When is it time to leave an unhappy marriage?
From kids, finances and a fear of being alone, there’s more than one reason partners choose to stay in an unhappy marriage. So how do you make the right decision? One woman shares her story
wWhen Zoe Hendrix and Alex Garner from Married at First Sight Australia announced their split, fans were shocked and disappointed. They’d been the only couple in the history of the show to not only stay together but start a family. They had represented everything about love and relationships that gave us faith and hope. What was interesting was that after the announcement Zoe was swamped with messages from women asking her how she’d known when to leave. It seems there are a lot of women out there who feel trapped in unhappy marriages but aren’t sure whether to stay or go.
Zoe’s answer was disappointing. It had been Alex who’d chosen to leave.
I had included myself in that group of trapped women, and not getting an answer was nothing short of frustrating. But it forced me to look for myself and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long to find.
I think I’ve known all along. I have just gone to extraordinary lengths to not have to face it.
PLAYING IT SAFE
I’m a mother of three in my 40s. My husband and I have been together 12 years and probably half of those have been unhappy.
When we met I was a single mum. I hadn’t been looking for love but he crept his way in. He was warm, fun and supportive. We bought a house, got married and had a baby. Those years were pretty good.
But we had a few factors working against us. It was my second marriage and, statistically speaking, second marriages are even less likely to work than firsts. We were an instant family, giving us little time on our own, and my husband had a job that required him to often work evenings and weekends.
Things began to deteriorate as we struggled to communicate or see eye to eye over issues like parenting and money.
What Relate Counselling Auckland director Steven Dromgool might say here is that we’d depleted our relational bank account. In the first few months of a relationship – and up to four years if your relationship is long distance –
IT SEEMS THERE ARE A LOT OF WOMEN OUT THERE WHO FEEL TRAPPED IN UNHAPPY MARRIAGES
/ couples make massive investments into their relational bank account because they’re falling in love and producing a hormone that causes them to focus their entire existence on making their partner happy. But once we feel secure, we stop producing that hormone and the only transactions become withdrawals, as we face different challenges in our relationship. Our initial deposits see us right for a few years but by year six to 10, if there haven’t been regular top-ups, couples start to flounder and separate. If they’re not separating, they’re not necessarily happy. It’s astounding how much unhappiness people will endure because they’re afraid of change or being alone, says psychologist Dr Ruth Jillings.
“The thing is, even in a relationship that’s floundering, there are still good times so people get confused,” she explains.
“We’re wired to invest in relationships because of our history so people fear they’re making a mistake. Their deepest fear is that they may never be in a happy relationship again or that they’re fundamentally unlovable in some way and a failed relationship proves that.
“That keeps you stuck for a long time and what I mean is it may not even be a conscious fear. People will say, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, that’s not what I feel’, but it’s a deep-seated core fear that’s hidden behind all sorts of things.”
People fret about finances and how a split will affect the children. Dr Jillings has had clients tell her they can’t face the logistics of having to sell the house and sort arrangements for the kids. ‘It’s not that bad,’ they rationalise.
“So they stay in this relationship where they’re undervalued or unloved. I’ve even known couples who’ve been in almost hostile situations. We get used to all sorts of stuff.”
MENDING THE HURT
About three years ago I began telling myself ‘It’s not that bad’. I even went to a counsellor to double-check if I was really this unhappy.
She urged me to try and talk with my husband but we’d been avoiding talking about anything that might cause an argument for so many years, I couldn’t bring myself to raise it with him.
I decided that if I could just find a way to make myself happy without relying on my husband, I could stick things out, so I made the dumbest decision I’ve ever made. I started having an affair.
It was a friend of my husband’s that he’d recently reconnected with and when I was around him I felt good. I convinced myself that no one would get hurt because no one would ever find out. It would just be a way of me giving myself some personal happiness so that I could stay in the marriage and see the kids through school.
But we were found out. The fallout was catastrophic and the year that followed was the second worst of my life. (The worst was the year after Mum died when I was 15.)
My husband was incredibly hurt and angry. I thought he’d want to split but he wanted to work things out. I wasn’t sure we could but believed we should try for the sake of keeping the family together. I was also ashamed and felt I deserved the punishment.
Counsellors told us that if we could get through this we would progress to a deeper level of love and a level of communication that would see us talking in ways we’d never been able to before.
It was an utopia we tried desperately to reach but we didn’t make it. While we moved past the anger and hurt, and even got to a place where my husband said, ‘I can understand why you did it’, we never found a way to create a new and better relationship.
Fifty to 60% couples stay together after an affair – but not necessarily happily.
“For a lot of people you’ll have that initial aftermath when the affair is discovered. There are lots of tears, lots of protest, lots of upset,” Steven explains. “Where people stay together there’s a lot of reassurance, acceptance of responsibility – ‘I’ll never do that again.’ And over the next one to three months that will diminish and it tends to become a bit buried, and then there will just be flare-ups.
‘THEIR DEEPEST FEAR IS THAT THEY’RE FUNDAMENTALLY UNLOVABLE AND A FAILED RELATIONSHIP PROVES THAT’
“It will sit there as a relational low but because the couple has reached some agreement on that it creates a toxic bond, like the burying of the body in the backyard together. You’ve got that bond of that awful secret you share.
“If you want to make it better, the process goes deeper in terms of talking about it, getting through that care phase,” he says.
TIME TO SAY GOODBYE
It’s critical to talk about what the meaning of the affair was to the person who had it, he says, and that’s often neglected because it’s so painful for the person who didn’t have the affair to hear.
“But you need to explore what was the pay-off that they wanted and weren’t asking for, and then from there, that sets couples up to think about what sort of relationship they want together.
“Affairs basically end relationships. We work with couples to help them construct the kind of new relationship they want to be in. The successful completion of affair work is when a person says to me, ‘Okay, the last year has been really shit but I’m really glad this happened because we’re in a place that is so much better than what it could have been otherwise’.”
My husband and I still stayed together, stoic in the belief that the kids would have better opportunities, and we would all be more financially secure. We built a room for my husband downstairs off the garage and came to an arrangement where we both contributed equally to the household financially and in terms of housework and cooking.
But at around 8pm every night he would go down to his room or head out and I’d watch TV in the lounge. We were both as lonely as ever. We kept this up for a year.
How do you know when it’s time to go? When you just can’t do this any more. When you’re sick and tired of being sick and tired. When you fantasise about a future without your husband in it and pretend it’s just your house when he goes out.
We can’t keep doing this because we’re holding each other back. I’m sure he’d love to meet someone who thinks he’s great and, to be honest, so would I.
We’re also teaching our kids how to be unhappily married. My friend Catherine stayed with her husband for many years in the belief that staying together was best for their kids. They finally separated two years ago with all but one of their four children having left home. Her 20-year-old daughter recently told her that, growing up, she had been fascinated by seeing her friends’ parents show one another affection. For the first time Catherine realised that maybe she and her ex hadn’t been doing the best thing for the kids.
My friend Rachel, who split from her husband when their kids were young, told me: “Try everything before you go just so you know in your heart of hearts you did everything you could.”
We’ve done that and there is nowhere left to hide. We have finally agreed to separate.
‘IT CREATES A TOXIC BOND, LIKE THE BURYING OF THE BODY IN THE BACKYARD. YOU’VE GOT THAT BOND OF THAT AWFUL SECRET YOU SHARE’