How To Survive A Bad Marriage Without Divorce
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.