get it. You may tell yourself you’re making a rational compromise, but, really, you’re just settling. Resentment builds and generosity, goodwill, pleasure dry up. To be fair, most people give up because when they do try to deal with things, it doesn’t go very well. They’re met with defensiveness or tit for tat, or out-and-out anger and intimidation. Much of the art of love involves knowing how to respond to a dissatisfied partner, which is a skill that too many people have never learned.

All relationships are an endless dance of harmony, disharmony, and repair; closeness, disruption, and a return to closeness. This dance can play out over decades. It all usually begins in the honeymoon phase that I call love without knowledge. You may have a deep soul connection with this person but you don’t know yet about the state of their closet, or their finances.

“When you don’t fight for what you need in your relationship, you don’t get it. You may tell yourself you’re making a rational compromise, but, really, you’re just settling.”

Then comes the second phase, a time of disharmony, disillusionment, and what I call knowledge without love. Here you know all about your partner’s warts, but you don’t love them very much. For over twenty years, I’ve I talked routinely about normal marital hatred—and not one person has ever asked, “Terry, what did you mean by that?”

Knowing love is the final phase of repair, or mature love. This is where relational reckoning comes in. You see with utter clarity your partner’s imperfections and you chose to love them anyway. Sure, they’re a pain in the neck sometimes, but they’re worth it.


What do you need to achieve “knowing love”?


Mature love isn’t like found money—it has to be earned. The journey from disillusionment to repair is where all the skills we’re not taught by our culture are necessary. These are skills like: knowing how to stand up for yourself with love; or, conversely, how to yield when the relationship needs it; how to satisfy an unhappy partner; how to stay moderate when your spouse has lost his mind. These are some of the essential skills I teach couples every day. The truth is that even while we’ve never wanted more from relationships, as a society we don’t value them very much—and we certainly don’t teach our kids much about how to have good ones. Even if you have good intimacy skills, once you’re emotionally triggered, thoughtful skills usually go right out the window. You’re no longer in the adult part of yourself. Old wounds and old defenses take over. Your prefrontal cortex—the reasoning, choosing, deliberate part of you—is asleep, and instead, automatic reflexes rule. It’s what people who talk about the brain call an “amygdala hijack.”

The most important relationship skill to develop is the ability to right yourself and get back into that adult part of you. That’s what I call relational mindfulness, or remembering love. You learn to remind yourself that the person you’re talking to is someone you care about and that the reason you’re opening your mouth is to make things better between you. A very useful acronym for times like these is WAIT—Why Am I Talking? If you’re just talking to prove yourself right, or control your partner, or vent, or retaliate, take a walk around the block, breathe, splash some cold water on your face. Don’t try to solve your issues when you’re triggered and have descended into an immature part of yourself. The spiritual work of intimacy requires that first you get yourself sane. You could call it keeping your eyes on the prize.

“The truth is that even while we’ve never wanted more from relationships, as a society we don’t value them very much—and we certainly don’t teach our kids much about how to have good ones.”


Do you ever feel like one partner is throwing away a relationship that can be saved?


The media may sometimes paint a picture of callous, selfish people who thoughtlessly throw their marriages out the window. In thirty years of practice, I’ve never met one. As the song says, breaking up is hard to do. Most people have been pushed pretty hard before they jump, especially once kids are involved. But there is one noteworthy exception to that rule. Sometimes, one partner falls for someone outside the relationship and gets lost in a state of total infatuation. They’re utterly convinced they’ve found their missing soul mate and emotionally they’re gone—no matter how potentially workable the current relationship is. Research tells us that these affairs rarely make it long-term, but it’s no use trying to tell that to the love-drunk partner.

I’d say that in one out of five or six cases of couples I see on the brink of divorce, one partner is simply too far gone. Too much damage has occurred, for too long a time. But none of them take that decision lightly. They’ve tried, and failed, dozens upon dozens of times. A common romantic myth we live with is the idea that good partners love one another unconditionally: That’s total nonsense. Adults may give children unconditional love, but not other adults. Anyone in a relationship can betray enough, or abuse enough, or simply neglect enough that their spouse’s love for them dries up over time.

“A common romantic myth we live with is the idea that good partners love one another unconditionally: That’s total nonsense.”

I believe that’s actually a good thing. Partners need to have limits. “No,” means “no.” “No” means, “keep it up and you’re toast.” One of the paradoxes of intimacy, I believe, is that in order to maintain a passionate, healthy relationship, you have to be willing to risk it. People unable to draw the line in intimate relationships about what they are willing to tolerate can fall into a kind of emotional enslavement—and that does not breed a healthy connection between people. So, fight the good fight, stand up for yourself—with love. And if none of that works and you continue to be stuck, for goodness sake, get help.


Do you think relationships can be restored after massive cracks, like infidelity?


