When Can a Marriage Be Saved?

Knowing when to end a long-term relationship starts with knowing why things aren’t working.

Ring placement from one hand to another
Paulus Leeser / Ullstein / Getty / The Atlantic

Romantic relationships often show us the deep divide between expectations and reality. For any relationship struggling to overcome conflict, the first step to starting over may be identifying how your vision of marriage is out of step with your partner’s.

In this episode of How to Start Over, we explore why some marriages can withstand conflict, why most couples struggle to validate their partner’s needs, and how to think about when a breakup is in order—by better understanding why the relationship is struggling.

This episode was produced by Rebecca Rashid and is hosted by Olga Khazan. Editing by A.C. Valdez and Claudine Ebeid. Fact-check by Ena Alvarado. Engineering by Matthew Simonson. Special thanks to Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor of The Atlantic.

Be part of How to Start Over. Write to us at howtopodcast@theatlantic.com. To support this podcast, and get unlimited access to all of The Atlantic’s journalism, become a subscriber.

Music by FLYIN (“Being Nostalgic”), Monte Carlo (“Ballpoint”), Mindme (“Anxiety [Instrumental Version]”), Timothy Infinite (“Rapid Years”), Sarah, the Illstrumentalist (“Building Character”), and Gregory David (“Twist One”).

Olga Khazan: This is How to Start Over. Today, we explore what makes marriage work, why some people struggle to compromise, and how to start over in marriage—whether that means ending your marriage or revamping the one you’re already in.

We’re going to sit down with two people to hear about their marriages, to help answer our burning question—how do you know when it’s time to break up?

Khazan: Heather Havrilesky is the author of Foreverland: a memoir about her marriage, which, warts and all, is going strong. She’s also an advice columnist for the Ask Polly newsletter on Substack.

Khazan: Why did you marry Bill?

Heather Havrilesky: I married Bill because I was in love with him and we had great sex and he was an adult with a job which was amazing and unbelievable to me at the time. You land in this place of, Uh oh, I can’t walk away from this because it’s obvious that I’m supposed to be with this person. It’s just crystal clear.

With Bill, when I met him, I was very clear about the fact that I was going to show him my flaws in addition to my qualities. And so when we were emailing back and forth before we met each other, I sent him this email that basically said: “I’m a bossy, demanding woman, and you just need to know that up front. If that doesn’t sound good to you, then you should just move on because that’s who I am; apparently I can’t change it.” So it worked for us.

Khazan: This is Matthew Fray, a relationship coach and author of This Is How Your Marriage Ends. In his article for The Atlantic calledThe Marriage Lesson That I Learned Too Late,” Matthew implied that his wife left him because he sometimes left dishes by the sink.

Matthew Fray: When you’re from the town I’m from—and raised in Catholicism the way that I was—what you do is, around your college years, you try to find the person you’re going to marry.

I grew up in an environment where my friends and I would sort of playfully mock each other. We’d call each other names. And I brought that same sort of sarcastic, playful mocking to my relationship.

And one of the things that she asked me to do was not do that to her. I thought she was the one that was inappropriately or unfairly complaining about some benign behavior that really wasn’t bad. And I’m like, why should I have to change who I am and what I do?

Khazan: How would you describe to someone, you know, a total stranger—why your marriage ended?

Fray: I would say I spent 12 years of our relationship, nine of them married, not allowing my wife to think and feel the things that she thought and felt—any time I disagreed, or that they became inconvenient for me on some level. Any time she made a request for change and I didn’t intellectually calculate that the problem was as severe as she was making it out to be. Or if I didn’t sort of organically empathize with the emotional experience she might be having, I always chose me over her.

Khazan: In your article, you highlight that you left dishes by the sink—you talk about how it was indicative of larger problems. Can you talk a little bit about your household’s approach to dishes and why that became a problem for your ex-wife?

Fray: The “dish by the sink” was actually a drinking glass by the sink. I just left the glass there because it seemed so inefficient to put it in the dishwasher over and over again. And she just said, “What if you just did this for me?” And I refused. My brain was like, This is not a harmful thing. This is something she’s definitely sort of like overdramatizing. But you know that in and of itself is disrespectful. And it was painful.

Khazan: So you can see how this common problem—my spouse isn’t doing what I want them to do—led to dramatically different outcomes. But it still doesn’t explain how to act on these sorts of issues. Why are some couples able to overcome these petty grievances but others can’t?

