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How a Couple Can End Up in an Invisible Divorce

... and why they stay together anyway.

We all know those couples. We admire and envy their beautiful pictures on social media. They always seem so happy and their vacations look even more spectacular. We compare our relationships to theirs and wonder why they are always so happy. And, then a few years later, we learn that these seemingly perfect marriages are ending. Thinking back, it does occur to you that these couples started taking separate vacations, or that their kids started to have some issues.

The term invisible divorce is a good descriptor for what may have been going on here. In these sorts of marriages, things appear to be going swimmingly, at least externally. That is how the couple may be presenting publicly and on social media. In private, though, the couple has actually grown apart and their marriage may be teetering precariously on the edge.

An invisible divorce is characterized by a number of issues including:

  • A lack of physical and emotional intimacy.
  • The couple functions like a business in which the major topics discussed are finances and the kids.
  • At least one partner feels like their needs are not being met. They may turn to people outside of the marriage to discuss their emotions and vulnerabilities—and to get their sexual and physical needs met.
  • The marriage starts to resemble the parallel play of toddlers. Parallel play occurs when children in the same room play alongside each other but not with each other. Despite what may appear on Facebook (don't trust those pics) the couple resides together but functions quite separately.
  • At least for the present, the couple has decided to stay together and work on keeping up the appearance of a healthy marriage.
  • These couples stay together for a variety of reasons including custody issues, not wanting to split up financial resources, disliking the idea of going public with their private matters, etc.

You may have looked at the above list and determined that your marriage is characterized by many of those factors. Yikes. You may be wondering what you should do, and/or what typically becomes of these marriages. In my practice and my personal experience, I have seen that these sorts of marriages are emotionally exhausting and frustrating. Many couples decide to stay together until their kids go off to college. Others turn a blind eye to their partner's affairs. They are either in denial or they decide that it is the price they will pay to remain in the marriage; upending the family just seems too painful. Yet others are willing to stay in these marriages and tolerate frustration, disappointment, and feeling disconnected from their partners. They have become accustomed to these feelings. Some feel that they made a vow and that a vow cannot and should not be broken. Ever.

If you have determined that your marriage is starting to function like an invisible divorce and you would like to take action, I suggest taking several steps:

  • Make a list of what is working well and not so well in your relationship. Take time doing this; it should be well-thought-out. There is a lot at stake.
  • Make a plan to talk with your partner when you can talk quietly and without interruption.
  • Address your concerns as calmly as possible. It is clear that we do a better job expressing ourselves when we keep the emotional temperature of the room down and as comfortable as possible. Listen quietly to your partner's responses. The hope is that you both share the same concerns and want to work on improving the relationship. If that is the case, then start to go on dates again and get to know each other like you did at the outset of the relationship.
  • Consider going to individual and/or couples therapy.

If you have spoken to your partner and it is clear that they are uninterested in any form of relationship repair then each of you must make a decision about whether to keep the status quo or move on to dissolve the marriage. Partners do not always agree about the next best steps, as we are all painfully aware. During this process, ensure that you have a good social support system. You will need it.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

Facebook image: Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock

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