Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Unhappy Marriage: Stay or Go?

Is divorce necessary?

Key points

  • The vulnerability that makes intimacy intensely special can be its greatest undoing.
  • When people grow apart, there is no clear-cut path to follow that will lead to the right outcome.
  • The decision to divorce should be made with a sober mindset, understanding that it will be a difficult process.

I don't know where we went wrong.
But, the feeling's gone and I just can't get it back.

—Gordon Lightfoot

It’s with great regret that I must inform you that happily ever after is a fairy tale.

Why? Sometimes, it’s because there’s an unforgivable betrayal like infidelity, or a partner becomes abusive and the relationship turns destructive, or as clichéd as it sounds—people often grow apart.

When couples marry, it's usually with the intention of remaining lifelong lovers and partners. But we all know that this ambition isn’t always realized.

  • How does a love that was all-consuming and wonderfully vibrant wither away and die?

The allure of romantic love lies in the intimacy it creates.

The Magic of Intimacy: Intimacy brings lovers together and renders us vulnerable. When we are intimate, we feel empowered but we’re also at the mercy of the one we love. Intimacy evokes a powerful mix of emotions—we feel vulnerable, yet valued and embraced. When you experience intimacy, it acts like a field in the world of physics, where all the rules of regular relationships change.

Your beloved can make you feel special in a way no one else can.

In fact, he or she can heal you as well.

The promise of marriage is in its ability to mend our wounds. Our most intimate relationships are often therapeutic: They’re able to rehabilitate us psychologically and emotionally. Marriage encourages us to expose ourselves to our partners and lay bare our weaknesses.

The Dark Magic of Intimacy: The very vulnerability that makes intimacy intensely special can be its greatest undoing.

  • When our partners criticize or invalidate us, we feel rejected.
  • When our partners are neglectful or dismissive, we feel intensely hurt.

The pain induced by a partner can be unbearable. When the people we most care about become destructive and hurtful, we react. The very intimacy that can heal early life injuries can invoke those injuries once again.

And, once one party is triggered, you can bet the other will respond.

When attacked, some become defensive, while others attack. Does your partner, for instance, retreat and disengage emotionally? Others simply check out. They feel the relationship has deteriorated and doesn’t justify the effort needed to repair it.

Others will endure an unhappy marriage for the sake of commitment and to honor vows that they made. And then there are those that will fight for the relationship because they believe in it; they see a future and aren’t ready to give up on the history they’ve created together.

Unhappiness and Its Choices: When an intimate relationship is no longer healthy, should you jump ship and abandon it, continue to fight for it even though you may be fighting a losing battle, or hold onto the understanding that marriages are imperfect and go through rough patches, but sooner or later things may settle down and improve?

And, how do you consider your children in the calculus?

Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut path to follow that will lead to the right outcome. How you resolve this dilemma will depend on your personal circumstances and the conclusions you reach through a lot of thought.

  • Time ticks on. And there’s no universal law telling you what to do: it’s truly your choice.
  • Time ticks on. And every relationship you hold on to is another one that may be missed.
  • Time ticks on. And each child values their parents together, despite their parent’s pain.
  • Time ticks on. And you hold on, only to see something rekindled again.
  • Time ticks on. And you are stuck in an arid relationship while stewing in regret.
  • Time ticks on. And you make the decision to stay or leave—everyday.
  • Time ticks on. And no one can predict the future.

Time is unforgiving because you can’t get it back. But, you can go forward with conviction.

A Marriage Repaired: You can take on your marriage, improve yourself, deal with your children; or look realistically at divorce. There is dignity in making it work. And, there’s dignity in starting fresh for the right reasons. Take a look at Harville Hendrix or John Gottman's work on rehabilitating a marriage. For many, it can be done. Take an active role.

For some, divorce is necessary. But, for most, it should only be considered when all other options have been explored and exhausted. Have you done the work?

The Clear-Headed Divorce: The decision to divorce should be made with a sober mindset, understanding that it will be a difficult process. A neutral therapist or kind ear can help. It's a big fork in the road.

Just know that like many things, divorce has a beginning, middle and end. Know that although divorce entails pain and grief, it often eases up over time.

Understand that a divorce can leave casualties behind. You need to make sure that your kids are okay because divorce can undermine their sense of stability and security. You also need to allow yourself to mourn appropriately, because you too have lost something precious.

Take-Home Message: If you're in an impossible marriage with kids: consider therapy. How did your relationship lose its specialness? Remember, the Field of Intimacy can do tricky things. What issues did you bring to the marriage? How about her? Perhaps you stopped communicating, leaving each other filled with resentment?

Does a betrayal hang over the marriage?

Then, breathe deeply and ask yourself if there's a bit of goodwill to work with. If so, you may want to throw down the gauntlet and demand change. You never know. I remember one woman who threatened to leave; it led to over 20 years of sobriety for her husband. Most successful cases are less dramatic. Couples get into therapy, start to enjoy each other again and begin to let go of past hurts.

With luck, time can heal.

Yet, some hurts are irrevocable. If divorce has to happen, grieve the loss, tend to your children with sensitivity and deal with your ex with dignity. Look realistically at everyone around you—including yourself.

Your children may need some counseling or treatment. It's a priority.

Despite divorce, your ex will likely continue to be an important relationship in your life, especially if you have children. He or she may be depressed, self-centered or even narcissistic. And, sometimes, there's a need to protect yourself.

You don't want to overreact or underreact to an ex-spouse. Both are hazards. Good psychological counseling can help keep you in a centered place.

Finally, for many, a spiritual practice and good friends can really help.

You didn't consciously choose to be in an unhappy marriage. But, you can choose to deal with it with dignity and intelligence. No one can tell you what to do. It may be a lonely place, but it's your place.

I wish good things for you, your spouse and your kids. Now, it's your life to live.