11 Heartbreaking And Painful Stages Of A Dying Marriage

Are you feeling as though the foundation of your life is crumbling beneath your feet? 

Your marriage is gasping and in serious trouble, and you don’t know what to do.

I know it's hard, but you're not alone. 

More couples than you can imagine are in the throes of a dying marriage.

Their relationship has become a source of heartache rather than love and support. 

It's okay to feel overwhelmed and unsure of what to do next.

Who wouldn’t?

You’re likely experiencing a range of emotions, from sadness and grief to anger and resentment.

Maybe you have kids to consider or financial considerations on top of everything else.

But hang on because we’re here to help you understand the stages of a dying marriage and provide guidance and support as you navigate this difficult time.

 Remember, you deserve to be happy, and there is hope for a brighter future.

11 Stages Of A Dying Marriage

When your marriage is dying, it doesn’t just expire overnight.

It takes time for the phases of a marriage breakdown to occur.

Read through the stages below and decide where you and your spouse are in your relationship.

couple sitting together on sofa stages of a dying marriage

Then we’ll share some ideas on what you can do next.

1. You Begin to Disengage

The first stage of a dying marriage is disengagement. You and your partner may have grown apart over time, and you may find yourselves spending less time together. You may feel like you're living separate lives and no longer sharing experiences or interests. 

You may notice that conversations are superficial, and you may not feel heard or understood. This stage can be a sign that you and your partner have lost the emotional intimacy that is necessary for a healthy marriage.

2. You Criticize and Blame Each Other

Unkind words and finger-pointing start to creep in, and you may feel like your spouse is always finding fault with you. You may find yourself doing the same thing, which only adds to your tension and distance. You may feel like you can't do anything right and that your spouse is constantly disappointed in you.

Or you may be the one finding fault with your spouse because you are unhappy in the marriage or with yourself. Perhaps you hope your behavior will push your spouse away so you don’t have to make the decision to end the marriage.

3. You Grow More and More Defensive

As the criticism continues, you may start to feel defensive and begin to push back. You're constantly on edge and walking on eggshells, wondering when the next attack will come. You may start to feel like you have to defend yourself constantly, even over minor issues. This can be a sign that communication has broken down in your marriage.

Both of you have stopped listening to each other and now focus more on being right, winning an argument, and defending your turf. You’re pitted against each other rather than working as a team.

4. You Feel Contempt for Each Other

If the criticism and defensiveness continue, they can turn into contempt. Contempt is the feeling that your spouse is beneath you, and it can lead to mocking or belittling each other. You may feel like your partner is incompetent or stupid, and this can be a sign that the respect you once had for your partner has eroded.

If your spouse feels contempt for you, your self-esteem may start to erode, and you stop engaging with them to avoid snide remarks or eye rolls. Contempt in marriage is a real killer of intimacy and love.

5. You Stonewall Each Other

Stonewalling is when one partner shuts down and withdraws from the conversation or relationship altogether. They may refuse to engage, give one-word answers, or simply walk away from the conversation. Does this behavior sound familiar? 

It’s a sign that the emotional connection in your marriage has been lost and that one or both of you are feeling overwhelmed or ready to throw in the towel. When you no longer care enough to argue or ask to be heard, your marriage is on a downward spiral. 


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6. You Become More Emotionally Disconnected 

Emotional disconnection makes you feel like you're living with a stranger. You may not know what your spouse is feeling, and they may not know what you're feeling. You may feel alone, unimportant, and unloved. You and your partner have lost touch with each other emotionally.

You may be managing your daily affairs and household responsibilities, but you aren’t a loving couple. You’re more like uncomfortable roommates trying to hold it together for the kids or until you decide your next move.

7. There’s a Lack of Intimacy 

Intimacy in all its forms is the tender web that holds a marriage together. Without it, you might as well be friends – or unhappy acquaintances. Are you not physically or emotionally intimate with your spouse anymore? You may not feel comfortable expressing your desires or needs, and you may not feel like your spouse is interested in meeting them. 

couple sitting with therapist stages of a dying marriage

Once sex has diminished or disappeared altogether, it’s hard to feel emotionally close to your spouse. If you still want physical intimacy and your spouse doesn’t, resentment and frustration throttle up to a new level. 

8. Conflict Escalates into Major Fights

Escalation occurs when arguments or conflicts start to get out of control. You may find that small issues turn into major knock-down drag-outs, and you both struggle to control your emotions. Healthy communication has broken down completely, and you're both feeling defensive and overwhelmed.

