Unhappy Marriage: How To Decide Whether To Stay Or Go

You roll over in bed in the morning and look at the person lying next to you.

Is this the person you thought you married? Do you feel anything close to the connection and intimacy you felt when you were first together?

Perhaps now all you feel is angry or irritated. Maybe you’re hurt, bored, or unfulfilled. Worse yet, maybe you feel nothing at all.

One thing you do know for sure is that you aren’t happy. Your marriage isn’t what you want it to be, and it’s infecting your entire life. How can you be happy when this central piece of your life is on the skids?

You don’t want to live like this any longer — constantly bickering, feeling resentful, or just completely detached and emotionally drained. The rubber has met the road, and you know it’s time to do something. But the big question is — what do you do?

Do you stay or do you go? Is there enough to salvage the relationship, or is it clear beyond a doubt that this marriage is over? Most of the time, it’s not completely black or white. There are a myriad of important considerations, both practical and emotional, that you must take stock of.

If you are in an unhappy marriage and don’t know whether to stay or go, here are 7 questions to consider:

1. Goal-oriented or fear-based?

Whether you are more inclined to stay in the marriage or leave it, the reason behind your decision is key to whether or not you’re making a sound decision.

If you decide to stay in the marriage because you’re afraid (of losing part of your income, not being able to find another partner, making other people angry), then your marriage is certainly weak anyway, and the decision is avoidance-based.

The same is true for leaving the marriage because of fear. If you leave because you’re afraid or uncomfortable working on your marriage and facing the problems, then your decision isn’t helping you move forward, but rather it’s motivated by weakness and fear.

However, when you make a decision based on a positive goal, you’re making an empowered decision. Action-oriented people who have a specific goal in mind are much more likely to envision the positive opportunities and benefits of their decision — whether it’s to stay or go.

For example, the spouse who decides to leave the marriage because they desire to be in an intimate, healthy relationship is not acting out of fear. They want something better for their lives. The spouse who chooses to stay in the marriage because they they are inspired to be a better partner, for example, is making a pro-active, healthy choice.

Fear-based people react and seek to avoid pain and discomfort at all costs. Goal-oriented people are more willing to take risks and go for what they want.

2. Uncoupled and disconnected?

A healthy marriage involves spending time with one another and truly enjoying the other’s company. In addition to being your romantic partner, your spouse is your friend and confidante.

When a marriage is in trouble, one of the first things to go is this intimate connection. Over time you become disengaged, spending more time alone, at work, with the kids, or with other friends than you do with your spouse.

The two of you become more like roommates and co-parents rather than a married couple. This disconnection is the beginning of “uncoupling.” The emotional bonds and intimacy that once glued you together are coming apart. This is a sure sign in the marriage that one or both of you has already disengaged from the marriage.

3. Who’s not trying?

Often in a troubled marriage, one partner will bring up issues, ask for help, and suggest counseling, but the other partner refuses (either overtly or passively) to go along. If you are the one refusing, be aware you’re sending a loud and clear message to your spouse that you’re not interested in the health of the marriage or in their needs. Eventually they will give up — and maybe this is your goal.

If your spouse isn’t trying, then you’re on the receiving end of this message. If you’ve spelled it out clearly that the marriage needs help, but you’re getting nowhere, then it may be time to call it quits. Before you do, get some counseling on your own to ensure you’ve given it your best shot, if for no other reason than to get validation from a professional.

4. What’s fixable, what’s not?

There are some problems in a marriage that can be healed in spite of being painful and difficult. Poor communication skills, financial disagreements, sexual problems, and even adultery can be overcome if both partners are willing to do the work and commit to the future of the relationship.

However, any form of physical or emotional abuse, chronic cheating, illegality, and addictions are very difficult to change and usually spell the end of the marriage. Detachment and emotional shutdown, complete lack of sexual intimacy, differing opinions about having children, and incompatibility can spell the demise of your marriage as well.

An experienced, honest marriage counselor can help you discern whether or not the problems in your marriage are insurmountable. Having the courage and wisdom to admit what can’t be changed is an important step in making this life-altering decision.

5. Are there still feelings?

When marriage problems consume the couple, intimacy and closeness fall by the wayside. Conflict, power struggles, and resentments overwhelm the feelings of love and connection you once had.

But as I mentioned, many of these problems can be addressed and healed if both partners are willing to work on the marriage. The bigger question is whether or not the feelings of love are still there underneath all of the conflict.

