Pre-marriage 101 may give you a hefty toolkit for building a healthy marriage from the outset. Do everything correctly, and you won’t be wondering how to survive a bad marriage. Without divorce as an option, however, every couple needs to learn skills for sticking it out when the relationship loses its luster.
There are times and circumstances that warrant the end of a marriage. No one should resolve to tough things out when there is abuse, for example – whether physical, verbal, emotional, or sexual. Safety is a non-negotiable.
(*If you or someone in your home is a victim of domestic abuse, please do not wait to get help. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE  and keep this number in your phone and on-hand at all times.)
But knowing whether or not an unhappy marriage is best resolved with a divorce is rarely so cut-and-dry. And, even in marriages threatened by behaviors like addiction and infidelity, those determined to survive together do have options.
Descriptors like good, bad, happy, unhappy are subjective qualifiers that reflect the people involved as much as their circumstances.
There are, however, characteristics and dynamics that will set a relationship up for success…or failure. And no one has been more instrumental in defining these prognosticators than John Gottman.
Knowing how to survive a bad marriage without divorce first requires a fearless examination of your marriage and what makes it “bad.”
It’s not uncommon, for example, for couples to lose their emotional connection.
They may not even be able to point to a specific time or event that caused the disconnect. After all, the undercurrent of “life” and responsibility is deceptively powerful.
As is the way with currents, couples often wake up one day and wonder not only where they are, but how they got there.
And, before they know it, they have lost their hold on those qualities whose merit lies in the vow to uphold them.
Unkindness creeps in. Sexual desire creeps out. Resentment, anger, and a mortar of other negative feelings fill the cracks opened by neglect, fatigue, and boredom.
And suddenly allies have become enemies.
The casual reader may wonder why anyone would bother trying to stay in a marriage at that point. But the truth is always that we never really know what we would do until we are in someone else’s shoes.
Some of the most common reasons for trying to make even a bad marriage work include:
- keeping the family unit intact for the children
- religious convictions
- social status that is based on the couple as a “couple”
- fear of financial insecurity
- large and complex marital assets that would prolong and complicate a divorce
- insufficient financial assets to support two homes, especially with children
- fear of being alone
- worry about disapproval from family and/or friends
- health issues with a partner, child, or dependent senior
For all the reasons to leave, there are just as many reasons to stay. And, if you are serious about learning how to survive a bad marriage without divorce, you may be pleasantly surprised by the outcome.
The first step is to stop. Right where you are, mid-sentence, mid-negativity, mid-argument. Just. Stop.
You don’t have to have a cheery vision for reconciliation down the road. You simply have to stop the behaviors that are giving negativity the reins to your marriage.
Stop the sarcasm. Stop the circular arguing. Stop the nasty remarks and body language.
If the silence that fills the space makes you uncomfortable, let it be. It’s a neutral, safe space. And you will have the opportunity to fill it with positivity as you learn more about surviving an unhappy marriage.
Putting the brakes on the negativity is also an essential step to the practice of detachment.
Obviously the pendulum isn’t going to swing from miserable to happy just because you decide to stay in your marriage.
By practicing detachment, however, you can restore a sense of calm in your home.
And that calm can provide a healthy space in which to re-evaluate your situation going forward.
So what does detachment look like?
As the word implies, detachment means disconnecting from the behaviors and engagements – and their outcomes – that fuel the negativity in your marriage.
You shift your focus from the maddening habits and behaviors of your spouse to your own self-care. I’m not going to focus on his socks lying on the floor because I don’t have a “stake” in the outcome. I’m not going to respond to her remarks because I am disengaging from the consequences.
Does that to survive your bad marriage without divorce you go about life as if your spouse isn’t even there?
It does mean that you turn your focus inward onto your own self-awareness and self-care.
It also means that you and your spouse maintain a “How-would-I-treat-a-stranger?” politeness with one another. You avoid personal, intimate, vulnerable conversations and focus on “civil discourse.”
How was your day? Would you like to meet at Jimmy’s baseball game? Tonight’s my night to cook, so I’ll have dinner ready at 6:30. Tonight’s your night with the kids, so I will be gone until 10.
It means you “pull back” enough that civility can fill the space that has been clouded by fights, blame, criticism, disrespect, and general lack of love.
You return to those taken-for-granted niceties of “please” and “thank you.”
You look for opportunities to be kind, gracious, polite, respectful.
In a few words, you “mind your manners.”
And, perhaps the key to all of the detachment behaviors, you forego your expectations of your spouse.
