Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Feeling Like You Need to "Split or Get Off the Pot"?

Seeing marriage as a continuum may help you decide if or how long to stay or go.

Most people involved in an unhappy marriage who come to see me are at some stage of contemplating divorce. They have often been unhappy for many years and have struggled with whether to stay or go.

When they look at their choices—stay, feel miserable, and long for freedom; or leave, feel emotional freedom, but perhaps now deal with the fallout of having financial worries, sharing custody, and starting a new life from Ground Zero—they understandably want to kick the can down the road.

In my more recent work with these kinds of couples, I’ve helped husbands and wives get out of their "Marital Indecision Cycle" by explaining that they have many more options than ever before. No longer are they bound by traditional forms of coupling or splitting.

Expanding Your Ideas of Marriage and Divorce

It’s hard to wrap our heads around marriage looking so different when we’ve been taught for the past 200 years or so that the only reason to get married is for love and that the marriage should end when the love goes away.

Marriage is an evolving, growing institution. We have more lifestyle choices than ever before—we can live anywhere we want to, we can have whatever career we choose, and we can marry (or not) and have one, two or 10 kids (or none) without stigma, so why can’t we rewrite some of these matrimonial mandates and make marriage something that suits us on whatever level we need it to?

We can, and people are.

There seems to be more of a marriage/divorce continuum available these days—that there wasn't just a generation ago. Although some of these options may appear quite similar, I will give you examples below to show you how they might look different in real life.

Marriage/Divorce Continuum

1. Working Traditional Marriage

Stay married and work on the relationship (the traditional choice).

There are different degrees of working on a marriage. Happily married couples are presumably always working on their partnership by compromising and negotiating. They can successfully do this without outside intervention.

Other couples included in this first scenario are the spouses that end up in a therapist’s office, at a couples workshop, or reading helpful literature. They are seeking out new tools and information that they can apply in hopes of improving their relationship.

This couple wants a connection and will do whatever they can to find healing.

2. Ambivalent Marriage

Stay married but don't work on the relationship (while not a “traditional” choice, certainly a common choice).

Staying and not working on the relationship may simply look like two people continuing to use the same tools and coping mechanisms that they always have, with little or no success for a fulfilling partnership.

In all likelihood, they continue with whatever suffering they have been experiencing year after year. Perhaps they try not to think too long or hard about their unhappiness, or perhaps they seek happiness outside of the marriage.

This couple has ambivalence about their connection and doesn't necessarily want to put in the work that it takes to get that connection or get completely free from the partnership.

3. Personalized Marriage

Stay married and change the terms of the relationship.

This can take several different forms. First is the "Parenting Marriage," where parents stay together and change their job description from romantic partners to platonic co-parents. Their objective is to raise children in a stable environment. They are, in essence, dedicating their lives to the well-being of the children and putting the kids’ needs before their own need for romantic partnering.

Another form of staying together and changing the terms of marriage is an open marriage. In this arrangement, couples can seek out other sexual experiences (with or without their spouse).

These couples want varying degrees of connection and separation and work together creatively to get their needs met.

4. Independent Marriage

Stay married in name only and lead separate lives.

Staying married in name only is basically when both people co-exist. They have no real connection, and they don't want a connection. They are like two ships passing in the night. These folks are connected legally, but not emotionally or financially. They may live together or apart.

5. Un-divorced

Those who separate emotionally and financially but never legally divorce are often referred to as the “un-divorced.”

These are the couples that don't want to go through the legalities; they are able to divide custody of the kids and assets on their own quite happily. They either don't want to—or don't need to—go through the legal hassle of disconnecting, but they are disconnected in every other way. They live apart.

6. Transitioning Out

These couples are separated as a step in the divorce process (a traditional choice).

Couples that intend to divorce often separate as a way to "try divorce on," and in some cases, because living together has become untenable, they begin living apart. These couples are moving away from their connection with each other.

7. Legally Separated

Then there are the couples that file for legal separation.

This is a distinct legal process from divorce, where the couple is still married legally and perhaps emotionally, but their finances are separated. In most cases, this is a couple that wants to get divorced but doesn't, because of health insurance or tax benefits, for example. These couples often don't want to maintain an emotional and romantic connection, but they do want to maintain separate financial lives.

8. Roommates

Albeit rare, there are some couples that divorce formally but continue to live in the same space.

This was very common during the last recession. This option differs from the parenting marriage in that couples without children may opt to live in the same space, either due to financial or housing constraints.

These couples do not want a legal or emotional connection. They may not want a financial connection either, but they stay in the same living space out of financial necessity.

9. Unmarried

Some couples are divorced, living together or separately, but continuing the relationship.

This option seems a bit counterintuitive, but I have seen people do it. Perhaps one person doesn't want to be bound legally or financially to the other person (and a legal separation didn't go far enough to protect them), or perhaps there are tax or social security advantages they wouldn't receive if they were married.

Whatever the reason, these couples want to let go of the legal relationship and continue the romantic aspect of the connection.

10. Traditional Divorce

You can divorce and have nothing to do with your ex-partner, other than to co-parent or deal with finances (the traditional choice).

Since this is a very common choice, not much explanation is needed here. This is the couple that usually hires attorneys or mediators and must negotiate spousal support, child support, who gets the house, the dog, etc.

These couples want no connection whatsoever.

Are These Options for You?

These nuanced options won't work for everyone, but I believe they should be considered before resigning yourself to staying unhappy or filing dissolution paperwork. It is a sign of the times that sooner or later, you or someone you know will be deciding to transform a traditional marriage into something more personal and practical.

No part of this publication may be reproduced without the express written permission of the author. Failure to comply with these terms may expose you to legal action and damages for copyright infringement.

More from Susan Pease Gadoua L.C.S.W.
More from Psychology Today