It doesn't have to be a catastrophic event like infidelity or physical abuse to know that your marriage is over.
Photo credit: Joice Kelly on Unsplash
Marriages don’t end overnight.
Usually, it is a slow, painful decline over years. Sometimes even decades, depending on how much pressure we put ourselves under to stay together no matter how unhappy we feel.
It doesn’t have to be a catastrophic event like physical abuse or infidelity for you to know that your marriage is over.
So many of us know deep down in our hearts that a relationship needs to end, but the pain is so great that we go into denial and try to suffer it out for as long as we can.
Society tells us that if a marriage is over, we haven’t tried hard enough. We didn’t have what it took to make it work when other couples were able to get through.
Society also tells us that leaving is not an option once we have children. That you are condemning yourself and your kids to a broken life of trauma and failure if you don’t stay together forever.
It’s ok to challenge this conditioning.
In 1997 a book called ‘Too Good To Leave, Too Bad To Stay’ by family psychotherapist Mira Kirshenbaum made the bestsellers list. At the time of printing, approximately twenty-eight million Americans were in the agonizing process of trying to decide if their relationships were salvageable.
Kirshenbaum refers to this state as ‘relationship ambivalence’. People can stay miserable in this state for years, paralyzed by the fear of making a decision they know will impact those closest to them.
Quiet desperation I call relationship ambivalence quiet desperation, the slow burn of feeling completely disconnected from your partner for several years. Living two separate lives under one roof. Little emotional or physical intimacy.
Frequently visualizing a life outside of your marriage and what that would look like. The feeling you’ve tried everything you can to make it work and you’re running out of options.
The pain of disconnection Living with someone who is meant to be invested in your life but pays no attention to what you’re doing or how you’re feeling is soul-destroying.
It doesn’t matter how often you tell yourself that you don’t need it from them or that all marriages fade over time; it begins to eat away at your sense of self-worth, and you lose the ability to imagine a future with any joy.
You start to lose interest in the things you once enjoyed. You begin to disengage from your family and friends. You may act out uncharacteristically with addictions or other self-sabotaging behaviour. Essentially, you start to shut yourself down as a coping mechanism.
Often if we feel this way, there have been attempts to communicate that something is wrong, that we need something, only to be rebuffed or ignored because our partner cannot cope with hearing it for whatever reasons they may have.
My experience In my marriage, my ex often told me we would work on things when I tried to communicate my concerns. However, there were only ever short-term displays of trying, and then we’d slip back to old patterns. This went on for many years, and in the end, he started shutting me down.
Looking back now, I see it was just a way of keeping me quiet so we could return to denial and not deal with the pain of acknowledging that things were becoming untenable.
I guess it was too much for my ex-husband to deal with, or perhaps he simply didn’t understand how much effort is needed to keep a marriage together. Either way, even with marriage counselling, we could not repair the damage done over the years.
Intimacy and connection According to author Dr. Gary Chapman, there are five love languages. One of the ways that some of us give and receive love is through physical touch. If you need physical contact and your partner is unable or unwilling to provide this, what other options do you have?
I’m not just talking about sex; I’m talking about all physical touch. An arm around your waist now and then, curling up on the couch together, a cuddle in bed that isn’t expected to lead anywhere else.
You’re not allowed to go anywhere else to get those needs met. You end up in a situation where unmet needs simmer under the surface, and resentment builds quietly in the background.
We don’t need to resign ourselves to a life without touch and intimacy. If your spouse or partner has no interest in meeting these needs for you or improving the situation despite being asked, it’s unlikely that the relationship will last in the long term without one or both of you feeling numb inside.
When there is no desire to be close for months at a time, this is a clear indication that your connection is damaged. The relationship becomes unsustainable if one or both partners are unwilling to do the work required to get it back.
Struggling to justify When there hasn’t been a catastrophic event like infidelity or physical abuse, we struggle to explain to other people and ourselves why we want to leave. We question ourselves constantly, causing immeasurable torment.
I recall a good friend telling me five years ago when she wanted to leave her marriage, “I wish he had just cheated so that I had a good enough reason to leave”.
There was pressure from her family to stay in the marriage, even though both she and her husband had checked out and had been living like roommates for several years, only staying together because of their children.
Yes, in a perfect world, all marriages would work, and our children wouldn’t have to experience the sadness of a divorce. But consider the detrimental effects of two people who ‘stay together for the kids’.
Children need parents who are engaged, happy and present. This is unlikely to be the case if they only stay together out of guilt, fear and obligation.
There will either be high conflict as the couple is unable to hide their anger and discontent, or there will be the quiet, passive-aggressive denial of two people who are always trying to get emotional space from each other. Kids can tell when their parents are miserable, no matter how skilled they become at hiding it.
It pays to be mindful of what we’re teaching our kids about love and relationships when we attempt to hide reality and fake everything for their sake. In later years they may also feel guilt if they realize that you only stayed together because of them.
Financial pressure Another reason some couples choose to stay in denial is because of their financial situation. Assets have been built, and the thought of going back to square one or losing money keeps them stuck.
There is always an element of having to live minimally after divorce. Money alone is not a good enough reason to stay in an unhappy relationship. If that’s all you are staying for, ask yourself what price you would put on your mental health and the opportunity to realize your full potential as a human being.
Quality marriages are a partnership The heavy lifting of a relationship can not fall on one person’s shoulders. When only one person is asking to work through marital issues and the other is denying there are problems, this is not a partnership.
If your partner generally and consistently blocks your attempts to bring up topics or raise questions, particularly about things you care about, you run out of options, and depression sets in.
A marriage can’t thrive and survive with only fifty per cent effort being put into it. If this has been happening over the course of several years, it’s ok to make the decision that you no longer want to continue to do all the hard work. One person can’t fix a failing relationship.
Redefining selfish Most of the pressure we put on ourselves to stay in a marriage that we know isn’t working comes from external sources: your family, your friends, your community, your church, and society as a whole. The word ‘selfish’ weighs heavily on us.
Who are we to decide that we want to be happy at the expense of others? Who are we to put ourselves first?
Yes, there is an element of selfishness when we decide to make choices for ourselves that involve other people.
It’s not about accepting that you are selfish. It’s about redefining what being selfish means in different contexts. When you look after yourself, you can look after others. When you don’t look after yourself, and your mental health suffers, you can’t help others anyway.
Is it selfish in the conventional sense to make a choice that you know will help you function at happier, higher levels? Give yourself the space and permission to care for your emotional well-being without heaping guilt and blame on yourself or your ex.
Let go and trust the process Leaving your marriage to get clarity and space doesn’t have to be the end of the relationship. Sometimes, you need that time away to clear the emotional chaos that takes over and makes it impossible to decide.
If you’re feeling tormented by your decision to leave, take the pressure off yourself by knowing that if you and your spouse are meant to be together for the right reasons, you will find a way back to each other.
If you’ve had a trial separation and you still don’t want to return to the marriage, honour the voice inside you. Finding happiness and peace is impossible when you only live your life for others.
Takeaway There are many reasons why a marriage will not last. It doesn’t always need to be something clear-cut or obvious. Sometimes, only the two people in the relationship will ever understand why they could not sustain a life together.
You don’t have to blame yourself or find all the ways your partner has let you down to admit that you need something more and are choosing to find it. Yes, even if you have children. Tune out the external noise and trust that the only answer you need is the one that is coming from within yourself.
If you know anyone who could benefit from reading this article, please consider sharing it with them ❤️