A reader emailed me, describing his unhappiness in his marriage. He asked if he owed it to his wife to stay in the relationship. My answer? No. Staying in a relationship solely out of a sense of obligation is a breeding ground for resentment and contempt. The marriage may last, but not in a form that will benefit either partner.
Even with a lifetime vow, I don’t believe we necessarily owe it to our partners to stay. Sometimes, the best move for your spouse and for you is to leave. Sometimes, the best gift you can give someone is letting them go.
That’s not to say we bear no obligation to our spouses. Once you make that commitment, you owe your spouse the following:
No matter how many years or decades you have been with someone, you can never entirely read his or her mind. When conflict or concern is consistently deflected with an, “I’m fine,” you are not being up front with your partner and you are taking away any opportunity to work as a team. If you cultivate a life hidden behind a veil of secrecy, you are shutting out your spouse and opening the door to increasing deceptions.
Transparency does not mean that you utter every thought, share every action. It means that you say what needs to be said, even if it scares you. It means you face ongoing issues rather than tucking them away in some hidden corner. And it means you keep no secrets that you fear being discovered. Your partner is your equal; it is not up to you to shield them from the truth.
One of the most cruel actions a partner can take against the other is to shift blame for his or her own choices to that of the spouse. “Of course I cheated. You gave me no choice. You never want sex and all you do is nag.” “You hold me back.” “You just don’t make me happy any more.”
You owe it to your spouse to accept responsibility for your own well-being. If you’re not happy, make the effort to explore what is lacking without immediately blaming your partner or your marriage. If you’re bored, create excitement in your own life instead of blaming your marriage for the rut. If you feel stuck, create change before you castigate your spouse for holding you down.
A marriage cannot thrive without attention. You cannot expend all of energy outside of the relationship and expect for it to survive. Your partner does not have to be the center of your life, but they have to be a part of your life.
You owe it to your spouse to turn towards him or her. You owe it to your spouse to see. To listen. To make an effort and put in the time and energy and attention. You wouldn’t adopt a dog only to ignore it. Why would you do that to your partner?
If the agreement you have with your partner is one of monogamy, then you owe it to them to uphold that promise. If you desire a change in that agreement, your partner deserves transparency and an opportunity to decide what he or she will tolerate.
The obligation of fidelity extends to marital funds. If you misuse money, you are embezzling from the marriage. Again, if there is an issue, you owe it to your spouse to be transparent and allow them an opportunity to respond.
Despite the familiar colloquialism of “ball and chain,” marriage should not be a prison. Both partners need to have the freedom and flexibility to make decisions, to grow and change and to express ideas and feelings.
You owe it to your spouse to see him or her an individual with his or her own opinions. You owe it to your spouse to allow them independence and autonomy. A healthy marriage is not one of dependence, but one of interdependence. And that takes two sovereign entities.
When you took the oath to have and to hold, you expressed that you care about your spouse. You have an obligation to your partner to attempt to see from his or her perspective and understand his or her feelings. It doesn’t mean that you will never make a decision that hurts your partner; it means that you will be sympathetic of their suffering and will make an effort to limit the impact.
You owe it to your spouse to see them as human, imperfect and messy. To be quicker to forgive than to judge. And to be patient with their mistakes while admitting that you make them as well.
Be nice. There is no excuse to act otherwise.