If you ask yourself this question honestly, and the answer is “yes” or “I’m not sure,” then you should work on your relationship before deciding to divorce. Otherwise your feelings of loss can be overwhelming, and you may find yourself more unhappy after the divorce than you are now.

6. Internal conflict?

Nearly everyone considering ending their marriage has some level of internal conflict about the decision. You don’t enter a marriage expecting it will end. It is normal to be consumed with doubt, fear, guilt, and many other emotions that may not be directly tied to the marriage itself.

Says licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Bruce Derman, “Recognizing the conflict and owning that different parts of you will be struggling with the impact of divorce, at different times, is part of the process of getting ready for divorce.”

Consider working with a counselor on your own to sort through your emotions and determine whether they are goal-oriented or fear-based. Remember, your decision shouldn’t be motivated by fear, guilt, shame, or anger. It should be a clear-headed choice based on what’s truly best for you and your children (if you have them).

7. Can you deal with the consequences?

There is fallout in every divorce situation. Your children, family, friends, and work associates all will be impacted in some small or large way by your decision to divorce.

You need to anticipate the pain your divorce will inevitably cause others and be prepared to emotionally handle it. Divorce can mean changes in friendships and the loss of extended family (in-laws for example). If you are the one initiating the divorce, you may face their anger and blame.

Divorce also can cause financial strain, a change in your lifestyle and family traditions, and continued conflict with your ex-spouse.

Most importantly, ask yourself if you are able to handle the feelings of loss, grief, and insecurity that will be part of the healing process. Can you move on in a positive way to build a new life for yourself? Can you behave maturely without bitterness, revenge, or helplessness?

Facing the fallout and coping with all of the various emotions can be overwhelming, even when you are completely clear that divorce is the best option. Talk with a divorce coach or counselor to discuss the potential fallout, and create a strategy for yourself and your family in order to minimize the confusion and pain.

As you consider whether or not to end your marriage, go through these 7 questions thoughtfully and honestly. Educate yourself on what to expect during and after divorce, and balance your desired goals against the potential fallout.

The decision won’t be easy, but whether you decide to go or stay, you have the power to create a new life or a better marriage once you are prepared with information and self-awareness.

5 thoughts on “Unhappy Marriage: How To Decide Whether To Stay Or Go”

  1. What a tough subject to cover. I applaud you for doing so. And I think you did an excellent job with it. Great advice. I really felt like you were able to articulate things beautifully.

    Thanks for sharing.


  2. Deciding whether to stay or go is such a difficult decision. I’m a therapist and one of the themes I hear repeatedly is disappointment that what was there initially isn’t there anymore. Well no kidding. Romantic passionate illusionary love is not sustainable. A deeper, companionate love is but it requires commitment and work. Like a garden, you can’t just plant something and then ignore it. However, some people clearly chose poorly to begin with (I’m one of those) and no amount of tending to the “garden” is going to bring a bounty. If you figure that out, it’s time to go.

  3. Thank you for tackling this issue. As someone who spent 15 years longer than I should have in a very unworkable marriage, I can attest that, if you’re a caring, thoughtful person, it is very, very difficult to leave because you get trapped in relationship ambivalence. You keep thinking, “If we just try one more thing, if we just go to one more counselor, etc.” we can turn this situation around. What helped me most was a book called, “Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay.” The book asks 36 questions designed to get to the heart of relationship and marriage problems and offers statistics of whether or not different leaving or staying scenarios are workable and lead to future happiness.

  4. I think a real problem these days is unrealistic expectations. The media sell us this ideal of everlasting romantic love, which simply doesn’t happen without sustained effort. After a few years, the reality sets in, and at that point couples have to decide whether the person they married, faults and all, is ‘good enough,’ or whether they need to find someone new (who perhaps has different qualities to that which they sought in previous partners).

  5. Very insightful article. In the middle of a Spouse initiated separation. No children together, thankfully. Been together 15 years. Big age difference. What can I say, stuff happens. Third marriage for me, second for her. She is clearly conflicted and never seems to find time to proceed with the process even though I have drafted a settlement and separation agreement. She is busy and we are living in different states, but it would be beneficial from a tax stand point, but she still hesitates. She says I’m still her best friend. Tough situation. Guess I need to push it some. Wish us luck.


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