Socks on the floor may have crazy-making history for you.
But, when you detach from all the implications you normally read into the behavior, you learn not to see it. At least you don’t read into it and make assumptions about its hidden meanings. His socks? His business. You have other things to worry about.
One of the greatest benefits of detachment is that, if you have children, they get to witness respectful behavior between their parents.
They may be well aware of the discontent at home. But observing your commitment to civility is a powerful lesson for them. It also helps to preserve (and deepen) their trust in both of you.
Detachment doesn’t mean you don’t do anything together. It’s in the best interest of everyone if you decide on at least one or two things to do together – as a couple or family – daily or weekly.
Watch a movie together with the kids. Have one meal together every day. Sit together at your children’s sporting events.
The criteria for spending time together, however, is to avoid emotion-ridden engagements.
This isn’t “casual dating.” It’s pragmatic, “just the facts,” spend-time-with-the-kids, no-sex-inside-or-outside-the-marriage engagement.
These are all ways to “engage without really engaging.” You get to “practice” being in one another’s presence without finding fault, being triggered into an argument, or even stirring up a blip of amorous inclination.
Depending on the severity of your circumstances, you and your spouse may benefit from a mini-separation. Even a couple days apart can let tempers diffuse and rational thinking flow back in.
It can also give you both time to reflect on the good that does exist in your marriage and how you can revitalize it. (Yes, an occasional case of “absence makes the heart grow fonder” can be good medicine.)
Especially if one or both of you are unsure about staying together, time apart can help you decide if your unhappy marriage can be saved.
Bad marriages don’t flip to good on a dime of good intention. But two simple actions can leave you a civil, safe space. It’s in this space that you’ll be able to work on yourself while preserving hope for your marriage.
- Stop the behaviors that fuel the negativity and discontent.
- And start to focus on yourself, your self-care, and how you can infuse positivity into a relationship best served – for now – with detachment.
You can learn more about navigating and surviving a bad marriage without divorce here.
I’m Dr. Karen Finn, a life and divorce coach. I help people, just like you, who are struggling with an unhappy or even miserable marriage. For immediate help, you can download your FREE copy of “Contemplating Divorce? Here’s What You Need To Know.” And if you’re interested in working with me personally, you can book an introductory 30-minute private coaching session with me.
Looking for more ideas about how to survive your bad marriage? You’ll find what you’re looking for in Unhappy Marriage.
The struggle to recover from infidelity is real. And, believe it or not, the struggle isn’t limited to the betrayed partner. It may look different for the cheating partner than for the betrayed partner, but it is real nonetheless. And the importance of self-awareness in this process can’t be over-emphasized, no matter which side of the betrayal you’re on.
Regardless of the destiny of your marriage after infidelity, how you survive the struggle will be determined, in large part, by your self-awareness. And that is true whether you are the spouse who was betrayed or the spouse who cheated.
Let’s look at 5 reasons the importance of self-awareness can’t be over-emphasized when you’re struggling with infidelity.
Self-awareness is the foundation for accepting responsibility.
When it comes to the issue of “responsibility” in relation to infidelity, it’s natural, if not impulsive, to demonize the cheater and glorify the betrayed.
Responsibility, however, is broader than “Who’s at fault for the affair?”
No one would debate that responsibility for the choice to have an affair belongs with the spouse who cheated. After all, no one forced him or her to go the route of infidelity, no matter what problems may have existed in the marriage.
The importance of self-awareness in this context is that each partner has responsibility to and within the marriage, especially if it’s going to survive.
And only through the ability and willingness to introspect can each person be honest about his or her contribution to problems within the marriage.
On a more detailed level, self-awareness leads each person to accountability in the process of communication.
Am I speaking my truth? Am I staying in integrity or lashing out in anger? Am I paying attention to my body’s signals? Am I throwing out blame to blanket how awful (or guilty) I feel?
Am I listening with the intention to understand? Am I confident and strong enough to handle what I hear?
Am I doing my part to contribute to a healing dialogue? If not, what am I avoiding? Is there something I don’t want to examine within myself?
There is no self-responsibility without self-awareness. And that goes for everyone involved – in the marriage and in the affair.
Self-awareness helps the betrayed partner quiet the self-sabotaging voice of blame.
The importance of self-awareness for the betrayed spouse may not be as obvious as the importance of self-awareness for the cheater. It’s natural to want (and expect) the person who cheats to feel the lashings of perpetual remorse.