Absolutely. Statistically, two thirds of marriages survive infidelity, with or without therapy. But I want couples to do more than survive these kinds of profound disruptions. As crazy as it might seem, I want partners to use such crises as a springboard toward real transformation—both as individuals and as a couple. While I hold the unfaithful partners as 100 percent responsible for their actions, that’s not to say that the hurt partners have always been angels. Maybe they’ve lived behind walls of indifference, or felt safe being self-righteously angry or omnisciently controlling. Unfortunately, in most people’s eyes, once the infidelity is discovered, the other partner’s dysfunctional stance begins to seem justified. If you were suspicious, now be more so. Angry before? Now be twice as angry, and so on—when actually, for the couple to heal, both partners need to do a 180 on their usual, dysfunctional behaviors.

I remember a particular couple who sought out therapy with me: The man had been very jealous of his unusually beautiful wife to the point of taping phone calls and putting tracking devices in her car. Control and anger were the order of the day. Finally she got fed up, fell in love with another man, and was about to pack up their kids and leave. What she didn’t realize was that he knew all about it; he’d taped her conversations with her lover.

“Unfortunately, in most people’s eyes, once the infidelity is discovered, the other partner’s dysfunctional stance begins to seem justified.”

Faced with imminent loss, this man did a 180 turn and, for the first time in years, opened his heart to his wife and began to really love her. Rather than working eighty hours a week, he came home, played with his kids and started having a different experience being in his family. Seeing this, his wife relented and they became closer than they had been in years. The only problem was that he knew she was lying to him when she said she never had sex with her lover.

He’d read in all the self-help books that she had to come clean for them to heal. One day in my office, the light went off in both his head and his heart. He crossed the room, knelt by his wife, and said: “We both know that you’re lying. I get that you just don’t feel safe enough with me to trust me with the truth. You know what, honey? We’re happy now. For the first time in years, we’re happy. Why would I need to mess that up by insisting you confess to something I already know?” He turned to his crying wife and said, “I will live with your lie, happily, and forgivingly, as penance for how badly I treated you for all of those years.”

Now, that was a moment of transformation. The kind of moment I, as a couple’s therapist, live for.


Do you see your role as helping couples stay married if they’re on the fence, or coaching them toward an amicable divorce?


If there are children, it’s better for everyone if the marriage can be transformed. But notice, I say transformed, not merely saved. I always tell dissatisfied partners, “I have absolutely no interest in spooning you back into a miserable, or even a simply mediocre relationship. Your old relationship is over. Let’s see if we can build an entirely new one, brick by brick.”

People can transform with the right kind of help. You fall down, you hurt, and you learn. Watching people remake themselves is what keeps me going as a couple’s therapist. Just the other week I was in session with a couple in which the husband had been a pathological liar since his troubled childhood. The pair told me that the weekend before, he’d come home from the grocery store with everything but one item. He started to tell his wife that the store had been out of it, and, with tremendous effort, he let go of his lifelong pattern of constant deception and simply said to her, “I forgot.”

His wife responded with tears, telling him she’d been waiting for that moment for twenty-five years. From that moment forward, this man was a different human being. For him now, lying is simply off the table—for good.

“For me, the dissolution of a long-term relationship is a great crisis, and, as such, it can also be a moment for optimism. Second chances are real.”

I have a very high bar for my clients. I expect dramatic change quickly and, for the most part, they deliver. Unfortunately, that’s not everyone. There are some people so stuck in their ways and attached to blaming everyone else for their misery that they just will not get it. The last thing I want to do is to coerce a partner into staying in such an abusive or unloving relationship.

The critical issue here is letting go. Each partner must grieve both the good things they had and the good things they dreamed of having. They must learn to recognize that it’s finally time to move on. Unfortunately, some poor souls suffer from what psychiatrist Martha Stark calls “relentless hope”—they just can’t stop trying to change each other. They need to free themselves of those triggered immature parts of themselves and show up for each other like grown-ups.

In our can-do American culture, admitting that the relationship is over may feel like a personal failure, or a source of great shame. For me, the dissolution of a long-term relationship is a great crisis, and, as such, it can also be a moment for optimism. Second chances are real: In crisis lies opportunity. You can become bitter, or you can transform. It all depends on whether or not you’re willing to face the lessons inside the disaster, or whether you just blindly repeat the same pattern endlessly. If you’re courageous and willing to “dive into the wreck,” and face the truth of what happened—especially your part in it—you can free yourself up to do better next time. You can pick a more emotionally mature partner; you can become a healthier partner yourself. The writer Samuel Johnson famously described second marriages as the triumph of hope over experience. That hope can be deserved—if we dare to learn.

Terry Real is a family therapist, speaker, and author. He founded the Relational Life Institute (RLI), which offers workshops for couples, individuals, and parents around the country, along with a professional training program for clinicians on his RLT (Relational Life Therapy) methodology. His bestselling books include I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, How Can I Get Through to You? Closing the Intimacy Gap Between Men and Women, and The New Rules of Marriage: What You Need to Make Love Work. Real has also served as a senior faculty member of the Family Institute of Cambridge in Massachusetts and is a retired Clinical Fellow of the Meadows Institute in Arizona.