Finding Your Way Out Of Feeling Stuck In Your Marriage – Part 2
If you’re unhappily married right now, you may be wondering – should I stay or should I go? If you’re like I was, you may be feeling stuck because neither option seems to fit with what you really want.
I’m writing to you because I want to help you clarify your options while you’re feeling stuck. I’ve seen a few things more clearly since I was in the same emotional space you’re in, both through my own marriage turnaround, and through the shared experiences of couples going through separations. I learned a few things about separating from the vantage point of the other side, as a divorce attorney.
First, I believe it’s helpful to recognize that there are three options for the future of your marriage when you’re desperately struggling, not two. I call these options split, survive or stay. I’ll expand on this.
Before I do, I want to raise the question of whether your marriage is unhappy or harmful. I’ve written about the difference, here. What I have to say here is appropriate if you are deeply unhappy in your relationship, but not if you are putting yourself at risk by staying.
Option 1: Split
Splitting isn’t as simple as you may think. Some people get through their separation relatively smoothly, but others are completely blindsided by what happens, especially if it becomes a contentious court matter, someone seeks a restraining order, or one parent suddenly decides to move.
Take Katie and Max’s separation, for example. This is a fictitious scenario based on recurrent themes I saw as a divorce attorney. Max was seriously concerned about how Katie’s substance abuse issues would impact their divorce, so he secretly obtained a court order to have the children placed in his care alone when he filed for separation. There was no history of violence between the two of them. He was granted a temporary restraining order that had the impact of banning Katie from their home and the kids’ school until a further court order was made. What followed was an acrimonious court battle. The judge-supervised tug-of-war over who would have the children in their care and who would make the major decisions on behalf of their kids went on for years.
Almost all of us have seen kids caught in the middle of their parents’ complicated divorce. Maybe your parents divorced and you’ve seen it up close. I’m not suggesting that if you separate, yours will be as adversarial as Katie and Max’s. If you have kids though, chances are your separation will be more painful than you anticipate.
Not only that, but every parent in an unhappy marriage where there’s fighting, resentment and bitterness needs to grapple with the impacts on the kids. For almost every parent I met with in my practice, this was their primary concern.
If you’re feeling desperately unhappy in your marriage, whether splitting or not, you have immediate influence over what your child witnesses at home. What are your kids seeing and hearing? What are you sharing with them? Are your adult issues staying between the two of you? It’s common for parents who are fed up with their spouse to vent to the kids who are right there with them, but just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s healthy.
Your child needs both of you. As much as you feel ambivalent about your spouse right now, I bet your child doesn’t share your ambivalence.
Beyond the potential impacts if you’re a parent, splitting causes other issues. A divorce may result in financial strain, lifestyle constraints, or health or other consequences you won’t foresee.
Some people have given me this feedback after divorce: you may end up trading one set of problems for another set of problems that may not feel like an upgrade at the end of the day.We’re all wired for intimacy or emotional attachment, not just as infants or toddlers but throughout our lives. Click To Tweet
Option 2: Survive
I once asked a group of couples I was preparing a marriage talk for, what issues they were struggling with. The number one issue: feeling disconnected.
Which brings me to the second option for your struggling marriage. Surviving is the option that many people don’t think about, but I like to talk about it because I think it’s clarifying. I define surviving as staying together without an emotional connection.
A marriage that’s surviving may function like a business contract. It’s more like an arrangement of defined benefits than an intimate relationship. He gets a golf membership; she gets trips to the spa. He gets a hunting week with the boys; she gets a vacation at an all-inclusive resort. They both get certain things they want, but there’s something vital at the core that’s missing.
None of these benefits are bad things. But when a marriage looks good from the outside but doesn’t feel satisfying on the inside, the relationship may be at risk.
When the heartfelt bond is missing, people become susceptible to acting in ways they normally wouldn’t. They may become involved in an affair or an addiction even though it’s the last thing they ever intended.
The good news is, even if you’re feeling disconnected now, you can learn ways to become more emotionally in tune with each other. Your heartfelt bond can be restored. Experts say that the skills of emotional intelligence can be learned. My husband Carey and I can attest to that. We’ve learned over time how to respond to be more emotionally in tune with each other. It’s helped us build an authentic closeness that is truly satisfying.
If you see yourself as surviving in your marriage right now, take heart! Maybe surviving in your marriage is exactly what you need to do as you work on saving it.
Option 3: Save
Which brings us to the third option: Save.
Saving your marriage involves rebuilding a relationship that makes you both feel loved, cared for and fully satisfied. That voice in your head may be whispering, Sure, like that’s ever going to happen. But, stay with me…
When I was in that hopeless place, I had a hard time thinking about the future. I felt like I’d signed up for a lifetime of misery. I couldn’t imagine being in love with Carey again.
One night, after an over-the-top heated argument, we found ourselves talking about being done and separating. At that point the potential consequences started to crystallize. When I thought about the impacts on our family, our work and ministry, our community and our extended families, let alone the financial fallout, it became clear that splitting wasn’t what I really wanted.
I just wanted the painful version of our marriage to be gone and to feel the closeness we once had again.
I recognized that I had no guarantee of happiness regardless of which choice I made. But I think the thought of splitting and everything that goes along with it gave me the incentive to see if there was some way to turn things around.
Carey responded similarly. We pursued marriage counseling, which we had done before, half-heartedly. This time, we approached it with more humility. This time, we weren’t looking for answers while also subtly trying to woo the counsellor to our own perspective so as to say to each other, “See? I told you…!” We actively searched out advice and resources to take our personal and spiritual growth to the next level.
Applying the practical advice from our counselor felt awkward and took plenty of trial and error. When we succeeded one day in halting an argument before it got nasty, the next day might not have gone so well. We kept going despite the setbacks and gradually we made progress.
A hint of progress showed me the possibility of getting what my heart really wanted.
Here’s what we’ve discovered: the healed version of our marriage actually exceeds the hopes and dreams we held on our wedding day.
All it took was a little bit of progress after taking the first step in a new direction to give me the hope and courage to take the next one.
And the next one.
And the one after that.
Don’t allow your pain to hijack the answer to this question…what do you really want?