Renewing or reneging on the marriage commitment is, for most people, their biggest discernment ever. Many factors go into the decision, but the core dilemma is often integrity versus suffering. Commitment means something; it has enduring power within conscience (though its limits are rarely explored). Marriage highly structures social and private life, thereby creating family. Will anyone recognize me once I am suddenly single? Will I recognize myself? A commitment to a central structure largely constitutes integrity for the married person.
On the other hand, divorce presents an escape hatch for a world of hurt. Humans instinctively look for the first available exit from suffering. Do I work indefinitely to improve the relationship with no guarantee of success or eject now? Ending the immediate pain and dealing with any side-effects later sounds like a big relief. It might even be the most charitable move in the short- and long-term for all concerned.
I want to put in a strong disclaimer here that in any particular marriage, the question of “should I stay or should I go” is a personal one. Family, friends, spiritual advisors and marriage counselors cannot answer the question for you and should not judge your answer afterwards. With that proviso, as an example, here are my criteria for remaining in my own marriage.
My Non-Negotiables of Marriage
The dignity of the human person has primacy in all human affairs, including marriage. You are the final guardian of your own dignity, which is the object of an appropriate self-love. If you do not love yourself, you cannot really love anybody else (and vice versa). Any kind of abuse, by definition, attacks dignity. Physical, emotional, sexual, or spiritual abuse cannot be permitted.
Marriage obviously requires active engagement from both spouses. The absence of engagement is abandonment. It is clear that if your spouse does not come home one day and is never heard from again, you’ve been abandoned. There are other ways, however, that one can leave a marriage. When your spouse refuses to work towards mutual satisfaction in the marital relationship, you no longer have a partner and likewise, you have been left alone. Infidelity or betrayal is also a form of abandonment. You cannot be in two places at once.
Two engaged people with basic respect still have a marriage. If both parties choose to stay, there is hope. However one person may find the challenge too great and choose to go. May there be mercy either way.