Woman struggling with with the question of whether she should stay in her unhappy marriage or divorce.

How To Decide If It’s Better To Stay In An Unhappy Marriage Or Divorce

It starts off so beautifully and utterly limitless in hope and possibility. Then, one day you’re asking, “Do we stay in an unhappy marriage or divorce?”

How did you get to this point? How do you know for sure if you are really unhappy or just in a slump that every marriage experiences?

How do you muster the motivation to find out, when all you know is that you don’t feel happy? Is there even hope for turning around an unhappy marriage?

Love definitely has its seasons, and its ebbs and flows within them. Children change everything, and shift the allocation of energy once reserved for the two of you alone.

Throw in jobs, finances, sexual frustrations, health issues, communication problems and boredom, and your marriage can suddenly feel unfamiliar.

How do you decide whether to stay in an unhappy marriage or divorce?

The first step is to do an honest assessment of your marriage to determine if it’s truly unhappy…or perhaps just neglected.

Here are some indicators of an unhappy marriage.

  • You’re together, but not really.

    If it weren’t for the kids, would you have anything to talk about? Is your “togetherness” limited to the pragmatic decisions you make to get through the day?

    It’s difficult to be happy in a relationship when you’re physically together but emotionally disconnected.

  • You don’t enjoy being with one another.

    This takes the above symptom to another level. Instead of feeling indifferent or disconnected, you actually dislike your spouse’s company.

  • You don’t have sex anymore.

    Sex doesn’t have to be what it was during the honeymoon years. But if it has become obsolete or an occasional chore at best, your marriage is probably crying for help.

  • You fantasize about life without your spouse.

    When you’re living in an unhappy marriage, your only escape may be inside your mind. Daydreaming or fantasizing about a life that doesn’t include your spouse (but may include someone else) is a red flag.

  • Your marriage is one-up, one-down.

    True intimacy involves two adults who carry equal weight in the relationship.

    Control is one of the biggest issues leading to unhappiness in a marriage. How can you be genuinely happy if you are afraid, or feel lorded over, or believe you have no voice?

  • One or both of you are having an emotional affair.

    There may not be sex involved, but an emotional affair is one big step closer to getting there. Becoming emotionally entangled with someone other than your spouse can signal an unhappy marriage…or divorce on the horizon.

  • There is sexual infidelity.

    Many people consider an emotional affair to be an infidelity. Indeed, about half of such involvements do lead to full-blown sexual affairs.

    Once an outside relationship has crossed into the sexual realm, there’s no hiding behind a “platonic” justification.

    While infidelity doesn’t necessarily spell the end of a marriage, it does create an ultimatum if it is to survive.

  • Your communication has turned hostile.

    Criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling have been coined The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. And for good reason.

    These communication styles usually end up in a downward spiral, with neither partner feeling heard, and both feeling hurt and unloved. Not surprisingly, they are strong predictors of divorce.

  • There is abuse.

    Whether it’s verbal, emotional, physical, sexual, or some combination thereof, abuse destroys relationships, and even lives. (Here’s an article that identifies the warning signs of an abusive relationship.)

    Without very specialized intervention, abuse can have lasting effects on the abused spouse and any children who may witness or experience it.

    When deciding whether to stay in an unhappy marriage or divorce, abuse has no room for negotiation.

  • There is addiction.

    Addiction changes people. It robs them of integrity in their choices, and puts relationships at heightened risk for various forms of abuse.

    A marriage can’t be genuinely happy if it’s a breeding ground for addictive behavior.

    The addict needs specialized help to deal with his/her addiction, and the spouse needs help to deal with codependency and the effects of addiction.

    The decision to stay in an unhappy marriage or divorce may come down to the addict’s willingness to get help.

Perhaps you know you are in an unhappy marriage. Perhaps you have been for some time.

If so, you wouldn’t be alone in ignoring the signs and waiting to do something about them. Most couples wait an average of six years before seeking help.

There’s an important question you both need to answer if you are facing an ongoing unhappy marriage or divorce. Are you motivated to save your marriage?

If so, are you willing to do whatever it takes? Are you willing to be vulnerable and transparent in an effort to re-establish and deepen your intimacy?

Are you willing to get help before you throw in the towel?

Interestingly, there is research to suggest that sticking it out may actually be the most rewarding decision.

That assumes, of course, that you’re not dealing with issues of safety or addiction, as described above.

Remember that love has its natural seasons. It evolves as it bears witness to and supports the passage of time and the events of life.

It’s natural to long for feelings and freedoms from the early days of your marriage. But those were also the days when you were dreaming of having children and growing old together.

It’s important to take pause to recognize where you are in your marriage. Too often couples get caught up in the logistics of living, and they forget the commitments of loving.

Inevitably something makes them pause. The children leave home. A job is lost. An affair has been discovered.

Perhaps they simply realize that they’ve let their marriage go, much as people look in the mirror and realize they’ve let their bodies go.

For the couples who “stuck it out” in the above-mentioned study, they didn’t choose to remain unhappy just because they were unhappy at the time.

The moral of the story is that, when the next season of life and love showed up, they were grateful they hadn’t given up.

Perhaps the question isn’t whether to stay in an unhappy marriage or divorce. Perhaps the question is whether you have done all you can to save — and revitalize — your marriage.

Mary Ellen Goggin

Mary Ellen is a highly skilled and intuitive relationship guide. She brings over 35 years’ experience with individuals and businesses as a lawyer, mediator, personal coach and educator. She received her J.D. at University of New Hampshire Law School and a Master’s Degree at Harvard University. Mary Ellen co-authored Relationship Transformation: How to Have Your Cake and Eat It Too with Jerry Duberstein — and they were married by chapter 3. Mary Ellen brings a unique blend of problem-solving, practicality, and warmth to her work. She’s a highly analytic person, with geeky and monkish tendencies. She’s a daredevil skydiver, a voracious seeker of knowledge, and an indulgent grandmother. Her revolution: helping people become the unapologetic rulers of their inner + outer realms. Read more about the retreats