The Sometimes Tragic Fallout of Staying Married Too Long

Ignoring problems always makes them worse.

Posted May 15, 2014

I know it’s hard to leave. I know there will be lots of change and upheaval. I know that it may mean getting completely out of your comfort zone and perhaps risking quite a lot. But staying in your unhappy or unhealthy marriage in your attempt to avoid pain and discomfort – when you know in your heart you should leave – may actually be bringing more pain and discomfort into your life.

Trying to keep a sinking relationship afloat takes effort. There are thousands of people who are totally unaware of how much energy is being sapped from them as they continue to try to make a bad situation good.

In a recent Contemplating Divorce workshop I held, one woman said that it wasn’t until she looked at family photos that she realized how unhappy she was. Her photos showed her transformation from a happy, vibrant, confident woman, to a sad, beaten down, tired looking woman. It was just like what happened to her mother and she swore she would not let it happen to her. Seeing this was the impetus she needed to get into action.

This next segment will focus primarily on case studies of people who have suffered as a result of not leaving when it clearly was the right time to leave their bad marriage.


Joyce’s husband, Brian, had had multiple affairs which she didn’t like, but she put up with it for several years. She had stopped being sexual with him after their third child was born four years earlier. Things were not really unhappy between them other than having a sexless marriage. Joyce felt that, since she wasn’t interested in having sex with him again and he was just sleeping with women here and there, she could simply look the other way and no one would get hurt.

But then something happened that absolutely devastated her: Brian not only started sleeping with her best friend Luanne, but they fell in love and Brian now wanted to divorce her so he could marry Luanne. Joyce felt incredibly betrayed by both Brian and Luanne, especially since Luanne had been a confidant to her and knew what she had been through in her marriage.

Brian admitted later that was he was tired of pretending that things were OK. He said he purposely took an extreme action to “push the envelope” and cause the divorce to happen because he felt like Joyce was holding him hostage. While he didn’t actually intend to fall in love with Luanne, he knew that when Joyce discovered that they had slept together, she would probably kick him out and the feeling of being a hostage would stop.

Lessons Learned:

 * Pretending that a problem does not exist, in an effort to avoid it, is merely a form of denial. The problem still exists, and you still need to deal with it.

* Failure to deal with a problem in a timely manner will cause the problem to grow – you must deal with problems when they arise.



I received a call from a school counselor asking me if I could meet with a family she felt might be in some type of crisis. She wasn’t sure exactly what the dynamics were but she suspected the parents were unhappily married.

The minute these parents, Nate and Georgia, and their two children, Philip and Beth, came in, I could feel the tension between them. It was extremely uncomfortable.

Beth, the youngest child, was getting in trouble at school for teasing and bullying some of the other children. Initially Beth couldn’t say what caused her to be so mean to the other kids but, after several sessions, I uncovered some of what was going on.

Beth’s mother, Georgia, had an anger management problem and everyone in the house was walking on egg shells trying to avoid making her mad. When Georgia’s temper would flare, nine times out of ten, she would take it out on Nate. She had become extremely resentful of her husband for not being a better provider and not doing his part to maintain the house and family. In many ways, he was an added burden for her. She had wanted to leave the marriage for years but, like many people, she felt she needed to stay for the children.

Despite Georgia’s attempts to get the message through to Nate that he needed to do more around the house, he would ignore her. It seemed the only way she could get his attention was to fly into a rage, yell at him and belittle him. Even if it did little to change him, it made her feel better for the moment.

A typical day in their house consisted of Georgia yelling at Nate (often in front of the children) and Nate, being frustrated and humiliated, taking it out later on Philip. Philip in turn would tease his younger sister Beth unmercifully and, because Beth had no one else at home to take it out on, she then became a bully to the weaker kids at school.

You know may this dynamic better as “Kick the Dog Syndrome.” It occurs when the person with the most power in a system takes out their frustrations on a less powerful member and so on down the line. 

In this situation, Georgia and Nate had an unhappy marriage that wasn’t getting better. They had been to counseling and she had read books, talked to friends, tried to get Nate to emulate his friend Marco, but nothing worked. Instead of divorce, Georgia continued to squelch her inner urgings to leave her husband and just became more and more resentful over time.

As happens so often, the children bear the brunt of the unhappiness between the spouses by absorbing the tension, carrying the unspoken emotions and by acting out. Both children were suffering on some level but Beth was now calling attention to her pain by getting in trouble and alienating some of the other kids at school with her behavior.

Georgia’s remaining in the bad marriage was meant to prevent her children’s suffering but it instead created more suffering.

In time, and with some encouragement from her support network, Georgia did end up filing for divorce. She felt immediate relief the moment Nate moved out. The atmosphere at home went from a 10+ on the tension scale to a 3 within a week. Philip stopped teasing Beth and Beth miraculously stopped being a bully at school. She actually started to get better grades and even joined the girl’s basketball team. Nate was also happier and the relationship he had with both his children improved greatly as well. All around, everyone felt happier and saw life improve dramatically.

Lessons Learned:

* If you don’t deal with the problems in your marriage directly, the problems will get your attention in other ways.

* The whole family suffers from a tense and stressful environment.


The hardest conversation I’ve had with anyone was with a 68-year-old woman named Lorraine who called me asking for help and resources with her impending divorce. She had been unhappily married for over 40 years, thinking the whole time that “one of these days” she would file the papers. She admitted she had been too afraid to go out on her own and so she never got around to filing. Instead, one day, her 72-year-old husband decided he wanted out.

She found herself divorcing at the age of 68 with no job skills, no assets and no one to care for her. The house she lived in was her husband’s prior to their marriage so she had a small financial interest in it but certainly not enough to sustain her. They had no children together since he had three children from a prior marriage and didn’t want more. What family she had lived abroad and she had no real connection with them so they weren’t a viable resource for her.

Lorraine was at a total loss of what to do. Had she known 20 years ago that this would come to pass, she definitely would have divorced then. At least she could have gone back to school, gotten some work experience and put herself in a stronger financial position. Her options were so much more limited at her age. It really broke my heart.

Lessons Learned:

* Nothing changes if nothing changes.

* The safer and easier road now might be the harder road later on.

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