Mel Schwartz, LCSW

The Wrong Reason for Staying Married

The institution of marriage should be intended to enrich our lives. Certainly we might agree that the purpose of marriage ought to be to enhance our life and further our sense of meaning, purpose and gratification. Yet this expectation meets with an incredible rate of disappointment, if not outright failure. Ironically, marriage often becomes the justification for people’s unhappiness.

The fact that more than fifty percent of marriages end in divorce is actually the lesser of the problem. The greater difficulty lies in the fact that the majority of intact marriages are far from joyful. And many people regrettably live out their lives that way.

Remaining in the discontent and lethargy of an unhappy marriage, dulled by the absence of a more hopeful vision, can be downright depressing. And yet, so many people resign themselves to such lives.

Many individuals in such relationships merely give up and don’t work on improving their relations. They stay stuck in their unhappiness due to their fears. Divorce, although tumultuous and potentially scarring, at least provides the possibility of better days. I’m not glibly promoting divorce but suggesting that we do every thing in our power to awaken our relationships and live more meaningfully. Let’s take a deeper look at this dilemma.

The Fear Factor

Fear is the greatest impediment to growth in our lives. Very often, people are literally afraid of sharing their true feelings with their partners. They go silent and angry rather than expose their more vulnerable feelings. The fear may run the gamut: the fear of divorce and its incumbent anxieties or simply the avoidance of coming to terms with a relationship that may be lacking in intimacy, passion or respect. Another poignant fear may simply be the anxiety of being alone and starting life over again..

When you stay married out of fear, the emotional paralysis that pervades further poisons the relationship. Staying together out of resignation – due to fear – results in an enigmatic dilemma. Such people won’t consider divorce, and yet they are convinced that their marriage won’t improve, so they don’t work on the relationship. This is the worst of all possible scenarios.

If you find yourself in this place, it’s essential that you address your fears. The fear of divorce paradoxically eliminates any chance of improvement in the relationship. It produces a state of inertia, and the ensuing stagnation and frustration make mediocre marriages even worse. They become imprisoning.

If we can work through the fears around separation, then we are electing to stay in the marriage not from fear but from choice. This movement begins to unburden the chronic state of unhappiness, and genuine marital therapy may begin. In other words, processing the fear of divorce is not necessarily for the purpose of divorcing; it is for the purpose of clarity.

Am I staying married for the wrong reasons?

Fear filters our perceptions and participates in constructing our reality. The ways in which you see your partner are very much informed by your emotions, particularly anger. This anger may have arisen in part because you’re feeling mired in a hopeless relationship.

Getting unstuck permits you to either create a healthier relationship or to move forward. Either choice may be preferable to remaining unhappy without a glimmer of hope. Fear should not be a factor in your choice. Ultimately, the question is how much happiness you feel you deserve. It is not selfish to deserve happiness. In fact, to forgo your own contentment becomes a model of unhealthy self-sacrifice for your children – who will likely suffer in their own self-esteem by having parents who betrayed their own fulfillment.

For the Sake of the Children

One prevailing theme related to fear of divorce is that the act of divorce, in and of itself, will damage the children. People research multiple studies to substantiate this concern. By all means such an upheaval in our children’s lives should not be taken lightly. Divorce needs to be well considered, and navigating the children through this process should be undertaken with insight, reflection and empathy.

Yet, very few people consider the consequences of children growing up in unhappy yet intact homes, as they witness conflicted, unloving and uncooperative parental relations. Children tend to model what they see in their parents’ relations. Certainly, as parents we want better for our kids. Yet, the likelihood is that such children will incline toward similar marriages. Worse still, many parents claim their kids really don’t know anything is wrong with the marriage. The irony is that they will therefore normalize what may be a mediocre, disappointing or conflicted marriage. At least the kids ought to know that the marriage is indeed falling short of the mark. In that way, they can note the failure and aim higher for themselves when they come of age.

The legacy of unhappiness

Is this the legacy we want for our children? To be the best we can be as parents we need to model a level of authenticity in our lives. One in which we face our challenges and struggles and don’t succumb to fear. Isn’t that what we’d want for them? If you choose to stay married, commit to the process and model that commitment for your children. If your marriage precludes the opportunity for happiness, have the courage to face your fears. Let’s not claim that we’re protecting our children by exposing them to unhealthy relations. We need to face our fears, embrace them and choose to stay married from a healthy place of growth and hopefulness, not succumb to the deprivation of a joyless life.

