Why would someone choose to stay in an unhappy marriage?
I remember questioning my ex husband about his parent’s marriage while we were still teenagers –
“They seem miserable. Why do you think they stay together?” I asked as we drove away from his childhood home.
“I guess they decided that they would rather be miserable together than risk being even more unhappy alone. Besides, leaving would require courage and effort and those are in short supply.”
“Promise me we’ll never end up like that,” I said, sliding my hand to his thigh as he sat behind the driver’s seat.
“Never,” he said, squeezing my hand. And that was one promise he actually kept.
His parent’s marriage seemed strange to me. My own parents had divorced years earlier, but they always kept their disputes hidden behind closed doors, so the image I had of them was of a happy and connected couple.
I struggled to wrap my young-and-still-naive brain around the idea of staying with somebody that I no longer liked. It seemed simple – if you’re not happy, leave.
But of course, it’s not always that simple.
People choose to stay in unhappy – or even downright miserable – marriages for many reasons. And from the outside, it’s easy to judge (especially if you’re a know-everything teenager). But that doesn’t mean that their decision to stay is necessarily wrong.
The following are nine reasons that people choose -either consciously or unconsciously – to stay in an unhappy marriage:
1 – They Are Afraid to Be Alone
At some level, most of us harbor a fear of being alone. We crave love, acceptance and companionship. And so even if a marriage is miserable, it may seem preferable to stay with the devil you know that risk being alone and unable to find someone new.
This becomes especially true with longer-term marriages. After spending years or decades together, you may have become dependent upon your partner for certain things and the thought of not having them to depend on becomes daunting.
If the marriage is more unfulfilling than actively agonizing, the risk of this trade-off may not seem worth it. Furthermore, if the marriage is founded on an anxious attachment style, the act of grasping becomes more important that who you’re holding on to.
2 – For the Sake of the Family
It is not uncommon for couples to elect to stay together for the sake of the children. Whether to avoid the emotional upheaval of divorce on the family or to maintain the family structure, the children’s needs are placed before the happiness of the couple. Sometimes this is permanent and other times it simply delays the decision to split until the children have grown.
This motivation can extend beyond the children. Sometimes people cannot bear the thought of losing the connection with their extended family, which has taken them in as one of their own.
A divorce impacts far more people than simply the two who exchanged the vows. And sometimes we choose to put the well-being of others ahead of our own.
3 – To Maintain a Lifestyle
We are familiar with the idea of an unhappy marriage that is sustained on life support so that one or both of the partners doesn’t have to face a change in financial status. Yet that is not the only reason that marriages are maintained to avoid a shift in lifestyle.
If both people are content with the entirety of their lives – home, extended family, friends, jobs, etc. – save for their marriage, they may reach the decision that they are willing to sacrifice a happy marriage for a happy life.
And there is truth that divorce often brings a dramatic change in financial and social status that may never be fully recouped. And for some, the trade-off of staying unhappily married becomes an intentional trade-off.
4 – Because of Religious or Cultural Beliefs
For some, the decision to divorce means also divorcing themselves from the beliefs that have been instilled in them since childhood. Divorce may be perceived as sin no matter the circumstances or the dissolution of a marriage may bring immeasurable shame to a family.
In these situations, divorce may be more painful than staying in an unhappy marriage. Divorce means a decision to deny your core beliefs and risks being ostracized from your family or community. So as long as the marriage is not an abusive one, staying may be the better choice.
5 – Inertia or Habit
We are creatures of habit. All too easily, we do what we have always done, resisting change and bemoaning the effort inherent in forging a new path. We become accustomed to our surroundings, even when they are detrimental. Once seated, we have a tendency to stay.
For many in an unhappy marriage, they may not even be consciously aware that they are in a bad marriage. They are simply sleepwalking through life, acting without thought and reacting out of routine. Those that are on automatic pilot stay in their marriages, not out of intention, but out of inattention.
6 – Fear of Judgment
Those that choose to divorce definitely face judgment from others. We may be viewed as weak, impulsive or unwilling to put in the hard work and persevere. If you’re concerned about the negative response from others, you may choose to stay quietly unhappy than risk the public humiliation.
We not only fear the judgment of others, we also want to avoid self-judgment when we believe that we have failed. Few of us go into marriage with the thought of divorce on our minds. And it can be difficult to admit that we make a mistake – either in our choice of mate or in how we treated them once married. And so sometimes, it seems safer to stay in denial.
7 – A Belief They Cannot Do Any Better
When you struggle to love yourself, you struggle to understand what you deserve. And if you’re in an unhappy marriage where your partner consistently dismisses or belittles you, this insecurity will only grow.
Sometimes we stay in a bad situation because we believe that we deserve to be unhappy or perhaps even punished for some perceived wrongdoing or shortcoming. And that becomes even more true when we listen to our partner’s voice more than we trust our own.
8 – Because They Don’t Want to Cause Pain
One of the hardest things in life is to look into the face of someone you care about as you tell them something that will cause them pain. And it’s even harder if you’re the source of the pain.
9 – A Fear of Retaliation
One of the saddest reasons that some elect to stay in an unhappy marriage is that they fear the retaliation of their spouse if they choose to end the marriage. Perhaps the spouse has threatened to withhold financial support, isolate the other parent from the children or even suggested bodily harm. No matter the threat, it is a type of marital terrorism used to imprison the other. If this is your situation, please seek guidance before you assume that you are stuck.
Ultimately, the decision if – and when – to end a marriage is a highly personal choice. If you’re struggling with that decision, here are 12 questions to ask yourself.