A couple sits on the couch in a chaotic living room, representing the stages of a dying marriage.

Are you experiencing a marriage crisis? If so, you’re probably trying to understand how you got here and what you can do to turn this around. As a marriage counselor, I have met with so many people in this unfortunate place, and I understand how gut-wrenchingly difficult it is. I also know that there is hope, especially if you take the time to educate yourself about the stages of a dying marriage and what you can do at each stage. 

If you’re even asking yourself the question, “Is my marriage dying?,” I can tell you for certain that you would benefit from working with a good couples counselor or discernment counselor. But I know that often in a marriage crisis, one partner isn’t interested in working on the relationship. If that’s the case, you still have a few options, which we’ll explore. I hope this article helps you make sense of how your partner is likely feeling, and what opportunities you still have to stop a divorce and save your marriage

Dying Marriage Stage #1 — Conflict Breaks Down

All relationships have conflict, whether it’s handled out in the open or not. In healthy relationships, both partners feel safe communicating vulnerably about their feelings, including the darker ones, like disappointment, frustration, or hurt. This gives them the opportunity to show each other empathy, love, and care, make changes for each other’s benefit, and fix problems in the relationship before they get to be critical. Healthy conflict is a process of “tear and repair,” which actually makes relationships deeper, more intimate, and more satisfying in the long run.  

But in unhealthy relationships, this process starts to break down. Sometimes it’s because one partner feels like their feelings are always invalidated or dismissed, so what’s the point in continuing to try to get through? Other times, it’s because the fighting has been so intense that it has created an attachment wound, where both partners have started losing trust and respect for each other (fueling increasingly nasty fights as time goes on). And other times, conflict breaks down because one or both partners are habitually conflict avoidant and unwilling to have the kinds of difficult conversations that could make the relationship better and bring them closer to each other. 

When a high-conflict couple suddenly stops fighting for no clear reason, that’s a very bad sign. It signals that someone has given up on trying to create change in the relationship, and is starting to withdraw emotionally. The marriage is starting to die.

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Dying Marriage Stage #2 — Emotional Withdrawal

At this stage of a dying marriage, one partner is beginning to pull away emotionally and sometimes physically. The couple may have stopped talking about anything other than the practicalities of daily life. They may have stopped having sex or being affectionate with each other. Often, the partner who is “leaning out” gets very busy with a hobby, work, or friends during this stage, as a way to avoid dealing with the problems in the relationship. 

The “leaning out” partner is usually not consciously thinking about divorce during stage 2. The idea of divorce is tough for anyone to swallow, for practical reasons, but also because they still have some emotional stake in their marriage. Unfortunately, that stake is dwindling every day as resentments pile up undiscussed and there’s no positive emotional exchange to reinforce their feelings for each other.  

The other partner is often not even aware that their marriage is in trouble at stage 2. In fact, it often seems like the relationship just spontaneously improved for no clear reason, because they stopped fighting. But, if you tune into your feelings when your partner is beginning to pull away, you’ll likely notice anxiety. You may also notice yourself wanting to step up a bit and make more overtures toward your partner in an effort to get some reassurance, even if you’re not sure why you’re doing it. Even when things seem normal on the surface, a deeper part of you can feel it when your partner no longer has both feet in the relationship. 

Dying Marriage Stage #3 — Confrontation

At some point, the leaning out partner will acknowledge that they’ve been unhappy for a while and they’re either certain they want a divorce, or they’re considering it. They may say this in anger, or they may deliver the news cooly during a calm moment (which is actually a worse omen for the relationship). Either way, there is no such thing as an “empty threat.” Any time one half of a married couple starts talking about divorce, it’s a clear sign the relationship will fail without intervention. 

When the other partner hears the “D word,” they’re usually shocked. It can seem like it’s coming out of nowhere, but in reality it’s coming after a long period of disillusionment and disconnection. It’s normal for the partner receiving this news to have an intense flare-up of attachment panic when they realize their relationship is ending. They may start begging, pleading, offering to change — anything that could potentially save their marriage. 

This reaction can actually backfire. The “leaning out” partner has distanced themselves emotionally from the relationship at this stage of a dying marriage, and seeing their partner so upset will trigger them to avoid further. Rather than pursuing your withdrawn partner, the best thing you can do is listen to them and demonstrate that you are taking what they’re telling you very seriously, and that you are committed to working on it, ideally with help from a discernment counselor

Dying Marriage Stage #4 — Resolution 

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Once the gauntlet has been thrown down, the situation usually breaks one of a few ways: 

#1 — Growth & renewal. The specter of divorce was the impetus that the couple needed to begin addressing the problems in themselves and in the relationship in an intentional way. They may get into couples counseling, and gradually the “leaning out” spouse may begin to feel hope that change is possible. Other times, the spouse who was threatened with abandonment gets into relationship-focused therapy on their own and demonstrates a serious desire to change in positive ways, which helps the leaning out spouse feel hopeful again. The couple can use this experience to grow together in important ways and create a relationship that’s stronger than before. 

#2 — The marriage ends. Sometimes, one partner is not willing to work on the relationship in counseling, and it’s too far gone to repair on their own. Without both partners’ commitment to improving the relationship, there’s nothing that can be done. Someone files for divorce and the marriage comes to an end. 

#3 — No resolution. Sometimes the relationship doesn’t end, even when it’s over in both hearts. The couple may stay together because they don’t want to go through a divorce with kids, or deal with the legal and financial headaches of divorce. They become like roommates who resent and avoid each other. This is the saddest outcome of all, when two people remain inside an unhappy, lonely relationship with no hope of improvement. 

Dying Marriage Stage #5 — Aftermath

If the couple does divorce, they both will experience the post-divorce stages of grief. They’ll not only grieve the loss of the relationship and each other, but the shared life that they built together. 

The partner who wanted the divorce has already done a lot of grieving before the marriage ended. They reached a point of acceptance that allowed them to make the decision to walk away, which doesn’t mean they don’t still feel loss at the ending, but it’s tempered. 

On the other hand, the partner who didn’t want the divorce will feel profound grief. They will often feel depressed and lost for months or even years, and entertain hope of getting back with their Ex someday. This is a vulnerable time that calls for a lot of self-compassion, gentleness, and emotional self-care.

At the end of this grief, they too will reach the point of acceptance that the relationship is indeed over. Once they cross the threshold of acceptance, they will begin to feel better. They will gradually establish a new normal and begin to enjoy life again. It’s very common for people who go through a divorce to grow in transformative ways, and they will begin to move forward with new meaning, perspective, and even gratitude because of what they’ve lived through. 

Interestingly, the partner who ended the marriage often feels some regret at this stage. They may feel a warmth for their former partner that was not accessible to them until their Ex gave up pursuing and became truly unavailable. They may wonder what change would have been possible in the marriage if they had worked at it, and question whether they made the right decision. 

Couples Counseling for a Marriage Crisis

I hope this article on the stages of a dying marriage has helped you see how important it is to intervene in a marriage crisis sooner rather than later. If you can fix this problem at the “conflict breakdown” stage, or even the emotional withdrawal stage, you have a much better chance of repairing your relationship before it’s too late. 

Even if you don’t arrive on a counselor’s couch until after your partner has brought up divorce, there is still hope. I have seen many couples pull their relationships back from the brink with the right support. Your marriage is worth saving and there are experts available who can show you the way.

And if you would like help from a marriage counselor or discernment counselor on my team, I invite you to schedule a free consultation

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

P.S. — For more information on the stages of a dying marriage or how to save a marriage in crisis, check out my “relationship repair” collection of articles and podcasts. I made it for you!

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