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5 Reasons People Stay in Unhappy Marriages

Money, fear, shame, and more.

Key points

  • Unhappy partners often find themselves deciding whether financial security or a romantic relationship matters more.
  • Children's mental health fares better when parents work together, regardless of whether the parents are married or divorced.
  • Women in particular are at a financial disadvantage if they get divorced.

“I just don’t know if I can stay married to this man.”

"She doesn’t appreciate me.”

"It just feels like they hate me.”

“I don’t want to live without my partner, but I just can’t keep living like this.”

Why do we stay after the good times fade?
Source: Soulseeker/Pexels

Many of my married clients have been doing this dance of despair as they struggle to decide do-I-or-don't-I-divorce for the better part of the last few years. Some are in couples therapy, while some have read and re-read every How-to-Fix-Your-Marriage self-help book that hits the bestseller list.

Fewer people are getting married, but fewer people are also getting divorced.

There have been extensive reports about the damaging effect that these last few years of living in a pandemic have had on marriages. Counseling centers across the country have reported that they were unable to keep up with the demand of those seeking therapy, and arguments about parenting styles, financial concerns, and relationships with in-laws were exacerbated by quarantine. Women with younger children and greater financial concerns reported the greatest psychological distress and an increase in domestic violence prompted many pharmacists and pediatricians to come up with creative ways for those who were being abused to subtly report the situation.

A surprising number of people chose to stay in an unhappy marriage. Why?

The 5 Most Common Reasons People Stay in an Unhappy Marriage

1. Money. The average cost of a divorce is $12,900, and if you are dealing with child support or custody issues, that cost doubles. This number is actually a best-case scenario, one that assumes that the divorcing couple can easily agree on pretty much everything. In fact, most divorces require more legal involvement from each partner's lawyers, and the more contentious a divorce is, the more expensive the bill gets. It's not unusual for lawyers to bill an average of $15,000-$30,000 to represent their clients.

Although women are more likely to initiate a divorce (69% of the time), women are also more likely to suffer financially after a divorce, with some reports citing that a divorced woman can l lose between 25-50% of their pre-divorce income. Some statistics suggest that those who have more money to lose in the event of a divorce are more likely to stay married, regardless of their reported level of marital contentment.

2. Fear. The threat of physical violence, further emotional abuse, harming your children by depriving them of a nuclear family, and concern about how friends and family will perceive them are commonly-cited reasons why people may choose to stay in an unhappy marriage.

Women who have at least one close friend or family member who has gone through a divorce are at least 75% more likely to get a divorce. It appears that fear of not knowing what life will be like without a spouse is mitigated by a friendship with a recent divorcee.

3. Children. Children whose parents are divorced are more likely to engage in high-risk behavior, experience anxiety and depression, drop out of school, and engage in substance abuse. It is easy to see how someone could choose to stay unhappily married, rather than put a child in a position of vulnerability.

However, research is still inconclusive as to whether it is the presence of two married parents that benefits the mental health and physical safety of the child, or whether it is the presence of having two adults actively parenting that provides the benefits. This is an important distinction, in that “staying together for benefit of the children” becomes less important than parenting with your former spouse in a way that allows for open communication and proper supervision.

4. Shame. We meet someone. We fall in love. They love us back. There is an engagement story we proudly share with all of our friends and family and distant cousins. You struggle to find enjoyment at the wedding you tried desperately to lose weight for and the honeymoon that rarely lives up to its expectation.

And then life happens.

Maybe a child.

Maybe two.

And one day you know – the same way you knew with such certainty the day you met him – you just know that this life that you are living is not the one that you had envisioned when you accepted his proposal.

You feel like a failure. You both do. Especially since according to many religions, God has a lot of super-intense feelings about marriage and commitment.

This idea of shame is just another “should," as in something society says we must do or feel. The only thing you should in this moment is to decide what is best for you and your family.

Divorce is not admitting defeat. Divorce is deciding that you deserve a different future.

5. We want to believe that things will get better. The reason why we stay in bad relationships is because every once in a while, a good day will come along when we remember why we fell in love with this person. And they remember why they fell in love with us.

That glimpse of the world you used to think you would be living in, with someone you long to grow old with – that’s not fate stepping in to show you the direction you need to take, that’s an example of an intermittent schedule of reinforcement.

In a laboratory setting, scientists train animals by rewarding behaviors that they want to increase.

For example, imagine scientists are training a rat to navigate a maze by pressing a lever that opens a door leading to the end of the maze. To increase this behavior, the rat is rewarded for touching the lever, usually with some type of food. The quickest way to train the rat is to give him a pellet of food every time he presses the lever. In a fairly short period of time, the rat will consistently press the lever in order to gain the reward of food.

But what happens if scientists stop rewarding the behavior?

In a remarkably short period of time, the rat loses interest in the lever, since they are not being rewarded. The rat stops pressing the lever, and this behavior is “extinguished.”

However, if we train the rat to press the lever by providing rewards less consistently, something interesting happens: If the rat is rewarded less frequently, he is more likely to continue attempting to gain a reward by pressing the lever. The rat has learned to keep trying, because sometimes something good happens, and sometimes something bad happens, and you never know when the hard work and continuous effort will pay off.

This random reinforcement has a name: intermittent schedule of reinforcement. In this case, the rat will keep trying, repeatedly, to earn the reward of the food. Even if we were to completely stop rewarding him, the rat would continue to try to earn his reward for a very long time, because the rat brain still members that every once in a while, something good happens.

This intermittent schedule of reinforcement, this randomness of something good happening in your relationship, is the reason people stay in an unhappy marriage. There is always the possibility that maybe, just maybe, tomorrow will be different.

And so we hold on to hope that this time the relationship will get better.

The real question is this: How long are you willing to wait?

So...can a broken marriage be fixed? Sure. Assuming both people are willing to put in the time and effort.

Facebook image: Goncharov_Artem/Shutterstock

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