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

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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’

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