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Top misguided reasons to stay in a bad marriage

by Susan Pease, LCSW, CADC


“If you don’t like where you are in life, there comes a point when you must give up the part of you that’s keeping you back.”
–Dr. Sonya Friedman

Divorce is difficult. This is one of the reasons why couples all over the world choose to stay in unhealthy or unfulfilling marriages, despite an inner voice urging them to leave. Rather than heed this internal guidance, people seek out or invent reasons to justify remaining.

Many float through life in a perpetual state of confusion or ambivalence because things are not so awful. Being confused, they can’t possibly be asked to make a decision so they rationalize staying with their spouse, waiting for something to happen which will make it clearer as to whether they should keep the relationship together or not.

For others, the fear of the unknown is simply too daunting so they numb out or get distracted to make life with their partner bearable (for example, by workaholism, drug/alcohol addiction, and spending excessively). In some cases, the fear of leaving is not about the unknown, rather it is the known that paralyzes them. The other spouse has threatened the one who wants to leave with some kind of abuse: “outing a secret,” bad-mouthing him or her to friends, loved ones, or employers, or even physical violence. Then there is the segment of this unhappy population who choose to have an affair (in real life or, more and more, in cyberspace) as a way of escaping or even as a way to cause the marriage to end.

Leaving your marriage may be the biggest challenge you will ever face in your life. It is important to contemplate divorce only when all other alternatives have been considered and exhausted. If, however, you truly feel your marriage is over and that you have done all you could to save the relationship, it is more of a disservice to yourself and the world around you to stay.

Remaining married or leaving is a very personal choice to and I highly encourage those who are contemplating divorce to get professional guidance and find or create a tight support network of friends and family. The following information is simply meant to be a guide in making your decision.


Misguided Reason #1 to Stay in a Bad Marriage: The Kids

Many of those who divorce have known that their marriage was over long before they began to actually physically separate. When I ask these people what kept them from leaving sooner, the number one reason they give me is, “because of the kids.” I have no doubt that every parent who has said this believes wholeheartedly that this was a noble and selfless reason to stay. Staying and sacrificing their lives seems like the only thing to do.
Quite often, those who feel committed to keeping things together to this degree are children of divorce themselves. They swear that they will not put their children through what they had to endure. What they don’t understand is that they can get divorced differently than their parents did and spare their children much of what they experienced. How a couple divorces does more to determine how well children fare than the mere fact that they divorced.

While I would agree that being a good parent entails giving up a big part of yourself every day, I also know that you cannot give what you don’t have. If you are not happy, your children will undoubtedly feel that and suffer on some level as well, even if you don’t think your unhappiness shows. Children (and all of us, for that matter) are negatively impacted by being exposed to a loveless, tense, angry environment, regardless of the circumstances in which it has been created. They are impacted more deeply because they have not yet built up the level of defenses that we have. It is as if they have half the thickness of skin that we adults do. The good news is that they also tend to be more resilient than we adults allowing them to recover faster from unhealthy situations.

When you stay in an unfulfilling, unhappy or even abusive marriage, children come to believe that relationships are experiences that entail suffering, pain and even a slow death. You are not happy, your spouse is not happy and, in turn, your kids are not happy. The world doesn’t need more married couples for the sake of having married couples - the world needs more happy people!


Misguided Reason #2 to Stay in a Bad Marriage: Money

While it’s understandable that having become accustomed to a certain lifestyle, most people don’t want to give that up, it’s often not a good enough reason to stay together, especially when your soul and spirit are dying. It is very scary to face the world as a single person after being with a partner for a while, whether it’s one year or thirty years. Of course, it’s scarier for the people who have been in longer-term marriages, or for those who have never worked, have no apparent job skills and who are now faced with having to get a job, but everyone in this kind of scenario feels challenged and overwhelmed.

The expense of keeping up two households is enormous. The spouse who has not been working, or who has worked but earning less, may want to hold on to the financial security blanket and stay with their counterparts. The spouse making more money may justify staying as a way to avoid having to support two households. What I find ironic is that people who marry for money are judged very harshly, but people who stay for the money are not.
Money is not the only financially related perk of marriage. Medical insurance coverage is also a very real benefit that can have a tremendous monetary impact. Many people feel they have to stay married to keep their health coverage. It used to be that couples could agree as part of their divorce settlement to continue the ex-spouse on the employer’s health insurance plan. This is no longer the case. While alternatives for health coverage exist (COBRA’s or private health insurance plans), they are usually temporary and/or quite costly.


Misguided Reason #3 to Stay in a Bad Marriage: You Promised!

Those of you with kids will have heard this (“but you promised…”) said many times. Kids are brilliant and they know that calling you on your word is important and can evoke enough guilt for you to give in to their desires.
Exchanging vows of being together forever is a very powerful exercise. It is a wonderful ideal and it is wonderful that most people do take this commitment seriously. But let’s examine reality again. Seasons change. Tides change. Relationships change. People change. Life situations change. Everything changes. That is life. That is what is supposed to happen.
I remember looking back at my high school yearbook and my friends saying, “never change!” I had to laugh because, although I knew the sentiment behind this comment (you’re a great person and please stay a great person), not changing isn’t really something to aspire to!

Neale Donald Walsch writes about this in his book, Conversations With God: An Uncommon Dialogue. Walsch is talking to God about the whole concept of marriage as we know it. God tells Walsch that the intention of joining two people together was never about binding them, rather, quite the contrary. It was about letting the other person be true to themselves while being true to yourself. Joining with, not attaching to, another soul. He adds that, “until you can predict your future, you cannot promise anything truthfully.” According to Walsch, God does not endorse promising yourself forever to another person as this may not be in both people’s best interest.

While the contents of this book may be controversial due to the fact that this is simply Walsch’s interpretation of what God said, anyone who is aware of what it is to be a conscious, mature, self-actualized adult would agree that healthy relationships are not about controlling or imprisoning others, rather quite the opposite. The trick in any relationship is to change and grow on your path while allowing your partner to change and grow on his or her path. Clearly, judging by the current divorce rates, this is getting harder to do in our complex world.


Conclusion:

Too many couples hide behind these misguided reasons to remain married believing they are “doing the right thing.” While I agree that they are important considerations and should be seriously pondered, I do not believe these reasons, alone or in combination, are enough to warrant remaining in a marriage that is based on anything short of true happiness and mutual fulfillment. Instead of being motivated by fear, guilt, or inertia, I would like to see people begin to make choices based on trust. Movement toward a goal rather than away from fears is a much more powerful place to live from.


Susan Pease, LCSW, CADC, is the founder and executive director of the Transition Institute of Marin. She specializes in assisting women through the divorce process by providing ongoing support groups and educational programs. See website.


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