• Some toxic relationships survive in better shape after therapy

  • Relationship coach Susan Quilliam suggests steps for deciding what to do about a relationship that appears to be on the rocks

  • If you are looking for a therapist, you can find one here

Things are bad between you and your partner. Perhaps it’s furious arguments, perhaps it’s the polar opposite of indifference. The happiness you felt when you first met is a distant memory. Something, somewhere changed.

But should you therefore up sticks and leave? Is it worth staying in the hope that things will improve – or in the hope that one day there will be a crystal clear sign that they aren’t going to? 

As a relationship coach, I know all too well that that there is rarely any simple ‘sent from heaven’ directive, but a hard-fought choice made over months or years.

Yes, you should go

Sometimes your partner’s behaviour gives undeniable reasons to go. Abuse to you or your children. A constitutional inability to stay faithful, or to steer clear of alcohol or drugs. No debate here about leaving, although it may still take you longer than you might think to realise you need to escape.

Even less easy to call are reasons that don’t involve bad behaviour. Should you leave because you and your partner have different sexual inclinations? Because your life goals are different? Because your ethical values, though deep, are totally opposed? In the end, you will probably leave if it becomes clear that honouring your own path is more important than being in your partnership.

So sometimes it’s right to go. But we may still hesitate, and not through love. If we stay for the lifestyle, stay because we don’t want to be alone, stay because we believe that at our age (or weight, or circumstances) we will never find anyone else, then we are staying because of fear and we will incur same penalties that all fear-based decisions do. Compromise. Diminishing self-esteem. Life in a self-built prison.

The questions to ask are first whether your situation is unbearable and secondly whether there is any realistic chance of it changing. If the answer to the first is yes, and to the second is no, then the right direction to take is out.

Yes, you should stay

But what if the answer to the second question is yes, the situation can change. Then, even if things do seem unbearable, it is surely worthwhile leaning in, even just for a little while - or at any rate, for just as long as it takes to try to make that change.

The first context where this applies is when your problems are situational. Job loss, bereavement, house move, starting a family – particularly the last-mentioned when off-the-scale stress and sleep deprivation can set even the most loving couple at each others’ throats. This too will pass and, once such situations are resolved, likely so will the relationship toxicity. Resolving the situation may not be easy but once you have, the relationship suffering may well resolve too.

But here’s the thing. Even when the problems are not situational, even when your pain is clearly down to the way you and your partner feel about each other, the relationship may well still be retrievable and it may still be worth staying. In fact, that very pain may be a sign you should stay.

My favourite psychologist, David Schnarch, claims that the point at which a relationship seems to hit most difficulty is the point at which it becomes a ‘people growing’ machine, the point at which both partners most benefit because they begin to find within them an inner strength, to set aside their own self-absorption, to start to really love.

This is an unexpected – and very challenging – take on whether one should stay or go. But Schnarch argues for it passionately. It is, he says, only by navigating the tricky patches of loving that you can come through to a truly intimate and fulfilling relationship. He likens the process to a crucible, where each partner’s vulnerability is burned away and what is left is shining gold.

The crucible

It takes courage to enter the crucible. You both have to admit responsibility for the pain you are causing each other. You have to work at being stable and loving - and not just when things are going well but also when your partner is being insufferable.

And it isn’t easy to survive the crucible – it may not even be easy to judge whether there is hope of surviving. So you almost certainly have to get outside help. In short, never, never give up, never take the decision to walk without at least getting a professional opinion.

I am not saying we should hang in for ever in a toxic relationship. Nor am I saying that leaving a toxic relationship is a bad idea. I am saying that even when a relationship seems to be on the rocks, it is worthwhile seeing if there is something that can be done.

If there is nothing to be done, then you will know that you are right to part. If there is something to be done, then – if Schnarch is right – getting to the brink of breakup may actually be be the prelude to a stronger and deeper love.

Susan Quilliam is a relationship coach and the author of How to Choose a Partner and Stop Arguing, Start Talking

Watch Julie Menanno on managing different attachment styles in relationships

Further reading

Navigating mismatched desire and sex drives in relationships

Why do I catch feelings so fast?

Is staying in love an unrealistic relationship goal?

How do I juggle my career and my relationship?