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Should We Call It Quits?

Life gets hard. If we're married, it's easy to see our spouse as the cause of whatever we are struggling with. Even if the person we married doesn't cause the problem, their failure to do anything about the problem hurts.

So, how do we know when it's time to throw in the towel? I think one way is to look at all the things spouses do on a spectrum, a color gradient that's green on one end and red on the other.

On the far left of the green end are acts of extreme altruism, like Cindy Altemos who gave her husband one of her kidneys. And like Michelle Obama, who gave up her law practice, her social network, and her familiar hometown of Chicago so that her husband could run for and serve as President of the United States.

On the right right of the red end are the things that anyone who loved you would protect you from: a beating, a choking, the theft of the money you need to eat and to keep a roof over your head, intentional humiliation, torturing or killing your children, locking you up, for a few of the awful examples I've heard of. Yes, sometimes spouses do these things because of brain damage or an addiction or another mental disorder, and they might be forgivable, but not until you are well-protected from any threat of such harm.

In between the green end and the red end is a huge gray area. In here are all the things that might have felt mean to you but were not intended that way by your spouse, the accidental screw-ups, and the overlooked opportunities to do the right thing. Some examples include showing up late to something important, forgetting an anniversary, failing to complete a chore, or laughing at your embarrassing moment.

Also in this gray area are the dashed expectations that were based on some imaginary marriage or someone other than your spouse. This other someone might even be you, if you expect your husband or wife to show love the same way you show it. The gray area also includes any imbalance in the scorecard you keep in your head of who has done how much for the relationship or the household maintenance.

If you're wondering if it's time to call it quits, here's my take on it. It probably is time to divorce or at least physically separate if your marriage ever goes to that bright red end of the spectrum, unless there is hope of a cure for whatever caused your spouse to lose control of his or her behavior. If you've been in the not-quite-red area for a while, and counseling has not helped, it might be time to quit.

However, if you two are hanging out in the gray zone, your marriage is normal and fixable. And it is quite possibly fixable by changing your thinking and your actions without even telling your spouse you're not happy. This is a very good thing, because one spouse's gray area is quite often the other spouse's not-quite-green area, and it's very distressing to hear that your happy, healthy marriage is actually in grave danger. Distress is not a great route to a happier marriage.

Before you suggest a divorce in that gray zone, try taking some marriage education classes or reading about what you can change singlehandedly. Seek out more Third Alternatives to your differences. Try doing things you've wanted to do without waiting for your spouse to want them, too. If there are chores you both dislike, set aside some money to pay someone else to do them. I promise it will cost a lot less than living separately will.

Instead of trying to convince your spouse that things are gray or trying any harder to make his or her experience of the marriage greener, make your own experience of your life together greener. Almost everyone who ever married wants, really wants, to show more love to their spouse. The better you make your own experience, the easier it will be for your spouse to do this. What you're seeing now is only what he or she is capable of when you're seeing things the way you're seeing them now.

Make lists of everything that's happened in your marriage that was close to that bright green end of the spectrum. Savor them, and realize that they are part of the memories you two could share twenty or fifty years from now.

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Patty Newbold is a widow who got it right the second time...

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