Unhappy Marriage Vs. Divorce: How To Determine Which Is Best For Your Situation

There’s no easy answer, especially when you’re plagued by misery and the conflicting mindset that accompanies it. Continuing to live in an unhappy marriage vs. divorce? Rushing to hire a divorce lawyer to stop the slow bleed? Where’s the upside in either choice?

Knowing that you aren’t the first to struggle with this dilemma probably offers little if any consolation.

You may also poopoo recent statistics that reveal a growing dissatisfaction with marriage.

If misery loves company, then you could throw a party with a long guest list.

According to the cited poll, six in ten couples claim to be unhappily coupled. Forty percent admit having thought about leaving their partners. And 10% don’t even trust their partners.


So, either there is something in the water, or the institution of marriage needs some heavy-duty revamping – from the inside and the outside.

Or…perhaps “it’s all about how you look at it”…and how researchers structure their studies and ask their questions.

Some researchers would say, “Not so fast! There is still no compelling evidence to refute the link between marriage and happiness.”

No matter what line of reasoning you subscribe to, one thing’s for sure: Deciding “unhappy marriage vs. divorce” isn’t an easy or formulaic process.

Getting into marriage is different for everyone.

Living in and staying in marriage is different for everyone.

Getting out of marriage is different for everyone.

And all those personal experiences of marriage will influence how you determine whether it’s better for you to stick it out or call it quits.

How does your experience of “getting into marriage” affect your happiness and/or unhappiness? And how can it influence your choice of unhappy marriage vs. divorce?

For one thing, it’s no secret that love has its stages. Knowing this cognitively and knowing this relationally aren’t necessarily the same.

Getting married is the easy part. The fun part. Say yes to the ring, then say yes to the dress.

It’s easy, if not perfectly natural, to dream of and fantasize about this hope-filled threshold into life’s potential.

Beyond the wedding itself, though, there is the preparation for marriage. And, let’s be real here: One is a lot more exciting than the other.

Be honest with yourself. How many hours did you and your spouse spend planning your wedding guest list, venue, reception, attire, honeymoon?

And how many hours did you spend attending premarital counseling?


Time spent in premarital counseling and “relationship education” has been shown to boost marital satisfaction and success by as much as 30%.

And that enlightenment seems to be especially powerful during the early years that are most vulnerable to divorce.

What’s the takeaway from this premarital phase with regard to deciding “unhappy marriage vs. divorce”?

Many of the problems that break ground during marriage are planted before marriage in the form of unrealistic expectations and poor communication skills.

How much of your dating and engagement bliss was tied to a belief that someone else could “make you happy”? And how much of your current unhappiness is tied to the realization that that’s not true?

Communication issues, which are inevitably at the heart of relationship problems, are also rooted in early seedings.

What did you both learn about communication (and relationships) from the modeling of your individual families of origin? How did your parents express love? Share feelings? Resolve conflict?

And, most importantly, how did you absorb those communication styles (and beliefs) into your own psyche and behavior?

What about your spouse?

And what about the ways you both brought your isolated upbringings and expectations to the same altar?

These are important questions to explore when you’re considering remaining in an unhappy marriage vs. divorce.

Have I really examined what I have brought to this marriage in the way of unrealistic expectations and potentially unhealthy communication?

How does your experience of “living in and staying in marriage” affect your decision to remain or go?

Believe it or not, unhappiness in marriage doesn’t necessarily mean unhappiness because of marriage.

And, when spouses ponder, Why stay in an unhappy marriage? there are actually reasons that don’t necessarily imply marital martyrdom.

Finances, children, religious rules and convictions, health and caregiving, age, convenience, companionship, alternative lifestyles, role models of perseverance. There can be as many reasons to stay as there are to go.

But the takeaway for potential conversion from unhappiness to happiness lies, at least partially, in your faith in what grounds you in marriage.

And, if you believe in the merits of “seeing it through,” then you (and your spouse) will have to get fearlessly honest about your marriage.

You will also have to get fearlessly honest about your personal roles in your marriage and your responsibilities to improve on their performance.

How did we get here? And where do we want to (and believe we can) go?

Have we done everything we can to learn, improve, forgive? 

What have we been avoiding that isn’t going to disappear just because we get divorced?

And have you been willing to reach out for help? Or have you been treating your marriage as something that should just run smoothly because you once said “I do”?

When it comes to “getting out of marriage,” there is a flood of considerations, some emotional, some practical, all consequential.

If your unhappiness is a derivative of living in an abusive marriage or with an active addict, your decision may be a matter of life-and-death.

In cases where you or others in your home are in any danger – physical, emotional, sexual – prudence may direct you to leave.

At the very least, securing physical separation may be imperative. This could be a prelude to divorce or a place from which to safely work on your marriage.

If the decision to divorce isn’t so “obvious,” you will have a long list of pragmatics and emotions to work through.

Can I afford a divorce? Will this be better or worse for the kids? Do we still love and respect one another? Will the next relationship (if there is one) be any better?

Are there alternatives to divorce? Are “unhappy marriage vs. divorce” our only choices? What about separation? Or living married but apart? Or separated but together? 

In the long run, your decision to remain in an unhappy marriage or divorce belongs to you and your spouse.

Your first step toward happiness lies within yourself.

Will you choose finality out of fatigue and feelings of hopelessness?

Or will you risk a guided exploration of your own expectations for marriage and happiness and embrace the empowerment to renew them both?

No matter what you choose now, happiness will always be an inside job.

Mary Ellen Goggin offers relationship coaching for individuals and collaborates with her partner Dr. Jerry Duberstein to offer private couples retreats. To learn more about working with Mary Ellen, contact her here.

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