Stuck in an Unhappy Marriage But Can’t Leave? This Might Help!

Last Updated on November 1, 2021 by Alexander Burgemeester

Help! I’m in an unhappy marriage but can’t leave! I feel stuck and don’t know what to do now. Part of me wants to learn how to get out of a bad marriage, but part of me wonders if I should stick it out. If I leave, my entire life will change- and that’s scary. What should I do?

Does the following script sound familiar? Are you in agony? Do you feel like you hate your spouse, and there’s no going back? Or, are you wondering how did we get here? We used to love each other so much. What went so wrong? 

If you feel trapped in an unhappy marriage but can’t leave, life may feel discouraging and overwhelming. You may assume you are stuck living in this misery. Or, you might try to work hard to see if things can improve. 

Fortunately, no matter how bad things might seem, you have options. There are no quick fixes, but it’s important to understand the possibilities you can pursue. Likewise, it’s crucial that you learn how to take ownership of your well-being. Let’s get to it! 

What Is an Unhappy Marriage?

Unhappy marriages exist everywhere. Maybe things started on the wrong foot, and you’re beginning to realize that the relationship has never been ideal. Or, perhaps, the beginning was wonderful. You two loved each other dearly, and now life has gotten in the way.

Regardless of the situation, a loveless marriage can be toxic. It can also be disheartening to both you and your spouse. Here are some signs that the relationship is in serious trouble. 

What Is an Unhappy Marriage

#1 You Have No Desire to Spend Time Together

You just don’t seem to care about quality time anymore. Instead, you fill your days with work, responsibilities, or other relationships. 

If you do spend time together, you aren’t connecting. You’re either watching TV or scrolling through your phone. There isn’t a desire for genuine engagement or deeper communication. 

#2 You Feel Apathy Towards Your Spouse 

You no longer have as much patience or compassion for your partner’s feelings. In fact, you may even find yourself feeling annoyed or resentful at them.

Additionally, things may seem like a competition. For example, it might be all about keeping score- did they take out the trash this morning? Did they make dinner for the kids? Are they going to laundry this weekend? And when they fall short of your expectations, the only feeling you experience is rage. 

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#3 You Constantly Fantasize About Another Life or Person 

It’s normal to occasionally daydream about being with someone else or living a different life. But if you’re continually fantasizing about a new partner, that’s a cause for concern.

Happy couples generally feel love and satisfaction in their relationships, even when things are tough. But if you’re in an unhappy marriage, any slight argument or roadblock spirals you into even deeper fantasies about calling it all off and moving on to someone new.

#4 You’re Bored 

There is no novelty in the marriage anymore. Neither of you seems interested in rekindling old sparks or making genuine efforts to keep things fresh. Instead, it’s just the same dynamic every day. You may even feel more like roommates than partners.

All relationships ebb and flow (and things certainly can’t feel exciting all the time), but endless boredom is a sign of marital dissatisfaction. It means you both are essentially relying on an auto-pilot mode to keep things going. 

#5 You Engage In Dirty Fighting 

You don’t practice healthy communication when the relationship gets tense. Instead, one or both of you resorts to mean tactics to try to “win” and stay in control.

According to John Gottman, Ph.D., and well-known author on relationships, unhappy couples tend to engage in the four horsemen during conflicts. These horsemen include:

  • Criticism: attacking the core of your partner’s character. I can’t believe that you’re so selfish! You never think about other people.
  • Contempt: assuming moral superiority over your partner. You’re stressed! You have no idea what it’s like for me at work right now. You have it so much easier than me, and I can’t believe you’d even dare to complain.
  • Defensiveness: trying to harshly defend yourself when given feedback or being asked particular questions. Do you really think I’d lie to you? I’m so upset you’d even make that kind of assumption. What kind of husband do you think I am?
  • Stonewalling: shutting down completely from the interaction as a result of being psychologically flooded. For example, a stonewaller might engage in the silent treatment, only respond in short, one-word answers, or walk away entirely. 
You Engage in Dirty Fighting

#6 There’s No Intimacy

Sex is one thing, but when was the last time you and your spouse kissed, cuddled, or even hugged? In other words, do you two express any affection towards each other?

If not, that’s a cause for concern. Intimacy and physical connection are important parts of a relationship. If these are lacking, it means you aren’t prioritizing them. Over time, this can cause emotional distance and resentment. But, on the other hand, it could also mean that one or both partners are meeting those needs elsewhere. 

