A couple sits across from each other wondering, can this marriage be saved? Representing divorce ambivalence.

“Can My Marriage be Saved?” Are You Unhappily Married and Wondering What to Do?

Takeaways: Every marriage goes through some rough patches, and if you’re in one right now, you might be asking, “can my marriage be saved?” Every couple occasionally entertains some doubts about their relationship. But sometimes, when the rough patches and doubts become chronic, it can leave you wondering if your marriage is truly salvageable. If you are experiencing divorce ambivalence, then read on, because in this article I outline everything you need to know to answer the question, “can my marriage be saved?”

There is Hope Your Marriage Can Be Saved

As a couples counselor and discernment counselor, I’ve worked with couples from all over the world, and I can tell you that — no matter where you are or what you’re going through — there is hope. I can also tell you that some relationships just aren’t meant to be and that there are some easy ways to tell if yours is one of them. But to do that, I need to tell you the story of a woman who contacted me from New Zealand. I’ll call her, “Jane.”

Jane told me that she was stuck in an “ambivalent” marriage. Jane said that her marriage still provided some benefits to her and her husband, but that it also had some downsides and that she wasn’t sure if their relationship could be saved, “should we breakup or stay together?”

Jane asked me questions like, “How do you know if there is hope? When is a relationship salvageable, and when has too much damage been done? How do you know if you’re in a dying marriage, or if you can be happy together again?”

Tough questions, and ones that more and more couples are struggling with. There is a slew of new research on the rise of “mixed bag” relationships and the emotional and physical consequences they take, including this new article from the New York Times: The Ambivalent Marriage Takes a Toll On Health.

Marriage Is a Journey, Not a Destination

What makes “ambivalent marriages” so confusing is that relationships are constantly evolving. There is no “final destination” unless a couple divorces or someone dies. What might be true in one season of life doesn’t stay true forever. 

It changes.

In fact, couples usually experience an ebb and flow to their intimacy over the decades: coming together, then pulling apart, then rediscovering each other, then being preoccupied with other things, and then delighting in the new person their partner has grown into while they weren’t paying attention.

During the hard times that all marriages weather, people can feel extremely ambivalent about their relationship, and wonder whether it will ever get better. But the space you’re in right now can always change. That hope for change can keep people hanging on for a long time.

 “Where there is life, there is hope.”


How to Know if Your Marriage Can Be Saved

So, what should you do if you find yourself wondering, “Can my marriage be saved?” 

Let’s go back to Jane’s and her question. In this little case study, we’ll plunge into the multifaceted, messy, ever-evolving reality of relationships and the confusing paradoxes of attachment. As we do, I encourage you to think about your own situation and the current opportunities (and challenges) in your marriage.

Here’s what Jane asked me:

“What usually happens in a marriage when there are both reasons to divorce AND reasons to stay? How do people resolve their ambivalence about their marriage and decide whether to end a relationship or work on it?”

Here’s the situation…

A husband in his forties is not happy about his marriage, because:

  1. They are “always” arguing
  2. He is jealous of his wife
  3. The love & passion is long absent from the relationship
  4. They are just not happy like this
  5. They have different priorities, can’t agree on anything
  6. She spends too much time in work therefore she is never at home
  7. They have different opinions on religion, politics
  8. No one wants to resolve the conflicts, they just build up

However, there are also some reasons for saving the marriage:

  1. They have two adult children
  2. She takes care of the food, laundry & cleaning
  3. They are co-owners of a family business
  4. They have common assets (bank accounts, property) that would be difficult to divide
  5. The high cost of divorce
  6. The social impact on family, friends & church
  7. They might lose some common friends
  8. They have a nice history together, many good memories
  9. They have known each other forever
  10.   Maybe they still like each other, deep down
  11. It’s hard to imagine what life will be like after splitting up (afraid of change)

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Divorce Ambivalence Is Normal

Here’s my response to Jane, about my perspective on the possible strengths and challenges of this marriage.