More Content from Mel

Podcast 092: Here’s Why We Fall Out of Love

Podcast 073: Your Best Chance at a Successful Marriage

Book: The Possibility Principle

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Dear Mel,
i totally agree with you on the fact that some people may choose to stay in unhappy marriages because they would rather deal with that, than face the possibility of a new hope-separation/divorce-not to say that this is the way to go. But i feel sometimes, people need to be helped, like you rightfully put it, to face their fears and make the right choices. Its not Easy. But again we only live once, why put your happiness at stake.

Matthew Selznick

Dear Millie,
you have an enlightened point of view.. And yes, it’s not easy. But growth requires embracing our discomfort.

GayeLouise O'Brien

Better off turning the high energy of fear into transforming your life through positive changes while you are still married, otherwise you still have to do that when you leave a marriage if you want to have a good life!

Jordan M. Nacht

This particular post got me thinking about ‘comfort zones’ and the fact that while they might be labelled as such, a comfort zone is not necessarily a comfortable place to be, it is just “the norm.” In fact, sometimes it is just the opposite and the comfort zone is a place of pain… all because ‘pain’ has now become the norm.

And this is the case with most American households. Regardless of socioeconomic status, the truth is that most households are not places of peace, but rather tension and repressed truth. Because this has become the norm, however, it makes it somehow okay. You can compare yourself to your miserable, lonely neighbor and find solace in the fact that although you are only happy 2 out of 7 days per week, atleast you have someone. The question I ask that person, however, is whether they choose quantity over quality with every other aspect of their lives as well.

Thank you again Mel for more inspiring words, I really love your writing and your podcasts have also been enlightening.

Matthew Selznick

Hi Jordan. I quite agree about the comfort zone. It’s not comfortable, simply familiar. I now refer to it as the familiar zone.


Insightful as usual. My only comment is that it works well when both sides choose to face their fears. The unholy mess starts when one side moves and the other doesn’t. But then, it’s not easy.

If it’s worth having its worth working for.

Matthew Selznick

Hi Ed,
Both sides rarely move at the same time, so I can only be responsible for myself. If I can model the courage to look at my fears and not act out on them or hide from them, the model is provided for my partner as well. No guarantees, but at least the catalyzing of potential.

Mary Travis

I agree with you completely. I think for some folks marriage means stop trying and blame everything on your partner. Some relationships leave you so beaten up that a move seems impossible to contemplate. Sad..


I did leave a marriage of 28 years after ….waiting for the right time… in high school…Thanksgiving…..mid terms in college. I was I should say under fulfilled but not miserable….married much too young…always yearning and fell into a relationship with a controlling man 10 years older ,he too under fulfilled cheated numerous times and I felt it was time to move on To this day I cannot believe I did leave him and start over, I truly never miss him but struggle daily with separating my “family”. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t feel guilty for changing there lifes. So did I really change anything? Once again I am freed from the mundane /cheating relationship but I struggle so much with my loss of the family unit. I don’t know the answer.

Matthew Selznick

Hi Karen,
Perhaps what you changed in the lives of your children is that you had the courage not to live a false and degrading life. If you live toward the promise of your own fulfillment that would be quite a gift to those in your life.


Thank you Mel sometimes just a few words hit home and give me new perspective. I made my decision to move on and I will live by it, I just tend to only see the drawbacks of my decision and cannot always see the positive effects Thank you I enjoy your page so much!


Matthew Selznick

Hi Karen,
Might I assume that your thoughts in regard to yourself might tend toward the self-critical? It’s interesting how much our thoughts contribute to our lived experience.


Not sure what u mean? But I want to understand??!?!?

Matthew Selznick

Karen, I was referring to your stated tendency to see the negative, the loss and perhaps blame yourself? This is a product of your thoughts. You then read my post and your thoughts changed, you saw the benefit of your divorce and this resulted from the selection of a differing point of view. Nothing outside of you had actually changed, simply a shift of your mind.

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