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.

32 replies
  1. Millie says:

    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.

  2. Jordan M. Nacht says:

    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.

  3. Ed says:

    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.

    • Mel Schwartz says:

      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.

  4. Mary Travis says:

    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..

  5. Karen says:

    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.

    • Mel Schwartz says:

      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.

      • Karen says:

        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!


        • Mel Schwartz says:

          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.

          • Mel Schwartz says:

            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.

  6. nwl says:

    I need to ask…Is there a point in a marriage, an age, a value that says “it is not all about me” and is the risk to the other people in the family really worth it ? N

  7. Kathe Skinner says:

    “Suppositions” about relationship include those deadly “expectations” about relationship. Think about the last time you jumped up and down about how your relationship exceeded expectations. Now, think of how often expectations are low or non-existent. Which is worse? It’s within Prince(ss) Charming’s realm that all expectations are equally bad. Because expectations rarely reflect reality, once partners hit the reality part, bad things can happen. That’s especially pertinent if kids are involved. Today’s kids want to avoid the reality-of-relationship-as-they-observe-it just as much as I did. Just like me, they don’t have healthy modeling to show them how. Children are too cognitively immature to understand when divorced parents enter a period (or periods) of new relationship bliss only to repeat the same old same old behavior as before. So the caveat I would add is that divorced parents be required to sort out their ineffectiveness at relationship while continuing to parent. Kids see that parents continue to learn, change and grow; that unhealthiness doesn’t have to last forever. That’s valuable modeling on its own. It may be true that it takes 5 generations to really see change in a family system, but continuing the pattern of relationship disaster only leaves unhappiness as its legacy.

    • Mel Schwartz says:

      Great points about parenting Kathe. I believe that expectations in regard to relationships shouldn’t always be reduced to our own childhood experiences though. Many times there is a compensation in which people see the damage done and sign on to not settling for less for themselves.

  8. Shannon Batts, MS, LMFT, LPC says:

    Thank you Mel, once again launching an interesting discussion with your blog post. That is a worthy challenge to face one’s mediocre or unfulfilled relationship needs. Working with yet another couple dealing with infidelity recently delivered to me a greater respect for folks who stay stuck for good reasons. I just got accepted on Bill Doherty’s Marriage Friendly Therapists list and I think I may be a little more to another side of your continuum-on the side that does not praise the fulfillment awaiting the divorced-but works very hard at bringing that possibility to the couple-gay, lesbian or straight who sit with me and pay me for it too.

    Marital therapies already pan out in the research as being a pathway to divorce until the Gottman team research hit the scene and started transforming our views, our approaches and our outcomes. I know I changed on the spot-both in my practice and in my marriage as soon as I heard Gottman’s keynote at Evolution of Psychotherapy in 2000-it was revolutionary. A close colleague next to me found it confusing, did not see the point, and asked me to explain. She was doing a few of the poisons herself with her husband and the new information was too threatening. So fear is how you are describing it. I think I will call it threat-a survival threat gets triggered.
    I will expand on this moment in my own blog so as not to get off topic here-but my point is-the folks in suffering marriages already have enough help toward divorce especially from therapists who are not keeping up with the research and what to do with it.
    When my recent infidelity struggling couple announced that they were going to stay together and not move forward in the ways they acknowledged would help them-that more pain was anticipated but for them it was as good as it gets and damn good for all considering….I deferred. I imagined being in their shoes and trying to see how staying together is wise for them. And I recall that the cheating partner said that he is changing but very slowly-perhaps too slowly for his mate. It is new for me to not presume with an opinion that they would be better off divorced-and I think it feels really positive for me.
    Transformation can come in many ways at many rates and I ask myself questions like, “What did I not think of yet that is hope for change for them for something better within their marriage on their terms not mine? Did I bring inspiration to the work? Can I let them hover at the place they remain without judging them as needing to be free of it?”

    • Mel Schwartz says:

      Hi Shannon and thanks for your insightful commentary.I value your closing comments in particular and certainly the issue around therapists’ opinions. Transformation of course isn’t likely to occur with direction from another. Yet, my belief and experience is that fear impedes transformation. Perhaps my post didn’t quite communicate with enough clarity that I am not seeking nor suggesting either divorce or the continuation of the marriage. What I am promoting is a commitment to authentic process, disencumbered by the silence that the fear of divorce often stirs.

  9. Sunila Dingankar says:

    Interesting discussion. Yes it is fear that pulls us back in most of the aspects of our lives including non-workable marriage. But considering the indian scenario i would say ( it is not only leaving your comfort/familiar zone) fear of social disgrace where divorce is still considered a social stigma is also a contributing factor of not walking out of marriage. Also the conditioning that takes place early with the girl child does not allow her to take a so called bold step. There are very few couples who would seek professional help for such reasons and few dont even acknowledge that there is some problem in their relation. Yesterday itself a child was referred to me for psychological assessment and when i was talking to the parents i realized that they differ in many aspects and when i asked them how do they voice their difference or how do they settle down their differences, the wife immediately said that we fight a lot over trivial things and all in front of the child, but the husband dismissed it saying its routine and lets not waste time on all these lets focus on the child’s problem. So even if we do have to adress the problem we have to do it delicately and subtely. Since there is so much resistance. They do not realize the effects of their constant fights on the child. Early childhood experiences are so much important. And healthy and loving relations among the parents can do wonders to child’s development.

  10. Betsy says:

    My observation is that untold numbers of marriages fall apart not because they are fundamentally unworkable or unhappy, but because our expectations are so high.