Jane, this sounds like a very difficult situation that is causing a great deal of pain and unhappiness for both of the partners. I know that this kind of situation doesn’t just explode into being overnight — it takes many years of hurt feelings, negative experiences, and resentment to get to this point.

This is a great example of what can happen when a couple waits too long to get good marriage counseling. Sometimes the wounds and hurts pile up to the point where an attachment breaks beyond repair.

However, I’d caution you against using a “pros and cons” list to attempt to figure out what the most likely outcome will (or should) be.

Love is a mysterious and powerful thing, and what you’ve shared with me speaks to the possibility that there may be a profound attachment remaining between these two people. If they had the opportunity to explore that attachment with each other in a safe place, all kinds of amazing things may still be possible for this couple. The warmth of empathy, compassion, and responsiveness can bring love back to life — particularly if it’s been disguised as hurt and anger.

It’s normal to feel ambivalent about getting divorced or staying married. Most long-term couples have these thoughts at some point in their relationships, especially when they’ve been struggling with relationship issues that they don’t know how to solve. By turning toward each other and finding your opportunities for growth, you can turn this relationship crisis into a positive new chapter.

Two Signs Your Marriage Can Be Saved:

#1 You are still fighting. 

I know it sounds odd, but arguments can be a positive thing for a relationship. When people fight, it means that they are feeling hurt and trying to get the other person to understand them. This means that they still care enough about each other to express their hurt. Their (angry) attempts to communicate mean that they still want the other person to understand them.

People who are really, really done with a relationship simply disengage all together. They don’t get hurt, angry or offended. They don’t care enough about their partner one way or another to be hurt or perturbed by anything they say or do. They stopped expecting anything better a long time ago.

#2 You long for a connection with your partner.

What I hear is that this couple still longs for connection, but each perceives the other as unavailable and emotionally unsafe.

There is an enormous opportunity for healing and growth here. Even in the most tormented marriage, people can still open up to each other and hear how much pain they are feeling about their disconnection, loneliness, and longing for closeness and companionship.

The fact that the husband is suspicious of his wife (and resents the time she spends away) tells me that he really wants to feel loved by her, and misses her attention. I wonder what could happen if he could share that longing with her in a vulnerable way

In a badly damaged marriage, people require a competent marriage counselor to be able to create and maintain the emotional safety necessary to do this productively. But amazing things happen when it does.

Having been the marriage counselor who creates safety for couples to have those kinds of new conversations, I’ve had the honor and privilege of witnessing the magic that can happen when people realize that they’ve BOTH been hurting and wanting the same thing: Connection, emotional security, and love.

It’s like they discover each other all over again. I’ve had sessions where all three of us were moved to tears by the beauty of two hurting people realizing they both need the same thing.

If I’ve learned anything as a marriage counselor, it’s this: Love is powerful, it can overcome enormous obstacles, and that you have no idea what’s possible, until you try.

2 Challenges of THIS Marriage

#1 Showing Emotional Detachment

However, this marriage also faces some obstacles that both partners will have to overcome if they want to truly grow to love each other once again. In my opinion, the most troubling thing about this situation — and one that may signify that the marriage cannot be repaired — is that the “positives” are largely centered upon conveniences and efforts to protect themselves from other kinds of losses. (Financial losses, losing friends, risking the business, losing the security of the “housekeeper / provider” arrangement).

Only at the very end does this vignette allude to the possibility that there may be some remnant of affection, or attachment that would be lost if they split.

When people don’t really care that much about the other person’s presence in their lives, but are instead focused on maintaining the lifestyle or conveniences that marriage affords, it implies that emotional detachment has already occurred. The partners are focused more on themselves rather than each other.

#2 Being Overly Self-Focused

They still want each other, they just don’t have any idea how to find each other again.

