Lately, much has been written about staying in a marriage even when you and your spouse are half past miserable.
Last month, The New York Times published two stories that, combined, subtly discouraged divorce and favored staying in unhappy marriages — or at least that’s how some people interpreted them. One was an interview with couples counselor Terrence Real, who talked about “normal marital hatred.” The other was an opinion article by Anglican priest and columnist Tish Harrison Warren. It was titled “I Married the Wrong Person, and I’m So Glad I Did,” but sometimes it sounds like she’s anything but:
The last 17 years have held long stretches when one or both of us were deeply unhappy. There have been times when contempt settled on our relationship, caked and hard as dried mud. We’ve both been unkind. We’ve both yelled curse words and stormed out the door. We both have felt we needed things that the other person simply could not give us. We have been to marriage counseling for long enough now that our favorite counselor feels like part of the family. We should probably include her photo in our annual Christmas card. At times, we stayed married sheerly as a matter of religious obedience and for the sake of our children.
In response to that article ― and similar think pieces from the recent past ― critics, including Soraya Nadia McDonald, begged women writers who “sacrifice themselves on the altar of marriage misery” to “stop trying to recruit other suckers to be miserable with you.”
Tracy K. Ross, a couples and family therapist in New York City, found the article frustrating, too. Mostly because the writer never really addresses why she’s grateful she stayed in her marriage. Or what she did to confront all that collected unhappiness, which surely must have taken a toll.
Yes, Ross recognizes that couples can go through very unhappy states and, with enough work, perseverance and commitment, can come out on the other side. But the therapist wishes Warren would have shown her work a little more.
“The article doesn’t address how they navigated to a better place, which is what people need to hear and learn about — there isn’t enough information out there on what ‘working on a relationship’ actually looks like and entails — the message is just that you need to do it, not the how,” she told HuffPost.
Los Angeles marriage and family therapist Saba Harouni Lurie had mixed feelings about the essay.
“The writer is clear on how her religious identity informs her viewpoint, and it seems like staying in the relationship is what works for both Warren and her partner,” she said. “The issue is that Warren seems critical of those for whom it would be braver to leave a marriage where they might be miserable than those who would stay.”
“[Marriage] is the mature adult thing to do. It signifies that we are worthwhile and stable.”
For some, it’s brave to pursue happiness, even if that means leaving a marriage, Harouni Lurie told HuffPost. (For what it’s worth, recent studies have shown that women are happier without a spouse or children: “If you’re a man, you should probably get married,” Paul Dolan, a behavioral scientist and author of one such study, said. “If you’re a woman, don’t bother.”)
Still, it’s not just Anglican priests and religious people who are clinging hard to marriage in a bid to stave off divorce. The divorce rate has never been lower, according to University of Maryland professor Philip Cohen. Cohen studied census data to determine that the U.S. divorce rate declined 18% overall from 2008 to 2016.
For a think piece last year, cultural writer Anne Helen Petersen spoke to many middle-aged, college-educated women in unhappy marriages ― marriages that they entered into at a cautious, steady pace ― and gathered that many of the women would rather stay unhappily wed than “fail” and get a divorce. (And, of course, there’s the financial component; after living on two incomes, getting along on just one income in this economy can feel like an impossibility.)
“As normalized as divorce has become within society as a whole, it has been denormalized for people in Blue marriages [progressive and/or educated couples who’ve waited to marry]. It is a different stigma than when it was frowned upon for religious or moral reasons, but it is a stigma nonetheless. Within this larger polarized conception of marriage, divorce has become something that people unlike you do; like being unable to conceive, it is an identity-smasher. And for people who considered their route to marriage and/or parenthood to be well-reasoned — and, depending on your family history, the opposite of what others in your life did — it can feel like a real failure, of foresight and wisdom and perseverance, for it to fall apart.”
For women, the “terror of divorce” is compounded by the way we’re taught to look at life: We’re told that nearly everything ― the pay gap, domestic labor discrepancies, frayed friendships because of the pandemic ― can be fixed through hard work and a can-do spirit.