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#7 There’s Abuse 

No matter how much you might want to give your partner the benefit of the doubt, any presence of abuse is an obvious sign of disrespect. Furthermore, abuse often progresses as the relationship evolves. What starts as seemingly innocuous can lead to life-threatening consequences.

Keep in mind that abuse can be physical, emotional, financial, or sexual. It isn’t uncommon for abusers to gaslight their victims into believing they’re overreacting or overly sensitive.

But if your spouse is hurting you physically or emotionally, it will undoubtedly affect how satisfied you feel in the marriage. Remember that your safety needs to be a top priority, even above your feelings about your spouse.

#8 You Just Know You’re Unhappy

At the end of the day, when you really reflect on your emotional state, how do you feel about your partner? Do you even like them? Do you even want this marriage to work?

Paying attention to your intuition is essential when it comes to evaluating our relationships. Chances are, if you’re unhappy, you’ve known it for a while. You may have tried to deny, rationalize, or suppress how you feel- but that gnawing feeling is still there.

What to Do When Your Marriage Is Over but You Can’t Leave

How do you stay married when you are unhappy? Do you just pretend that everything is all right? Do you ignore how you feel? And truly, what do you do when your marriage is over, but you can’t leave? Is there anything that actually helps?

Feeling stuck in a bad marriage may feel like being stuck in a bad nightmare. You know things are awful, but you feel defenseless about what to do next. If this is the case, here are some first steps to consider. 

#1 Consider Your Part 

It can be so easy to point our fingers at someone else when things go wrong. This is especially true in relationships. 

But when was the last time you genuinely examined how you contribute to this challenging dynamic? For example, do you pull away when your spouse tries to reconnect? Do you argue and become hostile when conflict arises? In other words, where can you improve within the marriage?

Sometimes, focusing on yourself offers more perspective into the relationship as a whole. Subsequently, you may learn that by changing yourself, the relationship naturally evolves and strengthens. It’s worth considering if you’ve never given yourself that opportunity.

#2 Try Therapy 

A qualified marriage and family therapist can help you and your spouse explore various marital issues. Whether you struggle with communication, intimacy, connection (or all of the above), therapists understand how to intervene and support couples struggling in their marriage.

You may find that some professional insight helps you both understand the marriage better. Moreover, practicing recommended techniques can strengthen your overall relationship. If you perpetually feel unhappy, speaking to a relationship therapist may help. 

#3 Take Steps to Reconnect

Sometimes, partners become unhappy because they stop making an effort to work on the relationship. Unfortunately, this process is typically gradual, and you may not even realize it’s happening until you confront it.

What to Do When Your Marriage Is Over but You Can’t Leave

If you want to work on the marriage, it’s worth considering how you two can start reconnecting. Do you need to schedule more date nights? Should you plan a vacation together? Can you commit to practicing healthier communication habits? 

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#4 Give It Six Months 

It might be worth giving yourself a deadline to decide if you want to stay married or not. In fact, some therapists even recommend this approach- having a time frame in mind gives both partners the ability to reflect, process, and commit to working on the relationship.

Of course, even after that deadline arrives, you may still feel somewhat indecisive. That’s reasonable. But you’ll have a greater understanding of your relationship problems and more insight about how to get out of an unhappy marriage if that’s your ultimate goal. 

#5 Practice More Stress Management 

Sticking it out in a bad marriage is tough. But if you aren’t ready to leave, it’s important to implement healthy coping skills into your daily routine. 

After all, there are no downsides to managing stress. On the contrary, having a more calm approach can help you feel less reactive and upset in your relationship. 

These coping skills may include: 

  • More mindfulness and meditation.
  • Exercise.
  • Strengthening your outside support system.
  • Pursuing old or new hobbies.
  • Connecting with your faith or religion.
  • Practicing more gratitude.

#6 Focus On Your Individual Identity

If you commit to staying married, it might be beneficial to shift your thinking about how you can still prioritize your happiness. You may not be able to rely on your spouse, but you can rely on yourself.

Focusing on your individual identity may mean revisiting old passions or interests. It can also entail strengthening your relationships with other people.

Basically, you should consider devoting time to self-reflection and self-discovery. Consider taking a new class or picking up a hobby that seems enticing to you. Make a bucket list and start committing to completing those items.

Even if you feel unhappy in your marriage, you shouldn’t assume you are doomed to a miserable existence. 