People who are very self-focused sometimes have difficulty repairing a relationship, which requires empathy and appreciation for the needs, rights, and feelings of their partner. To properly repair a relationship, you need to cultivate emotional safety for your partner and show them you love them. You can’t do that if you’re only focused on yourself.

However, the fact that this couple has had positive experiences with each other in the past, still rely on each other for companionship, “might still like each other” and “can’t imagine life without the other” signifies that there may still be a powerful attachment bond between them.

The presence of an attachment bond would explain why they still care enough to feel hurt, or worry that the other is being unfaithful, or feel annoyed that the other spends too much time at work. This tips their hand — revealing that they both still long for each other’s love.

They still want each other, they just don’t have any idea how to find each other again.

Very Few People Really Want to Get Divorced

In my experience, most couples don’t want to get divorced. They are just unhappy with their current relationship, and don’t know how to fix it. Even with couples who do divorce, I’d say that 90% of them don’t really want to end the marriage. They don’t want it to be over, they want it to be better …but they have no idea how to fix it. So divorce seems like the only solution to an unsustainable situation.

What marriage counselors understand is that just because you don’t know how to fix it, doesn’t mean that it can’t be fixed. 

If there is still an attachment, if people are willing to be vulnerable with each other, and if there is a willingness to show the other person that you do still care about them, then there is still hope. But many couples need help to see past the hurt, anger, and blame, and reach for love instead.

The bottom line: I don’t know what is possible for this couple. But, at the moment, neither do they.

What I do know is that this couple needs a good marriage counselor who can help them talk about their pain, and create a new understanding between them. If they can connect with the part of themselves that still wants to love and be loved by this person, they may be able to achieve a whole new chapter of connection, affection, and intimacy. 

Sometimes, a deep, meaningful relationship can only be EARNED by walking through the dark woods of disconnection… and finding each other on the other side.

I know that this probably sounds like an infomercial for marriage counseling, but think of it instead as someone who cares about you, letting you know that there is always hope, that change is always possible, and there are people who can help you.

If you do want to take a chance on marriage counseling, make sure you find the right person. Here’s a tutorial that can help you find the right marriage counselor for you:  How to find a [good] marriage counselor. And if you’d like to do this work with a counselor at Growing Self, I invite you to schedule a free consultation.

Thank you for your question, and I wish you both the very best…

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

If you’re reading this and would like to learn more, check out this podcast episode: How to Stop a Divorce.


  1. A Longitudinal Study of Marital Problems and Subsequent Divorce. Paul R. Amato and Stacy J. Rogers. Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 59, No. 3 (Aug., 1997), pp. 612-624 (13 pages). Published By: National Council on Family Relations. https://doi.org/10.2307/353949
  2. Yoosefi, N., Etemadi, O., Bahrami, F., Fatehizade, M. A. S., & Ahmadi, S. A. (2010). An Investigation on Early Maladaptive Schema in Marital Relationship as Predictors of Divorce. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage51(5), 269–292. https://doi.org/10.1080/10502551003651951

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  1. I am having such a hard time. I have such ambivalence about divorcing my husband of 43 years, even though I was the one who filed. I’ve even moved out and bought my own place.
    Now he is showing me that he has changed, that he is working on himself, wants to reconcile, and is asking me to dismiss the divorce process. What do I do? I had thought that I made up my mind and was ready to divorce after years of emotional disconnection and his multiple betrayals. Do I give him another chance?

    1. What a difficult situation you’re in, Doris. After 43 years of marriage, it makes sense that you would be struggling with ambivalence. I can’t say whether giving him another chance would be the right choice for you, but I can say that self-doubt is totally normal when you’re faced with the agonizing decision to leave a marriage. I’m not sure what you’ve tried already, but have you met with a marriage and family therapist who practices discernment counseling? That’s the only kind of professional who can can help you gain clarity about how much growth and positive change is possible for your relationship at this point.
      If you’d like recommendations, reach out: https://www.growingself.com/schedule-free-consultation/
      Wishing you the very best xoxo Dr. Lisa

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