“If they just put in the hours — in their relationships, on top of the hours put into their jobs and their parenting and their body maintenance — everything would work out,” Petersen writes.
The message is clear: If it’s not working out, you’re not trying hard enough.
In her therapy practice, Ross has also seen this phenomenon: smart, successful women staying in unfulfilling, unhappy relationships despite the fact that they are not financially dependent on men, like their mothers or grandmothers may have been.
“In fact, many times the men are dependent on them, there is little or no sex in the relationship, a weak emotional connection and oftentimes tinges of emotional abuse, and even varying levels of substance abuse — and yet they struggle to leave, hoping and believing that it can get better if only they try harder and get their partners to understand how they are contributing to the dissatisfaction,” Ross said.
More generally, Harouni Lurie thinks the way we conceptualize marriage impels people in unhappy relationships to stay (or scares people off the idea of committing to begin with).
“For most of us, marriage was considered a grand goal, and we were striving not just to get married but to be ‘happily married’ since early childhood,” she said. “It’s the mature adult thing to do. It signifies that we are worthwhile and stable. And if that’s the case, it is clear how threatening it would be to decide to reject this notion by pursuing a divorce.”
Because of how we valorize hard work and commitment, choosing to get a divorce is tantamount to “giving up and giving up on the very thing that you had worked so hard to achieve,” Harouni Lurie said.
For many long-married couples tentatively mulling divorce, the sunk cost fallacy plays itself out: They begrudgingly stay because they’ve already invested so much time in and energy in their relationship. As a major investor, you can’t let go, regardless of whether you’re unhappy or worse off than you’d be on your own, said Omar Torres, a psychotherapist in New York City.
“I often hear clients say some version of ‘But we have so much history,’ ‘But I’ve been in this relationship for five years, I can’t just back out now!’ ‘If this relationship ended now, that would mean the past 10 years were for nothing!’” he told HuffPost.
That means sometimes people stay at the expense of their own well-being, sanity or safety.
“This desire to hold on to a relationship past its expiration date has been around for as long as I can remember practicing,” he said.
Sometimes, a marriage just can’t be fixed
The truth is this: Sometimes marriage problems aren’t surmountable, in spite of our best efforts to make it work.
There’s the obvious dealbreakers: Trust, of course, is a crucial element to all relationships, and when one partner violates this trust through infidelity, neglect or abuse, it can be extremely difficult to rebuild, said Ryan Howes, a psychologist in Pasadena, California, and the author of the “Mental Health Journal for Men.”
“To ‘fix’ it, the offending partner needs to make a sincere, empathic apology, atone for their wrongdoing and take steps to make sure it never happens again, but these steps still won’t guarantee the trust will rebuild and the relationship will heal,” he said.
But what’s just as bad is the misalignment of wants: More and more marriages become unfixable and end because one partner realizes they just don’t want to do it anymore, he said.
“There is no real argument or ‘fix’ for that. ‘I don’t want to be married’ is a complete sentence,” he said. “We can take a look at what might be causing the change in feelings or see if there are other factors involved, but if one partner simply lacks the will to stay married, there’s not much we can do.”
Sarah Spencer Northey, a marriage and family therapist in Washington, D.C., put that thought even more simply: A marriage is not fixable when one or more people aren’t doing anything to fix it.
Couples therapy can and often does work, but only if both partners are open to the process and making big behavioral changes.
“There are couples who use couples therapy as a place to listen and grow and those that treat couples therapy like they are already in divorce court,” Spencer Northey said. “They are myopically preoccupied with talking about what the other person has done wrong and how that person needs to change.”
Such people can’t or refuse to see their role and what they might do to help repair it.
“Some may even say they want things to work, but they put the burden of change entirely on the other person and refuse to do much work themselves,” she said.
Spencer Northey has no moral judgment on whether a couple stays together or goes their separate ways. She recognizes that not every relationship is worth working for, especially if someone has seriously wronged you. It’s a deeply personal decision.
“But if you’re taking this stance of ‘I don’t want to work on it anymore,’ it’s over,” she said.