Why People in a Bad Marriage Stay Married

At least, the reasons they give for staying married.

Not infrequently, patients come to my office telling me in detail everything wrong with their marriages. These complaints are not unusual, but they are usually heart-felt. They include a whole range of misbehaviors on the part of their spouses. Sometimes there is only one serious transgression, such as a prolonged infidelity or drug use, including alcoholism. Sometimes the list can be surprisingly long. Here are some of the things they have complained about to me, in no particular order:

  1. Violent behavior (both men and women).
  2. Prolonged or repeated absences.
  3. Infidelity.
  4. Stinginess, or profligacy.
  5. Bad temper.
  6. Selfishness.
  7. Lying repeatedly.
  8. Refusal of sex.
  9. Improper parenting behavior.
  10. Putting other family first.
  11. Use of drugs.
  12. Irresponsibility (and unreliability, including chronic lateness)
  13. Secretive behavior.
  14. Contemptuous and rude and scornful behavior.
  15. Cruelty.
  16. Betrayals, such as promising to have children, and then refusing.

By the time I am presented with such a list, usually the patients have concluded that their marriages are not worth saving. But they are ambivalent. They repeatedly run through the reasons they have for leaving, as if they have to remind themselves of how serious they are. But they would like not to break up their marriages. They would like to hope that things are not so bad and that their married life is salvageable.

I have learned not to take a stand on such matters. First of all, because the patient is not likely to pay attention to me when I make one suggestion or another. The matter is too important to resolve by taking the advice of a therapist—or of friends. The second reason is that I cannot really know what is best. There are aspects of every marriage that go unremarked upon, but that are important. Still, sooner or later, I ask why, if things are so awful, the patient does not leave his, or her, spouse. This list is smaller:

  1. For the sake of the children. (In one case, the child whose interests were being considered was 29.)
  2. An unwillingness to give up money in a divorce action. (One man who had two million dollars lived on the income from his job. He could easily have spared one million dollars in a divorce settlement; but since his wife had never worked, he was not going to agree to her getting anything. He held on to his money at the expense of being tied to a woman he disliked.)
  3. An unwillingness to move away from a house, the physical house, into which so much care and effort has been invested. (This feeling is not uncommon. It is as if the house itself began to symbolize everything that had gone on between its walls.)
  4. An attachment to in-laws, or mutual friends.
  5. Pessimism about any possible alternative.
  6. Too much trouble. It is too late, too expensive, etc. The inability to afford a divorce is mentioned frequently.
  7. A fear of loneliness which seems to threaten to continue indefinitely into the future.

It is this last reason, the fear of being alone forever, that seems to weigh most heavily.

But these factors also affect those individuals who do, nevertheless, proceed to a divorce. Since these men and women are not deterred, it is reasonable to think that those who do decide to remain in a bad marriage may have other hidden reasons. Still, since the reasons given above are what the patient mentions to account for putting off a decision to leave, they must be considered.

Children   Some psychiatrists have said that the deleterious effects of divorce on children are so serious, that it should only be contemplated under the most dire circumstances. I do not agree. Sometimes growing up with parents that hate each other is worse. I think most therapists dealing with these issues do not think of divorce as inevitably devastating. It is worse for some children than others. Most  children seem to grow up not obviously marked by the experience. Besides, when divorce is traumatic, it can often be seen, looking more closely, that that reaction was in response to the circumstances that led to the divorce and not to the divorce itself. Constant quarreling between parents is unnerving to children. I have had a number of adult patients who told me they thought their parents should have been divorced, and that growing up they had wished for them to live apart.

Money   It costs more for a couple to live separately than together. And the divorce itself costs money. There is no question but that the lack of money colors aspects of divorce as it may have affected the marriage. But I see couples in dire circumstances who manage to leave their marriage anyway. It seems that when there is no alternative, a way can be found. Some of the men and women who do give financial reasons for not divorcing are actually well-off, even rich, sometimes.

Friends and Family.  It is true that a divorce is likely to leave either the husband or wife estranged from their mutual friends. Often that separation from them is not what the friends would have wished. The divorced men and women pull back because of embarrassment or a sense of no longer being of interest. It is one aspect of the self-doubt that comes in the wake of a failed marriage.

What might have been a long relationship with in-laws is usually sundered and represents a real loss to the person who is leaving the marriage. In some marriages, of course, that loss represents a blessing. But definitely not in others. In-laws sometimes substitute for missing parents. But that loss need not happen. I have seen divorced men and women maintaining close relations with a former mother-in-law, or other family members, for years following the divorce. For one thing, there is a shared interest in the children/grandchildren.

If I were asked to write down the more serious reasons—the real reasons– why someone may hesitate to end a marriage, they would include some of those mentioned above, but usually only as they reflect greater concerns:

  1. Some people regard divorce as shameful and embarrassing. They would rather stay in an unhappy, but tolerable, relationship than acknowledge to everyone that failure.
  2. Some people, who have always felt unattractive and unappealing, are now older and, therefore, even less attractive, they think.
  3. Some people have a literal failure of imagination. Their married life has encompassed them, and they cannot imagine themselves away from children and friends and all the little details that make up family life.
  4. Implicit in all the above, is the thought that there can never be anyone to love them again, that the ending of the marriage can never be followed by a new beginning. And this thought is likely to grow out of a sense of low self-esteem which may have preceded all thoughts of divorce, and may have preceded the marriage itself, and that come out of all those substantial influences that lead someone to grow up self-confident –or not.

Sometimes an unhappy marriage is salvageable and sometimes it is not. Sometimes broken marriages come together again. I know of a number of couples who married each other twice, and one couple who tried a third time. When a relationship is broken apart finally, which happens often in our society, the husband and wife continue on in their own lives. How happy each will be depends on the emotional resources each person has. The situation is not much different from that of widows and widowers. How well they do depends on how willing they are to do new things and meet new people. They have to be prepared to change in some ways. Whether that is possible will depend on their willingness to change. (c) Fredric Neuman  Author of “Caring: A Guide to the Treatment of the Emotionally Disturbed.”