Feel stuck in a bad marriage? Can’t decide to divorce? Here are the most common reasons.

Stuck in an unhappy marriage

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Have you been thinking about divorce for a very long time? Are you caught in a painful loop of indecision. “Should I leave? I don’t know if I can (or should) do it.“

Why is it so hard to leave your marriage when you have been unhappy for years? You have fantasies about breaking up. You imagine a happier life, and then you think about the things that worry you most. You feel more and more stuck.

There are several reasons that you, like many unhappily married people, may struggle with this decision.

  1. Fear. This is the biggest one. You are afraid of…
      • Making a mistake: “What if I regret this later?”
      • Damaging the children: “I worry it will ruin my kids’ lives.”
      • Being alone forever: “No one will ever want me now.”
      • The economic costs: “Divorces are expensive, and I don’t want to end up in a dingy basement apartment, or worse yet, a bag lady.”
      • Hurting your spouse: “She is a good woman, but we just can’t get along.”
      • Change: “I like my life the way it is, just not with him in it.”
      • The losses that may come with divorce: “My family and friends will not support my decision, and I’ll have to give up my relationship with my in-laws.”
      • Being blamed: “If I am the one to make the decision, everyone will blame me for the divorce. And they’ll see her as a victim.” “What if my kids blame me? Or take sides with him?”
  2. Guilt. This is the next most common reason, in my experience. You feel guilty because…
      • Maybe you didn’t try hard enough. “He begged me to go to counseling with him but I thought it wouldn’t help to pay someone to listen to our problems.”
      • You are not keeping your marriage vows. “I meant it when I said, “Till death do us part,” but now I just can’t do it anymore. I am letting myself down, not just her.”
      • You had an affair or an addiction. “I was weak. I just wanted some fun. I couldn’t stop myself.”
      • You regret your hurtful actions. “I know I said and did a lot of things that I shouldn’t have done. I guess I didn’t know how destructive it was.”
      • You realize you haven’t been a very good partner. “I didn’t pay enough attention to him after the baby was born. I thought he was being selfish and jealous of the baby. I was too tired to have sex or even go on a date night.”
  3. You can’t afford to divorce.
      • The cost of the divorce itself varies, depending on how complex the issues are, and how much conflict you have. Arguing is expensive, and an amicable divorce costs much less.
      • If you are having a hard time making ends meet now, it will be harder when two homes need to be supported. “There is no way we can support two homes, we have to stay together because we have no other choice.”
      • If you have not worked during the marriage, you may need to return to work to contribute to the support of the family. This is especially hard for full-time, stay-at-home parents. “We agreed when we got married that I could stop working and stay home to raise the kids. Why does that have to change?”
  4. Your religion or culture does not support divorce.
      • In some religions, women need the permission of the husband to divorce. “My husband will never grant me the divorce, and my community will shun me.”
      • Some religions strictly forbid divorce. “I believe that divorce is a sin.”
      • In some cultures, the man assumes custody of the children. “I am afraid he will take the children back to his country, and I will never see them again.”
      • Some cultures (especially collectivist cultures) make it difficult to divorce or lay blame on one of the spouses. This could be an issue of family honor. “My parents told me that it is my job to keep my marriage together, no matter how mean he is to me.”
  5. You hope things will get better. You hope…
      • If you are just a better person, things will change. “I am in therapy, I go to a self-help group, and I read everything I can find to make me a better wife.”
      • Your spouse will change, get sober, or become a more successful provider, or a more involved parent. “I just trust that he could get sober if he would just go to AA.” “I am trying to motivate him to work harder for promotions so we can pay off our debts.” “She doesn’t seem to care about rules and discipline, so our house is in a permanent state of chaos. But I try to compensate for that by being more strict.”
      • The problems will just go away: “I’m not totally miserable, I can just ignore the issues and have a good time with the other parts of my life.”
      • Your deal with the devil will work: “If you don’t ask me about my drinking, I won’t ask you about the weight you have gained.”
      • Once the kids are grown you and your spouse will be able to fix your relationship. “We can just wait to deal with our problems. We can just focus on the kids, and later we will focus on us.”
      • Despite all your fruitless efforts and marital therapy, things will change. “I think we are both trying hard to get along, and even though it has been years, maybe we have made a little progress?” “Everyone tells me it will get better.”
  6. You feel a sense of obligation to your spouse and/or your family.
      • You took your marital vows seriously and promised never to divorce, no matter what.
      • Your spouse is dependent on you emotionally or physically. “I can’t leave her when she is so depressed.” ”I can’t abandon him with all his chronic health issues.”
      • You don’t want to disappoint or let your extended family down. “My family will never speak to me again if I divorce. They all love him.”
  7. It’s not all that bad.
      • You are comfortable with the familiar, even if it is problematic. “Yes, he gets enraged, but he always calms down eventually.” “It is okay most of the time, and only awful some of the time.” “I guess I am just used to the way things are.”
      • You tell yourself you can look elsewhere to get your needs met. “As long as I can see my friends and flirt a bit with other people, I can deal with the problems at home.”
      • You don’t want to “upset the apple cart.” “Even though we argue, I have been learning to just withdraw and not engage with her when she is angry.” “We seem okay just as friends, with no romance, but I guess it is enough for me.”

Do any of these sound familiar to you? I have written previously about finding the clarity to decide to divorce.

Many people who choose to stay in unhappy marriages have good reasons. This is a decision arrived at thoughtfully. It is possible to make a clear decision to stay or to divorce. If you feel stuck, remind yourself that you always have a choice. If you choose to stay, try to do whatever you can to make things better or try to accept that this is the marriage you have chosen.

If you do choose to leave your relationship, be sure that you have made a well-thought-through decision. And then consider nesting as a way to support your children, and an alternative dispute resolution process such as mediation or Collaborative Divorce to have the healthiest divorce you can.

© 2020 Ann Buscho, Ph.D.

A version of this article was previously published at www.psychologytoday.com.