Knowing If Your Marriage is “Workable”

chicklet_marriage_workableBy: Susan Pease Gadoua
Huffington Post


While there are no quick, easy answers and no “one size fits all” reasons to offer, I will give you parameters within which to gauge whether or not you should remain married to your spouse or leave. I can’t give you your answer. I can only guide you to find your truth for this moment. Your part will be to follow along and read with honest introspection so you can identify your answer.

When I meet for the first time with a client who is considering divorce, I can often get a sense of whether the scales are tipped toward staying or leaving from the reason he or she gives for wanting to stay married.

If the desire to stay married is based on moving toward a goal, the person is more likely to stay married; for example, “I want to raise my children in one house with two parents” or “I want to work on my anger issues and get on the other side of them.”

On the other hand, when people explain that they are staying in the marriage to avoid pain or fear, this indicates that the marriage hasn’t much glue, and such marriages aren’t as likely to endure; for instance, “I’m staying because I’m afraid of not seeing my children every day,” “I don’t know how I’d make ends meet without my spouse,” or “No one will ever love me like this again.”

Once I hear the reasoning for staying in the marriage, I ask why the client might want to get a divorce. The same rule applies: those who are contemplating leaving to move toward a goal are more likely to actually leave than those who are averting pain or potential consequences. Examples of going toward a goal or away from a fear are “I want more out of life than staying in an unhappy marriage” or “I need to get away from this abuse.”

Even though all of these reasons have merit and sound powerful, you may wonder how I know that the person who is moving toward a goal will more likely take action than the one who is running away from or trying to avoid pain. The answer is simple: fear.

Those who are motivated primarily by avoiding pain are usually fear-based people. These people see the world through the eyes of whatever problems and negative repercussions might arise from their actions. They are often imprisoned by their fears, not only as they pertain to deciding whether to stay in or leave their marriages, but in all areas of their lives. These people will more likely stay small, unhappy, and unfulfilled with the thought that they will remain safe.

Action-based people have the opposite view of the world. When they set their sights on a goal, they see what opportunities and benefits might come from moving forward. These people are more willing to take risks and go for what they want. They will also less likely settle for less than what they believe they deserve.

Of course, you can be partially both fear- and action-based, but whichever mode is dominant will usually win the arguments in your mind about whether to stay or go. The good news is that these aspects are not necessarily set in stone. If you are primarily a fear-based person but would rather be action-based, you can push through your fears and accomplish your goals.

Most people need some training or support to make these changes, but it is an alteration that anyone can make.

In addition to examining fear-avoidant versus goal-oriented behaviors in the decision-making process, I look at whose needs are driving the decision. In a decision as big as whether or not to stay married, it is imperative that you consider the possible ramifications your leaving may have on others, but you must also balance that with your own needs.

Where I see people go wrong in such a decision is when they forgo their own needs and focus primarily on meeting the needs of their spouses or children, or, on the contrary, they consider only their own needs and ignore the potential impact on their children and spouses.

I’ve had countless clients tell me that they don’t want to divorce because they are afraid of losing the co-parenting relationship or their spouse’s income, only eventually to realize that they alone already carry the load of responsibilities. The spouse doesn’t contribute to the marriage but, rather, takes from it.

On awakening to this fact and confirming that they had done everything possible to improve their relationships, most of these clients immediately filed the divorce paperwork. And for almost all of these folks, letting go of the unhealthy relationship was the best decision they’d ever made. Rather than becoming harder, life actually got much easier, because they no longer had the added burden of taking care of the people who were supposed to be their partners or dealing with the many negative emotions their spouses elicited from them. What they had feared prior to taking action never manifested. They realized that they had postponed their own fulfillment and happiness for months, sometimes years.

The Workability Factors

There are certain factors that suggest a relationship is workable and salvageable. There are other factors in marriages that, if present, indicate a low probability that the relationship will ever be healthy or fulfilling. I call these the workability factors.

If both parties are willing to put in the work that the marriage requires, the chances of the problems and issues being resolved increase dramatically. However, even when both spouses want the marriage to last, there are some situations that lack enough of the necessary ingredients to keep it afloat.

The marital hierarchy of needs consists of five levels of needs: survival, safety, love, esteem, and actualization. The workability factors are really only pertinent to the three middle-level needs — safety, love, and esteem needs — because if a marriage has descended to survival mode, it is, by definition, not a workable situation. On the other hand, if a marriage operates at the actualization level, it is a highly functioning marriage, whose lower-level needs are met.
The following figures further outline these needs to demonstrate what must be present for the marriage to work. Each chart describes workable and unworkable scenarios in a marriage, as well as what intervention would be needed to transform an unworkable situation into one that can work.

Safety Needs

Workable If Present

Mutual trust 
, Sense of safety (mental, emotional, physical, and financial),Good communication, Care and concern for each other, Kindness (no abuse) (physical, sexual, emotional, verbal, or mental)

Unworkable If Present

Lack of trust, Pathological dishonesty, Lack of safety (mental, emotional, physical, and financial), No communication, Lack of care or concern for each other, Extreme abuse (physical, sexual, emotional, verbal, or mental)

Workable with Intervention*If Both Spouses Are Willing to Work on Issues

Broken but reparable trust, Mutual desire to create a safe environment (mental, emotional, physical, and financial), Some communication, Care and concern for each other, Moderate levels of emotional, mental, or verbal abuse**

(physical and sexual abuse are considered extreme abuse and will not likely change without long-term interventions)

* Intervention can take the form of therapy; mediation; support from clergy, a friend, or relative; or even just the two of you sitting down and discussing the issues and coming up with ground rules.

** This is true unless one or both of you have a no-tolerance policy.

Love Needs

Workable If Present

Mutual love, Shared interests, Commitment to the marriage from both spouses, Reciprocal partnership, Fidelity, One-sided relationship

Unworkable If Present

Absence of mutual love, Infidelity, No shared interests, One or both are not fully committed to the marriage

Workable with Intervention* If Both Spouses Are Willing to Work on Issues

Foundation of mutual love, Infidelity, Some shared interests
, One or both are unsure of their commitment to the marriage
, One person usually needs more than the other on a regular basis but roles can change

Esteem Needs

Workable If Present

Self esteem and esteem from and for spouse, Mutual respect, Common goals, Willingness of both spouses to work on marriage

Unworkable If Present

No esteem from self or spouse and no desire to change, No respect at all, No common goals Unwillingness of at least one spouse to work on marriage

Workable with Intervention*If Both Spouses Are Willing to Work on Issues

Low self-esteem or esteem from spouse
, A foundation of respect, Some common goals, Resistance from at least one spouse to work on marriage

For more information on the “workability” of your marriage, visit: