How to Make Your Marriage a Prison

Anything you want to escape becomes a prison.

Posted Sep 01, 2020


Denmark's a prison.


Then is the world one.


A goodly one; in which there are many confines,

wards and dungeons, Denmark being one o' the worst.


We think not so, my lord.


Why, then, 'tis none to you; for there is nothing

either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me

it is a prison.


Why then, your ambition makes it one; 'tis too

narrow for your mind.


O God, I could be bounded in a nut shell and count

myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I

have bad dreams.

Many people would say their marriage is a prison, the defining characteristics of which are the desire to escape (whether in search of freedom or out of pride) and an unsettled sense of self (so often expressed in bad dreams). The most reliable way to make a marriage into a prison is to marry someone who thoroughly wants to control you. I say “thoroughly” because everyone wants to control their spouse to some extent, but that desire is tempered by the appreciation of being loved by a human being and not by an appliance (the latter being the type of entity that can actually be controlled). But some marriages are so constraining or frightening or dangerous that the only reasonable response is escape.

A spouse’s effort at thorough control is even more likely if you were a free spirit to begin with. Free spirits are not that appealing to people looking for mates; they are more appealing to someone looking for a challenge, a spider who wants to spin a web to trap a butterfly. Free spirits also don’t see red flags that signal control and entrapment, because they think everyone is ultimately trying to control and trap them.

The next most reliable way to turn a marriage into a prison is to take the moments in which one spouse naturally tries to control the other as authentic signs of the spouse’s character (rather than as a natural consequence of coordinating a relationship), and to respond by asserting freedom or pride. These condemnations and assertions of freedom are bound to threaten the spouse and to make them even more interested in controlling the one who refuses to be controlled. It doesn’t take long before one spouse becomes the warden, the old ball and chain.

This works the other way around just as well. If you are afraid of being left rather than of being trapped or of being ordinary, you can turn your marriage into a prison by interpreting your spouse’s joys and interests as threats, and you can take steps to stifle them.

Most marriages (where neither spouse is essentially a butterfly or a warden) have moments that feel constraining, not only because it’s natural to want to control your environment, but also because everything that offers an opportunity also creates limits and reduces options. I recently read online clickbait on what married people miss most about being single: sleeping alone, not sharing food, decorating your own space, doing something your partner doesn’t enjoy, those kinds of things. I noticed that my wife and I retain in our relationship 18 of the 21 things couples miss, all except “Things staying where you left them,” “Courting someone or being courted,” and “That new love feeling.”

The first of these is unavoidable: any two people will have conflicting agendas, and the agenda of one will be the entropy of the other. Even if you never move your partner’s things, you may miss having things as you please. Recognizing this can take the sting out of it: it’s a cost of being in love with a human as opposed to a device, and there is no love or friendship or family without conflict. Still, my wife and I use “we” for minor entropies instead of blaming each other: “We put away the saltshaker when I was still using it.” “We left the garage door open.” “We put your wool sweater in the dryer.”

The new love feeling can be approximated by revealing yourself to your partner. Each level of revelation is accompanied by fears of not being accepted, and that is similar (but, of course, not equivalent) to wondering if your date will like you. Still, it’s true that you lose that falling feeling and replace it with gratitude, and it’s true that hankering for it turns your affectionate paradise into a prison. Grieve and move on. It’s also fun to get a job offer, but that thrill is not a good reason to apply for new jobs, which will ultimately damage the relationships that help you enjoy your present job.

The aspects of single life that my wife and I have retained are partly a function of privilege. The pandemic has made us acutely aware of how fortunate we are to have plenty of square footage, with our own bathrooms and other spaces that are hers, mine, and ours. If one of us prefers to sleep alone, the other does not hear that as a rejection, and if one of us misses the closeness, they are always welcome to crawl into bed. Even pre-pandemic, half our dinners were “scrounging,” meaning you could get or find whatever food you wanted to eat that night.

The bars of many marital prisons are composed of images from one’s family, culture, or media outlets about what marriage is supposed to look like. One that particularly activates me is sleeping in physical contact with each other, which makes my wife and me both shudder. I’ve complained elsewhere (with suggestions for a cure) that Hollywood images of having sex standing up in the foyer, on the kitchen counter, or ripping off garments rather than disrobing, haunt many couples’ sex lives. If you watch these encounters and yearn for them, then you are making your marriage into a prison.

The ambition that Rosencrantz speaks of has to do with wanting to be king. The ambition that turns a marriage into a prison typically has to do with trading up. It’s human nature to find someone to blame for life’s disappointments, and your poor sap of a spouse is a likely candidate. This, plus the fact that like a life on Facebook, we often see other spouses and strangers at their best, can make us think we could do better. Such thoughts make your marriage a prison. I recognize and accept that sometimes it’s true, that sometimes one spouse outgrows the other or married them in the first place out of insecurity and low self-esteem. But usually, one’s estimate of the spouse decreases because they have been used as a garbage dump, the thing that is holding you back.

Existentially, the desire to be free often reflects the desire to be immortal. One yearns for adolescence, painful as it was, because those days were awash in options. Adulthood requires us to “put away childish things,” although putting them away allows us to take them out again and play with them on weekends and evenings. (I’m not fond of the NRSV’s translation here, “I put an end to childish ways.”)

If you’re jonesing to be single, it’s likely that you and your spouse need to review and make space for freedoms, or else it’s likely that one or both of you are failing an Eriksonian crisis. My wife and I don’t check in with each other before making plans, always assuming that the other spouse will not feel left out but will instead enjoy having the house to themselves for a bit. Some couples don’t even require monogamy—I wouldn’t want to be in such a marriage, but if courting and new love are that important to you, you may be able to find someone who feels similarly.

If you have bad dreams—if you are unsettled with yourself—there’s nothing wrong with counting a good marriage as one of your blessings, but no marriage can survive if it is supposed to be the solution to your dissatisfaction with yourself. When your marriage feels like a prison, that’s a cue to look in the mirror and ask yourself if you belong in prison.

Now, children? They are a prison. Focus on the parole date, on the longer furloughs as they age, and on making the prison as pleasant as possible (partly by platooning with your spouse, partly by enjoying your kids).

Bonnie Clark’s new book explores the gardens planted by internees at Amache, one of the camps where many Japanese-Americans were forced to live during WWII. I’m sure some of them sulked and some raged and some plotted escape, and under the circumstances, all of these reactions seem reasonable. Some planted gardens. When an internment camp is analogous to a situation that is better endured and improved than escaped from, a situation like ordinary life or like parenthood or like marriage with a perfectly acceptable mate, you might find that it is less a prison when you plant a garden, literally or metaphorically. I can’t help but wonder how many fewer gardens would have been created at Amache if spouses had been telling reach other, “We don’t need another garden,” or, “Nobody cares about your self-expression,” or, “You care more about your garden than you care about me.”


Clark, B. (2020). Finding solace in the soil. University Press of Colorado.