I have been asked several times recently to write about the topic of when it is time to give up on a relationship. I have had to reevaluate my response over the years because I have perhaps held a position that has been too naively optimistic. Perhaps I have relied too heavily on Philippines4:13 which states “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” The problem with this line of thinking is confusing “can do” with “should do”. I know that my more recent position may seem harsh to some folks, but I assure you that there is little that is more painful than a bad relationship.
It is important to factor in which stage of a relationship a couple is in. If a couple is married, and particularly if they have children, we do everything we can to keep the couple together, barring physical or serious emotional abuse. In that case we recommend separation until the relationship has dealt with the root issues and the threat of abuse has passed.
But there have been other times when we have labored too long with a couple who had not yet made a decision to get married or move forward from engagement. One of our pastors says “If they are struggling that much before marriage, they should not consider moving forward, especially until they deal with their individual problems.” In further conversations we have agreed that the dating and engagement process should be delightful and hopeful. No relationship is trouble free, but the overall level of positivity should exceed 80%.
So when should you separate from a relationship, perhaps permanently?
If you are not married:
- If there is physical abuse, even once, it is over. It only gets worse with time.
- If there is serious unresolved conflict (emotional, spiritual, financial, etc.)
- If there are multiple break-ups
- If you feel like you have to walk on eggshells a lot of the time
- If you have trust issues within the relationship (not because of your past)
- If your partner has serious moral or characterological issues
If you are married (or perhaps unmarried and share a child):
- If there is a refusal to deal with and permanently end physical or emotional abuse involving you or your children
- If there are infidelity issues that a spouse is unwilling to end and/or properly deal with. There must be a process of restoration undertaken after the damaging behaviors have passed.
- If there is a refusal to give support to the marriage either financially or domestically based on the roles you have agreed to fulfill. This, of course, is more complicated if there are extenuating circumstances like mental or physical illnesses, which would necessitate a deeper look into the problems.
Obviously, we recommend premarital counseling as a positive step towards a possible permanent relationship. All relationships have some rough edges. And we also believe in counseling for the restoration of distressed marriages and the acquiring of skills for relational growth.
Sometimes hearts will change, or God will intervene as a person becomes willing to be submitted to Him in humility. But oftentimes it is just best to embrace reality and begin the grieving process of letting go of a troubled relationship.