Khazan: Are there ways to actually work on a relationship without totally ending it?

Havrilesky: There are lots of ways to make a relationship better. It’s mostly just a question of: Do these two people really want to stay together? And I think that when two people really want it. And they’re both capable of…not change at an essential level…but just growth or openness or just to appreciate and make space for the particular emotional folds of the other person’s experience.

You know, we talk about, like: He’s got to do more housework; she’s got to make more money. A lot of times with marriage, we end up talking about these really concrete “economies” and whether they’re functioning, and how many resources do we have and who’s in charge and who’s the CEO and who’s the manager? But really, it’s the mood of a marriage that matters the most.

If you can’t make space for someone to imagine themselves the way they always wanted to be, or when you can’t make a space where they feel the most like themselves or feel loved—then you have to ask yourself, What kind of a partner am I that I can’t do that? Why can’t I try?

Khazan: In your quote unquote day job, you’re an advice columnist. I’m sure a lot of people have written to you wondering if they should leave their partner. What are some of those typical “I maybe want to get divorced or break up” feelings?

Havrilesky: I’ve been running “Ask Polly” for 10 years, and sometimes people are just adding up all the traits of a person, and they’re sort of saying, I want someone who’s more educated or I want someone who’s more fun or more adventurous. Those are hard letters to answer, because a marriage is built by two people; it’s not a combination of two people’s traits. And when two people are committed to each other and they’re really in it, they can create anything they want from that in many ways.

Khazan: I wanted to talk about the blowback to your book. It seems like they are upset that you said anything negative about your marriage. And I think a lot of people do only talk positively about their spouse. Where do you think that blowback came from?

Havrilesky: I think people want to keep marriage in a very clear binary where there are good marriages and bad marriages. And if your marriage is good, everything should be easy. And if your marriage is bad, it’s doomed and you should get divorced right now. A lot of married people understood, and a lot of married people were like, That’s not how I run my marriage. My marriage is perfect, and I never have feelings of anger or rage. I’m never disappointed in my wonderful, perfect, glorious spouse.

Maybe some people really do have really effective rose-colored glasses that they always use with their spouse, and that’s what works, you know, and they have the best sex in the world because they’re always looking through these filtered lenses at this beautiful person. I mean, in some ways, they’re basically saying the same thing, which is: “I prefer this filter. It helps me to love my spouse more when I reject the idea that there is any hatred in any marriage, except a bad one.”

Khazan: I take Heather’s point: I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing there’s one perfect person out there for you. A soul mate, if you will. Psychological research suggests that this belief in soul mates can actually impact whether we think our relationship is capable of change or if it’s doomed.

Spike W.S. Lee, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, spoke with me about the concept of “love frames” and how different perspectives of love can determine how well your relationship can weather conflict. Specifically, people who see love as a “journey” tend to take the good with the bad.

Spike W.S. Lee: In a journey frame, conflicts become more meaningful. They are part of the growth process. In love fiction, “happily ever after” really appears only at the end of the novel. It doesn’t appear in the middle, because after the happily ever after—there’s not much of a story to tell, right? Before happily ever after is all the twists and turns to conflict that make the story interesting.

People who think of love as a perfect fit—well, when conflicts arise, I start questioning: Are we really such a good fit? Did I choose the right partner? They’re more likely to think about alternatives.

Khazan: For Heather Havrilesky, taking the good with the bad may be the secret to her successful marriage—or at least her ability to see her husband for who he is, and not idealize what he should be. But for Matt’s relationship, the journey had simply come to an end. For his wife, staying in the relationship was more painful than leaving.

Khazan: How did you guys actually know when it was time to divorce? What actually happened that led to filing for divorce?

Fray: I don’t want to speak for her. Unbeknownst to me, trust had been significantly eroded and then my father-in-law died out of nowhere one night—my wife’s father. And it was shocking and awful, but I thought it was just life happening, as life was always going to happen. But what I believe happened is that she recognized in that moment, for however many years we’d been together leading up to that, nine or 10 years: Matt isn’t a safe person, a safe space for me.

She said it at a dinner one night, “Matt, I’m not sure if I love you. I’m not sure if I want to be in this marriage anymore.” She had to make the hard decision to break up the family, to sacrifice time with our son. So, when should people leave? I don’t know when that is, and I don’t know how people decide. But I suspect it’s that moment when the pain of staying in the same place feels like it outweighs the promise or hope of something different, because this is too bad to stay.