    What is that wonderful saying? “Expectation is planned disappointment.”

    Neither marriage nor divorce are necessarily paths to contentment or happiness. What the world needs more of, are compassionate lessons in HOW to be married.

    I believe too many people give up too soon because they lack the know-how, not because they or the partner or the relationship is flawed. And that’s truly a shame.

    • Mel Schwartz says:

      Hi Betsy.
      I’d offer that our expectations may not be too high, but unrealistic in that we’re not prepared to do the work to achieve them. A student hoping to get an A is a great expectation, but of course there is the work to be done. So it’s not so much a matter of expectation as it is about engaging the process with committment.

  11. Nora Gluck says:

    Mel, this is a a very good article, though perhaps confusing to some. I believe the best answers involve fearless exploration of one’s truth, including “I want to wait until the children leave home,” I don’t want to be alone and accept that this is better for me than being alone,” “my religious commitments are very important to me,” “I don’t have enough money to do this now” et cetera. People need time to grow and overcome fears, so that nothing is set in stone. One needs to be in the present, accept oneself while at the same time working towards growth, change and even transformation. As I teach my yoga students, we are moving toward present-moment awareness and self-acceptance as we let go of regrets about the past and fears about the future. It is from the place of non-judmental awareness and self-acceptance that we develop the “witness consciousness” (observing ego in Western psychology) and by learning to love and accept ourselves begin to evolve. Leaving a marriage is rarely easy, nor is it easy to change and transform a relationship. There is no easy way out of these dilemmas.

    I recently completed an externship in emotionally focused couples therapy (EFT) with Sue Johnson and learned yet another, and perhaps faster, way of helping couples
    learn to get over their fears and hurts and speak to each other from the heart. EFT honors and validates attachment needs for both men and women. Her book “Hold Me Tight” is an excellent one for ourselves and our clients.

  12. Deborah says:

    As I read this and all the other comments I think over and over I have wasted my youth. Stayed out of fear, out of imprisonment, for the kids. Here we are 30 plus years and I am getting old and my best years are behind me. I gave of myself till there is no me left. Kids all grown and have their families now. I work tons now, because my spouse will not change or work on this. Just will not work at all. Love them but the respect is gone, the trust is gone. And out of worry and fear for what will happen to them if I leave. Here I am still here walking through life. Depression and thoughts and dream of what it could be runs through my mind. I am a need not a want, not a love not a passion. So then what? Much like being in the valley that is so deep that you cant see the light. And just about the time you are climbing out there is something that kicks you back. So you learn to stay there in that darkness. Not a breeze, hard to breathe.
    So we go at it again and again. because that is all you know. Now here we are over 50,
    danced this dance for a long time not sure if I can dance to another song. Alone!

    • Mel Schwartz says:

      Hi Deborah,
      Your words and story are so moving and poignant. You see your choice and your ensuing sorrow so clearly. Yet, what is the fear that keeps you trapped? sometimes we are afraid to become responsible for our own happiness and stay in the stuck place. Do you feel you truly deserve happiness? Is there a fear of being alone?

      • Deborah says:

        I dont think I am afraid of being alone, I was at one point. Then I asked someone what will happen to me if I get sick? Well what will happen to me if I get sick now? The same! I am working on my mind set. I dont feel I should be happy. what is that ? I was asked what was my favorite food, movie place to go too. I did not know that answer. If I like something for years it was made fun of. And I have always watched and ate what he likes. I know I can make it on my own. I am doing it now just have this dead weight with me that cost alot. My eye opener was when my son was on drugs and the therp. told me I was an enabler. IN shock about that and then learned what that was and what that meant. I saw I was one in alot of ways with my kids and friends and spouse. When I made some changes in how I handle them and all. I lost friends and my spouse was not happy with me. you tell me! I want to go away for 3 days and someone move me out and all and I come back to all of it is over. No drama! No fear of what will he do ? will i get talked back into not leaving and find another year or 2 gone and I am still here and nothing has changed. Why do we do what we do.
        and put up with it. I know for years as a christian i was told I did not have the right to leave and it was Gods will for me to stay. I dont believe that any more. I am working on getting the money up for move. Wish there was help out there for women in this place. Just to get over the hill. Still pushing forward

  13. Deborah says:

    I love reading your site. Thank God for 2012 maybe this year will be great.
    NO! I guess I did not handle my leaving the right way, most of my kids are in their 30’s
    the youngest is 22. And for me to want this,I must have another man on the side or on drugs. This is coming from my son’s. I cant win! Nothing I do is right, the way I handle it is wrong. I give up.
    What is the point, be unhappy in a marriage or leave and be unhappy because my kids will make sure I am just that. So I am to stay and feel unloved, used, disrespected.
    Just work pay the bills and get some joy if any when someone else wants me to have it?
    That is everyones dream! Start over every few years moving from place to place if I cant afford it. My husband is not going to work, so I let him control all the money and everything, my job is to work bring it home and then when off work, work at home.
    Watch what he likes on Tv, eat what he likes. Think like he thinks. And the rest of the family is good because dad is happy. And mom get lost in the middle somewhere. Just dont rock the boat. Dont make anyone mad, dont get sick, dont have a need. Oh God dont need anything. That is life wow i was so blind, did not know how great I had it.
    RIGHT???? Hopeless

    • Mel Schwartz says:

      Deborah, sometimes we need to let go of our children’s approval. They may be acting out of their own need to maintaining control and familiarity. To be the best mother you can be you must be the best woman you can be. What is it you want to model for your children?


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