Unhappy couple sitting on a bench struggling with the question of why stay in an unhappy marriage.

Why Stay In An Unhappy Marriage Instead Of Getting Divorced?

From bliss to boredom, from soaring hopes and dreams to wondering why you ever got married. You may be asking, “Why stay in an unhappy marriage instead of getting divorced?” You may even have one foot out the door.

Plenty of couples stay in marriages that look miserable from both the inside and the outside. And plenty of couples call it quits when a desire to stay together, coupled with timely intervention and guidance, could have saved them.

How, then, do you draw insight from so many “solutions” to the same problem? How do you answer for yourselves the question “Why stay in an unhappy marriage instead of getting divorced?”

An important distinction needs to be made up front. When you are unhappy in your marriage, it can be easy to see only the negative. In doing so, you may not desire, let alone take the time, to assess whether your marriage is unhealthy or just unhappy. The distinction is critical for taking the right course of action for you, your spouse and any children you may have.

Some telltale (and common) symptoms of an unhappy marriage include:

  • You stop talking about more than what is necessary to run your lives.
  • You don’t enjoy your time together anymore.
  • You don’t feel heard…and you don’t truly listen.
  • You don’t have sex, or do so only infrequently.
  • You start fantasizing about life without your spouse.
  • You find yourself having an emotional attraction to someone else.
  • You stop spending time together.
  • Your lives seem to be going in different directions. (You’ve lost your common goals.)

You would be hard-pressed to find a long-married couple who can’t point to any or all of these symptoms and say, “Ohhh, yeah! We’ve been there!”

An unhealthy marriage, on the other hand, has elements of fear and even danger. These are some examples.

  • There is abuse — emotional, verbal, physical, sexual, or any combination thereof.
  • There is addiction. Addiction, by its very nature, cannot survive outside a petri dish of enablement. If one or both spouses are in an active state of addiction, the entire family is part of the addictive, co-dependent cycle. You can start your search for help here, and learn about the 12 Steps programs
  • You are afraid of your spouse. You may be afraid of your spouse’s wrath. You may be afraid to have sex…and afraid not to.
  • The relationship is built on control and submission. If you are the person in the one-down position, you may fear making any decisions for yourself. You may also be the victim of financial abuse, in which case your spouse keeps you “under thumb” by withholding access to money and any independence.
  • One or both partners speak and behave with contempt, resentment and belittlement. If your marriage has reached this stage, it has probably crossed over from ‘unhappy’ to ‘unhealthy.’

If you are in an unhealthy marriage, it would be in your best interest to seek professional guidance in deciding if and how to leave your marriage. No matter what, safety is always the non-negotiable priority.

If you can’t point to anything that makes your marriage unhealthy, but you are deflated and even numb from dissatisfaction, you have options. When trying to answer “Why stay in an unhappy marriage?” it’s helpful to look at some of the reasons couples do.

Examples of reasons people stay in unhappy marriages:

  • Financial security. Many couples who place great value on financial assets are willing to overlook their dissatisfactions to maintain their lifestyles.
  • Social status. Divorce changes everything, including friendships and social status. Many couples would rather keep the country club than go it alone with no prominent status.
  • Divorce is out of the question, whether because of religious beliefs, family values or the stigma of previous marriages.
  • Belief that the kids are better off with both parents together. In this case, the couple has the choice to work on revitalizing their marriage, or at least modeling civil co-existence to their children.
  • Fear of being alone. Sometimes the yearning for and comfort with companionship are enough to override the quiet desire for something more fulfilling.
  • “It’s not perfect, but it’s good enough. And it’s definitely better than divorce.”

It’s one thing to look at your grandparents on their 50th anniversary and smile at the durability and seeming innocence of their love. It’s another thing to ask them how their love has evolved since their tintype wedding photo was taken.

Before you get that first foot completely out the door, pause to consider the natural stages of love in marriage. There are seven of them.

  1. Passion.

    Thank you, Mother Nature, for providing all those juicy hormones that magnetize couples and set the stage for survival of the species!

  2. Realization.

    What? She’s not always in make-up? He really does watch football all day on Sunday? And when did my partner suddenly lose interest in all the amazing, thought-provoking things I have to say?

    This stage is a tough one. It’s also inevitable. This is the point where you get a real awakening to your partner’s humanness and what that altar-commitment meant.

  3. Rebellion.

    Ahh, the drama of it all! Suddenly all those self-interests come back into view, and you’re often individually pitted against the needs and interests of the marriage. This is when how issues are discussed is more important than what issues are discussed.

  4. Cooperation.

    Remember that big dream of the mansion filled with pitter-pattering feet and countless Ivy League-bound activities? Well, somebody has to pay for all that. And somebody has to change the diapers and drive the bus.

    Inevitably the complexities of marriage force you into management-mode. Business as usual. The marriage can wait.

  5. Reunion.

    Those tears at college orientation may have to do with more than just missing the kids. All those years of “getting them to this point” come rushing into this one moment of stark reality: Your nest is empty, and your marriage feels that way, too. Time to focus on that stranger who is driving home with you.
  6. Explosion.

    This stage can happen at any time, but makes a big presence during mid-life. All the mishaps of life seem to be accelerating — job loss, forced retirement, illness, eldercare, etc.
  7. Completion.

    This is the hard-won stage that makes it all worthwhile. You know yourself well, you know your spouse well, and you both feel the youngsters inside of you coming out to play again. It’s as if life has come full circle, but with a history of struggles that enriches the final stage.

You knew your marriage would go through various stages. You’ve watched family and friends navigate them all. But it’s different when you’re actually in them. Your heart may say one thing, while your head caters to resignation and asks, “Why stay in an unhappy marriage? Surely I could be happier alone or with someone else.”

Research by psychiatrist Levi Baker et al. found that, for couples who stick it out, their commitment isn’t based on their current level of satisfaction. It’s based on their expected level of relationship satisfaction in the future.

The only time current satisfaction is a predictor of commitment is when both partners expect their relationship to continue being satisfying. “Don’t rock the boat, and we’ll be fine.”

In other words, the reason couples are willingly to stay together, despite current unhappiness, is that they believe things will get better. Their commitment is the quintessential example of delayed gratification.

Their current level of satisfaction, while not an indication of their commitment, does serve to provide information about problems that need to be addressed.

Contrary to an unhealthy marriage, an unhappy marriage can be bolstered by the determination of the couple. Something as simple as deciding to go to couples therapy can boost the very expectation for a happier marriage in the future.

In this way, the very unhappiness that makes a marriage seem disappointing and even hopeless can be the threshold to the marriage’s renewal.

The couple that truly means “‘til death do us part” just may be more motivated to make that marathon a pleasant one.

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