Are You Unhappily Married, and Wondering What to Do?
I have people get in touch with me with all kinds of relationship questions. “Jane” from New Zealand recently contacted me with a really common dilemma: How to proceed in an “ambivalent” marriage — one where there are both positive and also very difficult aspects? 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 it’s time to get divorced, or if you can be happy together again?
Tough questions, and ones that many people wrestle with. There is a slew of new research out as to the prevalence 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 put forever. It changes.
In fact, couples do a dance of intimacy over 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.
[tweetthis]”Where there is life, there is hope.” — Cicero[/tweetthis]
Is There Hope For YOUR Marriage?
I’ll share with you Jane’s question, and my answer, and we’ll plunge into the multi-faceted, 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:
“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:
- They are “always” arguing
- He is jealous of his wife
- The love & passion is long absent from the relationship
- They are just not happy like this
- They have different priorities, can’t agree on anything
- She spends too much time in work therefore she is never at home
- They have different opinions on religion, politics
- No one wants to resolve the conflicts, they just build up
However, there are also some reasons for saving the marriage:
- They have two grown-up kids
- She responsibly takes care of food, laundry & cleaning
- They are co-owners of a family business
- They have common assets (bank accounts, property) that would be difficult to divide
- The high cost of divorce
- The social impact on family, friends & church
- They might lose some common friends
- They have nice history together, many good memories
- They have known each other forever
- Maybe they still like each other deep down
- It’s hard to imagine what life will be like after splitting up (afraid of change)”
“Can this marriage be saved?” — Jane
Here’s my response to Jane, about my perspective of 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 also 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 is broken beyond repair.
However, I’d caution you against using a “pros and cons” list to attempt to figure out what the most likely out come 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 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.
Strengths of This Marriage
They are still fighting. I know this sounds very odd to think of arguements as a positive thing, but when people are fighting 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 be 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.
What I hear is that this couple still has a longing for connection, but perceives each other as being unavailable and emotionally unsafe. There is enormous opportunity for healing and growth for even the most tormented marriage when 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 have 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 seemingly enormous obstacles, and that you have no idea what’s possible, until you try.
Challenges of This Marriage
In my opinion 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. People who are very self focused sometimes have difficulty doing the work of repairing a relationship, which is developing empathy and appreciation for the needs, rights and feelings of the other, cultivating emotional safety for your partner, and showing them that you love them.
However the fact that this couple has had positive experiences with each other in the past, still relies 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 making them feel cared for by aspects of their partnership.
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 their longing for 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, even in couples who do divorce, I’d say that 90% of them don’t really want to end the marriage. They are just unhappy with the way their relationship is. They don’t want it to be over, they want it to be better 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 there is always hope and opportunity. 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 neither do they, currently. What I do know for sure is that this couple needs a good marriage counselor who can help them talk about their pain, and create 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, intimacy, and the deep, meaningful relationship that can only be EARNED by walking through the dark woods of disconnection… and finding each other on the other side again.
I know that this probably sounds like an infomercial for marriage counseling, but think of it instead that someone who cares about you is letting know know that there is always hope, that change is always possible, and there are people who can help you. If you want to take a chance on marriage counseling, make sure you work with someone who is competent to help you. Here’s a tutorial that can help you find the right marriage counselor for you: https://www.growingself.com/marriage-counseling-questions/how-to-choose-a-marriage-counselor/
Thank you for your question, and I wish you both the very best…
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Having ambivalence about your relationship sometimes is completely normal.
You have a fight. Maybe a few fights. You go through a period where you both feel disconnected. Kids, jobs, cleaning bathrooms, the dandelions in the front lawn – virtually everything seems like it’s more of a priority than your marriage.
All relationships have ebbs and flows. Disconnection and reconnection is simply the experience of being in a long term relationship. But sometimes … it is hard to reconnect. Particularly if toxic negativity begins to color your interactions.
When attachment stretches thin and you can’t remember the last time you laughed together, it’s normal to wonder if you ever will again. When negative experiences with your partner start to outnumber the good ones, it’s normal to wonder if you’ve arrived at the “end of the line.”
Is Divorce the Solution?
Not necessarily. Feeling upset and scared about your marriage are exactly the feelings that prompt couples to start marriage counseling. Being unhappy with the situation creates the motivation that you need to do the difficult work of growing back together again. And in my experience, when couples have a will to repair the relationship there is always a way.
But sometimes, people begin to fantasize about divorce. They don’t know how to resolve their relationship problems, and divorcing feels like the only solution. When divorce starts to feel like the glowing, open door to freedom and happiness — your relationship is in trouble. And of course, I understand there are situations where you may not have a choice: Your partner unilaterally moves towards the door, or perhaps there are such unhealthy and toxic things going on in a marriage that divorcing is genuinely the only reasonable option.
Let’s Get Real.
If you are toeing up to the edge of this precipice, or perhaps already starting to go through the searing process of taking a marriage apart: This podcast is for you. On this edition of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast I’m speaking with Pro Divorce Mediator Denisa Tova about things to think about if you’re on the fence about divorcing, and also practical strategies for creating the best possible outcomes if you decide to move forward with divorce.
- How to tell the difference between “solvable problems” between you and your partner, and situations where divorce is really necessary.
- If you must get divorced, the mindset you need to foster to create a healthy divorce experience.
- Strategies for creating a happy collaborative relationship, no matter what happens.
(Music Credits: “Anxiety Attack,” by Jeffrey Lewis.)