#8 Evaluate the Pros and Cons of an Open Marriage

Although it may seem taboo, more and more couples are considering the benefits of open marriages. Although specific terms may differ from couple to couple, an open marriage essentially means granting permission to seek love and affection outside of the marriage.  

How is this beneficial? First, if you truly want to stay in your relationship, opening things can give you a sense of freedom. You don’t have to worry about lying to your spouse or being unfaithful. Second, you can pursue intimacy and connection with someone else- while keeping things at home as they are.

Ground rules are the most essential part of an open marriage. You and your spouse should be on the same page and be transparent as much as possible. 

#9 Keep Practicing Better Communication

No matter the circumstances, there are no downsides to respectful communication. Even if you don’t necessarily like your spouse, you need to tolerate each other if you plan on sticking it out.

Remember to think before you speak. Don’t make rash assumptions. Avoid name-calling or bad-mouthing your spouse. If you feel like you might say or do something you regret, pause. Reflect on what you need and think about how you can reframe your anger.

Try to stay calm when faced with conflicts. Arguing will only make the stress worse. Try to avoid making each other the problem. Instead, make the problem the problem. In this sense, you work together as a team as opposed to enemies.

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Is It Better to Divorce Than Stay in an Unhappy Marriage?

Many people ask themselves this question as they start contemplating how to get out of a bad marriage. After all, we tend to stigmatize divorce. Nobody wants to marry someone assuming the marriage will dissolve.

That said, research shows that 50% of first marriages eventually end in divorce. Couples split their ways for all different reasons, but unhappiness is the core of most ruptures. 

So, is divorce the right answer? Is it better to end things or try to stick it out? Let’s examine what the research shows on the effects of staying in a bad marriage.

Divorce or Unhappy Marriage?

Unhappy Marriage = Poorer Health 

Constant fighting doesn’t just feel stressful. All the tension can wreak havoc on your physical health. Continuous stress can impact cortisol and inflammation. Over the long term, these elevated levels can have severe consequences on your body. 

Research shows that people in bad marriages may be at an increased risk for numerous health conditions, including:

  • Increased blood pressure.
  • Chronic pain.
  • Heart attacks.
  • Stroke.
  • Poor gut health.
  • Premature death.

Exacerbated Depression and Anxiety

Mental health is complex, and it’s unrealistic to pinpoint a single culprit as the cause of a specific disorder. That said, if you struggle with conditions like depression or anxiety, a bad marriage can certainly aggravate your symptoms.

We all need a positive environment and stable relationships to feel good about ourselves. So, if home feels toxic- and your marriage feels awful- you already have two obstacles continuously in your way. Over time, that’s going to severely erode your mental health.

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Better Modeling for Your Children

Parents often justify a terrible marriage because they want to stay united for their children. While this mindset may seem noble, such motives often backfire.

Kids don’t thrive when they’re in a chaotic home. They don’t benefit from all the constant arguing and animosity. Better yet, how can you expect them to want healthy, loving relationships when you don’t set that example for yourself?

As tough as it may seem, divorce often benefits children far more than an unhappy marriage. While they may seem angry or resistant at first (this is normal), there is often a sense of relief that they no longer have to witness such hostility.

Lack of Potential for Individual Growth 

If you’re in an unhappy marriage, you probably feel somewhat trapped. Indeed, you may be stuck in your circumstances. If those circumstances are bad, life will likely feel miserable and hopeless.

Divorce may seem scary, but it offers something a bad marriage cannot: possibility. Once you are free from your relationship, you suddenly have options ahead of you. These new options can give you a greater perspective on life and what lies ahead.

Increased Substance Use 

People in unhappy relationships are more likely to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. At the same time, couples in which a partner abuses substances are far more likely to be unhappy than when this issue isn’t present.

If you notice yourself trying to escape your feelings more and more often, that’s a red flag. Substance abuse tends to be progressive. If left untreated, it can have devastating effects on your mental and physical health. 

Likewise, even if the drugs or alcohol temporarily help you escape the pain, those benefits are incredibly short-lived. Once their effects wear off, you’re still left with your feelings- as well as the consequences associated with substance use.

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Intense Regret 

Take a moment, and imagine yourself ten, twenty, or even thirty years from now. Imagine you’re still in your unhappy marriage. Imagine that nothing in your marriage has changed from today.

Think about how that feels. Does it hurt? Does it make you uncomfortable or sad or angry? Does it make you feel worried for your future self?