But the betrayed spouse can fall into the trap of self-blame, too. I knew something wasn’t right, but I didn’t want to face it. How could I be so naive? I must not be good enough, pretty enough, successful enough. I didn’t do xyz, and this is what happens….
Self-awareness/mindfulness is a component of self-compassion. By recognizing the negative thinking as just that – negative thinking – the betrayed spouse can better control the self-sabotage.
If you are the spouse in this position, developing self-awareness will give you the ability to create a healthy dialogue with yourself. You may not believe all the “truths” you say to yourself (yet), but knowing they are true is what matters.
Self-awareness is essential for recognizing feelings and allowing them to come up.
Struggling with infidelity, regardless of your intended outcome, is a brutal process. Every aspect of your being becomes fair game for punishment – emotional, spiritual, even physical.
One of the most instinctive protections is to either deny your feelings or to let them run rampant with no monitoring or controlled expression.
Let’s face it – affairs are laden with emotions across the spectrum: anger, sadness, disappointment, passion, fear, exhilaration, hurt, self-doubt, shame, embarrassment, guilt.
There are feelings that lead to the choice to cheat, the choice to confess, the choice to fight for the marriage or leave it. And, without self-awareness, those feelings will “run the show” in any given moment.
They can also be so powerful that all you want to do is slam the door on them. Don’t examine them, just act them out or spew them out as off-leash vectives and blame.
But self-awareness inspires self-control and self-accountability. It allows each of you to own your feelings, your story, and your choices.
It allows the crippling, nauseating, numbing feelings to present themselves for inspection. And, while they all present with crucial information and insight, they don’t have to be given license to control you.
For the betrayed, this is essential to working through the understandable agony of having trust and dreams annihilated. It’s also essential to reaching a place of genuine forgiveness.
For the unfaithful, this is essential for making the link between feelings of unfulfillment and the choice to seek gratification elsewhere.
The resolve to look your feelings in the eye and listen to them is also an imperative step to self-forgiveness and healing from guilt.
Relational self-awareness allows the cheating partner to recognize the gravity of his/her actions and take action to understand them.
As tempting as it is to brand a cheater as non-rehabilitative, reality presents a very different truth.
That truth – that someone who has cheated in the past can, in fact, “convert” from the inclination to do so again – has conditions.
Relational self-awareness, in reference to one who has cheated, means the person takes responsibility for his or her actions and learns valuable lessons from them.
That same self-awareness will lead the unfaithful to seek answers and guidance in order to understand what “script” was actually justifying the affair.
Without self-awareness, history is likely to repeat itself. There also can be no empathy. And without empathy, there can be no healing.
Self-awareness is essential for allowing the grieving process.
Anytime a source of deep emotional connection is ended or dramatically changed, there will be grief. Sometimes it comes as high tide and sometimes more as an undercurrent. But it comes.
The importance of self-awareness in dealing with infidelity-related grief lies in its identification of the feelings specific to grief.
Without self-awareness, neither spouse is likely to recognize, let alone accept, the predictably unpredictable stages of grief when they hit. Denial, anger, guilt, bargaining – these are all powerful emotions en route to acceptance.
Who can argue with the anger of the betrayed spouse?
But what about the spouse who was unfaithful? Is s/he entitled to any anger?
What if anger was the underlying emotion that led to the affair, however unjustified the straying was?
What if the cheating partner truly loved the affair partner and is angry about having to give up that relationship? What if s/he feels responsibility for the affair partner and is paralyzed by the necessity to make another – and permanent – choice?
Even if the marriage survives, both partners will experience the full realm of grief, each in his/her own way.
There will be inevitable denial – perhaps that the affair was as damaging as it was.
There will be inevitable anger – at one another (and each at him/herself), for things one and for things not done. There will be anger over the loss of the purity of the marriage as it once was, anger over the loss of trust, and anger over the loss of dreams.
There may even be bargaining within the relationship in order to preserve it.
What matters is that both spouses are self-aware enough to recognize those emotions for exactly what they are.
The emotions are there to relay messages and inspire deeper reflection. They are not there to dictate impulsive decisions or unguarded behaviors.
Post-infidelity may seem like a hopelessly late-in-the-game time to think about self-awareness. But it’s never too late to develop it.
Self-awareness is the most direct way to improve your relationship because it begins and ends with the only person you can control…
I’m Dr. Karen Finn and I’m a life and divorce coach. Schedule a 30-minute private consultation for support in increasing your self-awareness so you can become more you even as you deal with difficult issues like infidelity.