Dead Certain You’re Unhappy, But Dead Set Against Divorce?

Miserable in your marriage? These days it’s easy to feel disappointed when a spouse doesn’t live up to our overload of expectations: best friend, workout buddy, hot sex partner, confidante, mentor, financial planner, and life coach all rolled into one.

On top of those over-the-top expectations, marriage research reveals another faulty assumption. Unhappy spouses in troubled marriages tend to see only two alternatives: 1) Stay and suffer, or 2) Get a divorce and get happy.

I have to admit I labored under the same false assumption early in my counseling career. If you can’t find a way to fix it, you can’t just stay and put up with it, right? But the pressure of choosing between two extreme alternatives is immobilizing and can keep people seriously stuck.

You Don’t Have to Know Where You’re Going. Just Get Moving.

Here’s what I know now. Neuroscientists tell us that to bring the problem-solving, pro-social part of the brain online, it helps to consider more than two either/or alternatives. I’ve found that the act of simply acknowledging the possibility of a third option can help struggling spouses start moving forward. Then the relationship has a chance to go where it naturally needs to go.

I like getting beyond the either/or mindset because it helps build distress tolerance. This coping skill enables you to ride out decision discomfort. It buys you time to test your assumptions, try out new behaviors, and gather the data you need before making one of the most consequential decisions of your life. Those consequences will affect not only you but also all those in your orbit.

Here’s one way to apply this thinking to an unhappy marriage and relieve some either/or pressure. From a “universe of all possibilities” mindset, generate an expanded list of all the realistic alternatives you can think of. For example:

Stay together. Stay miserable.
Break up. Stay miserable, just in a different way or with a different person.
Break up. Work on yourself. Find a new partner. Get happier.
Stay together. Work on yourselves. Work on the marriage. Get happier.
Stay together. Get happier yourself, regardless of the state of your marriage.

That last one is a radical idea, isn’t it? It challenges our cultural assumption that you can’t be happy if your marriage is unhappy. There’s actually some research that suggests it is possible. More on that later, so stay tuned.

Three Ways Unhappy Couples Stay Together and Get Happier.

Let’s focus on the stay together, get happier possibility. Sociologist Linda Waite and colleagues at the University of Chicago found that two-thirds of “unhappy” couples declared themselves “happy” when interviewed five years later. And there was plenty to be unhappy about: infidelity, alcoholism, emotional neglect, verbal abuse, depression, illness, and job loss.

So how did these couples manage to overcome such serious obstacles and get happier? Focus group interviews with formerly unhappy spouses revealed three radically different approaches to turning things around:

1. A commitment to stay married.

Waite characterized this group as having a “marriage endurance ethic.” In other words, these couples simply outlasted the problems.

When Is “Wait It Out” a Good Option?

I’ve found the “wait it out” approach can be a reasonable option for unhappy couples who have little appetite or capacity for change. Here’s an example: A thirty-something woman who suffered through her mother’s four divorces is firmly committed to staying in her marriage. Even when serious mental health problems surface in her husband four years into their marriage, she is determined to spare her two children the kind of pain she experienced.

2. A commitment to solving problems.

Waite characterized this group as having a “marriage work ethic.” Rather than simply enduring the problems, these couples focused on solving the problems and got happier as a result. They used anything from date nights to marriage counseling to threatening divorce or consulting divorce attorneys to get the job done.

When Is “Work It Out” a Good Option?

Do both spouses demonstrate a growth mindset and a capacity for change? Then a solution-focused approach can be worth the effort it takes to work on your individual issues and the relationship to boot.

Here’s the tricky part:

Determining whether your partner is capable of change.
Determining if your anger and disappointment keep your partner so defensive that they feel too criticized to want to behave differently.
Coming to terms with what you can and can’t change in your marriage.

My job is to help you figure out if you’re in a solvable state of gridlock or if there really isn’t much that you can do about your differences, at least for now or maybe ever. If there’s not much wiggle room, my job is to help you make peace with that or start considering other options.

3. A commitment to personal happiness.

This group was committed to finding personal happiness, regardless of a difficult or less than ideal marriage. The ability to stay married for the sake of your children, for religious reasons, or because you can’t afford it requires a very different mindset and strategy.

Giving up on marital happiness doesn’t mean giving up on your personal happiness. It usually does mean developing more emotional independence from your spouse. Think of it this way: Instead of moving out, you lean out. Leaning out doesn’t mean you turn away or become withdrawn and cold. It means you think of yourself less as lovers and spouses and more as friends, roommates, or co-parents.

When Is It a Good Idea to Focus on Your Own Happiness?

It’s always a good idea. Taking more control over creating your own happiness will definitely be good for you, especially if you tend to lose yourself in a relationship or have a history of trying too hard to save a relationship.

Focusing on your own personal happiness may be met with indifference, sabotage, or further emotional distance from your partner. On the other hand, your emotional independence may have an unexpected consequence. It may make you more interesting or attractive to your partner or even win their grudging respect.

It’s also possible that your partner may get happier, too. Getting more of your needs met elsewhere can take some pressure off a partner with limited capacity for intimacy. Finding your happiness elsewhere may mean you feel less disappointed in your partner. In turn, your partner may feel less put upon or defensive and lean in a little.

In other words, when you get happier, the marriage may get happier. It’s a good demonstration of the saying, “It only takes one person to change a relationship.” So don’t sniff at small increases in happiness. Appreciate them, either as a short-term coping mechanism, a stepping stone to greater individual happiness, or — who knows? — marital satisfaction.

When Is “Moving Out” a Good Option?

Suppose you’ve given up on a happy marriage and you’re not able to enjoy your life or protect your children from whatever is unsatisfying or difficult in your marriage. In that case, it may be time to consider a therapeutic separation.

Here’s how a concrete physical change like separation may be a catalyst for a change of mind or heart:

Sometimes a separation allows you to reclaim an essential part of yourself that you lost or neglected in the marriage. Bringing “more of yourself” to the table may enable you to renegotiate the terms of your relationship from a position of strength. Reclaiming a lost or neglected part of yourself may also have a surprising effect: It may make you more interesting or attractive to your partner.
A separation may help you stop blaming everything on your partner. You may develop more insight into how you are contributing to the problems in your relationship.
The distance may give you the space you need to emotionally regulate and become less likely to be easily triggered by your partner.
A separation may give you more awareness or appreciation of how much your partner positively contributes to the marriage.
Being apart gives you a chance to miss each other — or not.

Sometimes just making the decision to separate and actively planning it can cause an improvement in the marriage.

And most paradoxical of all, allowing yourself to consider ending the marriage may be what enables and empowers you to save it.