Khazan: Have you come up with any ways to better get through to each other about how important this little stuff can be?

Fray: I imagine my son—when he was four, he would wake up in the middle of the night crying, afraid of a monster hiding under his bed: “Dad, I’m really afraid of this monster under the bed.” And all of a sudden I’m like, This is stupid. My instinct, intellectually, is to convince him there isn’t a monster under the bed. I might say something like, “Bud, toughen up. There isn’t a monster there.”

And so, important facts: I’m correct. There wasn’t a monster under the bed. I love that child more than I love anybody. But my son is still afraid. He’s crying—Dad abandoned him to be afraid and to cry alone in the dark. He now trusts me a little bit less.

I just think showing up differently matters. And so I want to hug that kid and say: “Buddy, I don’t think there’s a monster under the bed, but I can see that you’re really afraid right now, and I’ve been afraid before, and I am so sorry that that’s what you’re experiencing right now. And even if we can’t fix the problem, we’re always going to show up.”

I think that is the idea that correlates most closely with our adult relationships when we’re disagreeing with our adult partner. More or less saying: There isn’t a monster under the bed. You shouldn’t think that; you shouldn’t feel that. Even though we believe we’re intellectually correct, there is this erosion of trust that happens. We just have to validate, and there’s a difference between agreement and validation.

Khazan: Is there something you look for from advice seekers. to kind of get a sense of “Can this marriage or relationship be saved?”

Havrilesky: Oftentimes two people will be committed to the distraction of fighting with the other person instead of getting out and living their lives. Sometimes when someone’s in that state, they just need someone else to say: “It shouldn’t be that hard.”

If you feel like someone just isn’t enough for you, then you can take that at face value and say, “I always feel like this person isn’t enough”—and then be gone. Move on.

You just have to make sure that the impatience doesn’t come from actually being with someone who loves you. If you came from a background where people didn’t treat you with that much kindness and that much presence, it can just feel awkward to be with someone who’s crazy about you. It’s just unfamiliar.

Khazan: A question for people out there who are single or maybe marriage skeptics. What’s the case for marriage?

Havrilesky: To really have a person in your life who you trust more than you’ve trusted anyone before. It’s magic. Before I met my husband, I never had a person in my life who I knew that if I said “I really need your help right now,” they would drop everything and give me everything they could.

Having a model of a relationship that you can actually improve, what you put in comes back to you basically because you’re building something that gets better with effort and with love. People feel embarrassed by so many things, and a great marriage makes you less embarrassed; it makes you more daring. And you bring that energy to other people.

Khazan: For many people in long-term romantic relationships, knowing when to end things may come with a better understanding of why things are going the way they are. Like Spike W.S. Lee told us, the issue may be your perspective of how love should work. If you see love as a perfect fit, or a soul mate, you may believe conflict is just not capable of being resolved. If anything, it’s a sign that things will only go downhill from there.

Lee: People who think of love as a perfect fit—well, when conflicts arise, I start questioning: Are we really such a good fit?  In a journey frame, these conflicts become more meaningful. In love fiction “happily ever after” really appears only at the end of the novel. It’s the before happily ever after is all the twists and turns to conflict that make the story interesting.

Khazan: Even some of the best relationships have their ups and downs, though, and many good relationships aren’t Instagram-perfect, as much as we might want to believe they are.

Havrilesky: Maybe some people really do have great, really effective rose-colored glasses that they always use with their spouse. In some ways, they’re basically saying the same thing, which is that I prefer this filter. It helps me to love my spouse more when I reject the idea that there is any hatred in any marriage, except a bad one.

Khazan: For Matthew, hindsight is 20/20—he realized that leaving a glass by the sink reflected a broader attitude that left his wife feeling unloved. It’s worth considering whether there are small things either you or your partner do that have spiraled into deeper trust issues—and ideally, work on those before they spiral.

Fray: I don’t think it matters what the thing is, whether it’s a dish by the sink of the recycling or position of the toilet seat or anything like that. These so-called petty grievances, I think, are what destroys trust and love in the average relationship.

Khazan: As Matthew pointed out, validating each other’s feelings is really important. You don’t have to agree with your partner. But you do have to make them feel heard. As Heather said, remember that relationships aren’t just the sum of two peoples’ traits—you have to decide that you’re going to love the whole person, not just the best 20 percent of them. Maybe starting over in your marriage means accepting your partner for who they are.