Of course, we can’t entirely avoid regret, but we can take steps to mitigate some of it from happening. Chances are, you know that this marriage isn’t right. You also know that you deserve better.

So, even if you can’t imagine yourself leaving today, try to project out into the future. Think about what all those years might feel like. Think about what might feel different should you choose to pursue a different path. 

Sometimes, taking care of your future self means doing uncomfortable things for your present self. That said, discomfort tends to be temporary. Unfortunately, the longer you “stick it out,” the more trapped you may eventually feel. 

6 Steps How to Get Out of a Bad Marriage 

Why is it so hard to leave an unhappy marriage? I’m scared of what to do next. It all seems so overwhelming. What if I make a mistake or ruin everything? Maybe I should just stick it out. Even if it’s bad, leaving sounds much worse. 

Deciding to get divorced may feel scary, but knowing how to get of a marriage can be empowering. If you are committed to leaving, here is some information to help you prepare for your next steps. 

how to get out of a bad marriage

#1 Make a Concrete Plan 

Start organizing yourself and getting ready. If you want to file for divorce, you will want any evidence documented related to abuse, infidelity, or other infractions. Written proof can help build you a more successful case. 

You’ll also probably want a lawyer. Start researching divorce lawyers in your area and consider calling a few of them to review your plan. Lawyers all charge different rates, so it’s a good idea to get estimates for the work. 

Think about how and when you want to approach the conversation with your spouse. You should anticipate various reactions ahead of time. Some spouses may become angry and defensive. Others might beg you to stay and make grandiose promises about changing.

That’s why it’s important to wait until you are positively ready before initiating this discussion. You don’t want to keep changing your mind and going back on your word. 

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#2 Review Your Finances 

Ending a marriage can dramatically affect your money situation, so you will need to consider those logistics in advance. For example, if you are the primary breadwinner, you may need to pay alimony to your spouse. On the other hand, if you stay at home, you might need to get a job. 

Moreover, splitting assets can become complex and frustrating. Once you factor in lawyer fees, the costs can really add up.

First things first, make sure you have a bank account, debit card, and credit card in your name. You’ll need to start saving and earning your own money. You’ll also probably need to revisit your household budget once the divorce takes place. 

Keep in mind some resources can help you if you feel financially strapped. Some lawyers, for example, offer pro bono services. You can also look into assistance programs for food stamps, shelter, and basic living expenses. 

#3 Gather Your Support 

Now is the time to lean on your friends and family. Unfortunately, you may lose some people in a divorce. This is common- people often “choose sides” when a couple splits.

But it’s imperative that you take all the support you can get right now. Isolation can be dangerous, and your tribe can offer validation, resources, stability, and comfort.

Moreover, if you have children, your support system can help with logistical tasks like childcare, support, and helping them navigate this transition.

#4 Make a Plan for Telling Your Children 

Talking about divorce to children can be challenging. Ideally, you and your spouse should break the news together. Be honest and open to their questions and concerns.

Keep in mind that children often blame themselves for divorce. Make sure to emphasize that what happened is not their fault and that there’s nothing they could have done to make things better. 

Try to remain calm and avoid bad-mouthing your spouse. It isn’t fair for your children to ever feel the need to pick sides or feel like they’re in the middle of a never-ending argument. 

#5 Give Yourself Time to Heal 

Divorce can resemble a grief process. You may feel any combination of sadness, anger, or fear after ending your marriage. In addition, you might feel as if you lost part of your identity or your future plans.

These emotions are normal. Marriage is a serious investment and ending a marriage changes so many parts of your life. That’s why it’s crucial that you don’t rush “moving on.” It’s okay to feel whatever you feel. It’s okay to be uncertain about what to do next. Allow yourself time and grace to recover from your pain.

#6 Seek Professional Support 

Individual therapy can help you process the grief associated with divorce. It also offers strategies for coping with stress and adjusting to your new life.

Your children may also be struggling during this vulnerable time. Consider getting them involved in therapy or seeking family therapy. It’s essential that everyone has a safe, nonjudgmental environment to explore how they feel. 

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Final Thoughts 

Unhappy marriages can be stressful, sad, and frustrating. Whether you choose to stay or leave, remember that you always have options. You don’t have to stay stuck forever.

Breaking free from a toxic relationship may be the best decision you ever make. 

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Alexander Burgemeester

Alexander Burgemeester has a Master in Neuropsychology. He studied at the University of Amsterdam and has a bachelor's in Clinical Psychology. Want to know more?

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