You may lash out in ways neither of you could have imagined, possibly to goad the other into suggesting the “D” word. Once you cross that Rubicon, you know it’s all downhill from there, so you use increasing conflict to reveal your inner turmoil. 

9. Disaffection Creeps In 

Disaffection is the feeling that you're no longer invested in your marriage. You may no longer care what happens anymore, or you're resigned to the fact that your marriage is dying. You start to feel like your spouse is no longer important to you, and you're ready to move on.

Or your spouse may have reached this stage before you, and you see the writing on the wall. Your hopes for reconciliation fade away, and you begin to accept the inevitable. You just don’t have the energy to fight for the marriage any longer.

10. You Officially Separate

Separation occurs when you or your partner physically leave the marriage and one of you moves elsewhere. You may separate temporarily or permanently, but separation is a pretty solid sign that your marriage is over. Only 13% of couples who separate reunite and resume their marriages. 

Separation can give you and your partner time to reflect on the marriage and decide what you want for your future. It also turns down the heat and stress of living together unhappily. If you reach this stage, it will take a tremendous amount of effort and commitment to save your marriage.

11. You Divorce 

The final stage of a dying marriage is divorce. Divorce is a legal separation that formally ends the marriage. While it can be a difficult and painful process, it can also be an opportunity for both partners to move on and start a new chapter in their lives. 

While divorce is not always the outcome of a struggling marriage, it can be the best option for couples who have tried everything else to save their relationship. In cases where divorce is the only option, seeking support and guidance from family, friends, or a therapist is important to help you navigate the process with compassion and care.

What to Do If You’re in These Stages of Marriage Breakdown

If you're in a struggling, near-death marriage, knowing the steps to take to try to save it can be challenging. Depending on the stage you are in, you can address the issues and revive a marriage on its last leg. Here are seven things you can do if you see your marriage is dying:

Acknowledge the problem. 

The first step is to acknowledge that there is a problem in your marriage. It‘s painful to face the fact that your marriage is struggling, but ignoring the problem will not make it go away. Be honest with yourself and your partner about what's been going on and how you're feeling. This conversation will create a foundation of open and honest communication essential for working through the issues.

Seek professional help. 

Seeking professional help from a therapist or counselor can help you and your spouse communicate effectively and work through any issues in your marriage. A trained professional can provide guidance and support in navigating the complex emotions and dynamics that can arise in a struggling marriage. They can also offer practical tools and strategies to improve communication, rebuild trust, and strengthen your emotional connection and physical intimacy.

Take time for self-reflection.

Take the time to consider your own needs, desires, and values. Identify any areas of your life where you're feeling unfulfilled or disconnected. Understanding yourself better can also help you communicate more effectively with your partner, as you'll have a clearer understanding of your role in the issues between you.

Practice empathy.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. When your marriage is struggling, becoming defensive or critical of your spouse is far too easy. Practicing empathy can help you see the situation from their perspective, which can foster healthy communication and help you find common ground.

Prioritize self-care.

Taking care of yourself is essential when your marriage is struggling. Prioritize things like getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, individual therapy, and practicing mindfulness or meditation. Treating yourself well can help you manage stress, improve your mood, and give you the energy necessary to work on your marriage.

Be open to change.

Change can be scary, but it's often necessary when your marriage is on the skids. Be open to trying new things and making changes in your relationship. Try new activities together, spend more quality time together, or change how you communicate. Consider what you need to change personally to contribute to restoring your marriage and show commitment to working on those changes. It takes two for a marriage to break down.

Consider all options.

Finally, it's essential to consider all your options when your marriage is struggling. This includes options like counseling, separation, or divorce. Ultimately, the decision about how to move forward with your marriage is a personal one that you should make with clear-eyed thought and reflection. You may have other considerations like children and extended family or how divorce will impact you financially.

Final Thoughts

Recognizing that your marriage is dying can be a painful and scary realization. It's normal to feel overwhelmed and unsure of what to do next. While it's true that not all marriages can be saved, understand that there may be hope for your relationship if you are in the early stages we’ve outlined.

By seeking professional help, communicating openly and empathetically with your spouse, and prioritizing self-care, you can make the best decisions about moving forward – with or without your spouse. With time, patience, and a willingness to heal, you can create a future filled with love, happiness, and fulfillment.