Only the lonely: why do people stay in unhappy marriages?

man and woman separated on sofa - unhappy marriage

If you’re in a marriage that’s breaking down, friends may encourage you to “Mend it, don’t end it.”

However, staying in an unhappy marriage that is beyond repair may be damaging to your health, a study by the University and Nevada and Michigan reported last year. The constant state of tension and repeated arguments about everything from the children and money to how to stack the dishwasher can, according to the report:

  • activate the release of stress hormones
  • cause inflammation in the body
  • cause changes in appetite regulation
  • compromise the functioning of the immune system

So, why do couples stay together in a relationship that is beyond the point of no return, but not actually violent, abusive, acrimonious or controlling? (Domestic violence and coercive control are issues we’ve dealt with in a previous article.)

Reason #1: fear

There are various reasons given by couples which stay on regardless, but the main reason given is fear. It’s a combination of fear of the unknown, fear of irrevocable change, and most of all, the fear of being alone without a companion or possibly your children.

As psychotherapist Richard B. Joelson explains in an article:

“For some… ending a relationship—however necessary and appropriate—is nearly impossible to tolerate. This, I believe, is a major reason why some people stay together; they justify it with beliefs such as, "The misery I know and am familiar with is preferable to the misery of being alone."


Fear of being alone

This fear of loneliness is compounded by what you, as a divorced person, might possibly lose in terms of social networks and support. You might feel that mutual friends will have to ‘choose’ which to remain friends with. You might also worry about losing touch with in-laws that you (and the children) are very fond of. Will being divorced affect your work, your relationships in the future, or your position in social groups such as at church or at parent’s evenings?


How to overcome that fear

Rest assured, the fear is usually considerably more frightening than the reality. Many of our clients find that once they have sought our legal advice and understood what the reality of life beyond divorce might look like, they are able to move forward with confidence. Their fears fade and their confidence grows through the divorce as they see the benefits to themselves, their families and their future lives.

As Tracy Mccole writing in Divorce magazine so neatly puts it:

“A family lawyer does more than assist you with filing paperwork. Reaching out to a lawyer when you are considering divorce can help you to understand what life could be like outside of the restraints of your marriage. Many divorce lawyers work to expose the unknown so you can be confident you are making the right choice for you and your family, regardless of whether that means you will be pursuing divorce or not.”

That’s why we at LGFL offer a free 30-minute consultation, so we can talk through your situation in complete confidence and show you the legal path through divorce and beyond. Apply for your free legal consultation now.

Beyond the fear

Other reasons cited for remaining in a broken relationship include:


Reason #2: Staying together for the sake of the children

At LGFL, we hear this all the time. However, the evidence suggests that children living in a home full of hostility and argument would often be better off if their parents made the break. The constant state of conflict can have a detrimental effect on children, as we explored in our recent article. As Nichi Hodgson writes in The Guardian:

“As a child witness to several parental divorces, I’ve always found deeply patronising the notion that people “walk away too soon” from failing relationships and damage their kids in the process. Trust me, I was never happier than when my parents were out of their multiple acrimonious marriages.”


Reason #3: The cost of divorce

There’s often a confusion between the cost of divorce in terms of court fees and legal costs, verses how much each party stands to ‘lose’. Divorce can be straightforward and costs managed to sensible levels, through couples keeping arguments to a minimum. A collaborative law approach and clear disclosure of assets can help a couple come to a financial agreement that is acceptable to both. Yes, it will initially cost more to live apart than together, but a shared gas bill is not a good reason to stay with a person you no longer love.

However, the perception is that either:

  • Your spouse will “take me for everything I’ve got”


  • “I’ll lose the house” (more on that later)

In these circumstances it’s vital to take legal advice early on to ensure that assets that are yours and yours alone are protected and retained, and joint assets are divided fairly. Equally, any maintenance payment expectations should be proportionate and reasonable, on both sides.


Reason #4: Embarrassment of relationship failure

Despite years of progress in the acceptance of all kinds of marriages, there is still a sense of shame in society if a relationship breaks down without a clear and unequivocal cause. Many couples find it difficult to tell friends, family, and work colleagues about their ‘failed’ marriage. This in turn can isolate them from the very support network they need to help them through their separation and divorce.


Reason #5: Potential loss of the family home

The property where you lived your married lives together and raised your family in happier times has a great deal of time, love and memories invested in it. Your own lives and those of your children are probably geographically centred on this home too. It’s been the hub of your lives for years, and suddenly it’s being viewed as an asset or perhaps, a liability to be disposed of.

In a previous article, we looked at reasons why holding on to a family property after divorce split may not be the best way forward. As the resident parent with children, the costs of running a large house may weigh heavily on you, for example. Or you may feel the whole house is too full of unpleasant (or conversely happy) memories. A clean break to a more suitable property might be more convenient, less emotional and more affordable.


To stay or to leave?

Data gathered by psychologist Levi Baker suggests that, in his words:

People tend to leave unhappy marriages when

  • (a) they expect the relationship will not improve, and
  • (b) they expect they can find a better alternative. (“She’s never going to change, and there are plenty of fish in the sea.”)

People tend to stay in unhappy marriages when

  • (a) they expect the relationship will improve, or
  • (b) they expect they can find no better alternative. (“We’d be happy if he’d just stop drinking, and who wants an old housewife like me anyway?”)

To this list we’d add one more ‘remainer’ type; those who want to avoid protracted conflict and antagonistic court proceedings. That’s where our mediation service can really help. Professional mediation can help resolve differences between you and your partner, and help with the arrangement of child and family solutions outside of court.

A mediated meeting is chaired by an independent mediator. It creates a safe and non-confrontational atmosphere where you and your spouse can discuss issues around the breakdown of your relationship, financial settlements and child arrangements. The outcome of these mediated discussions can then be to your own solicitor for independent legal advice, or to a court to be written into some form of agreement.

For more details on our mediation service, call us in complete confidence or fill in our enquiry form.


LGFL Ltd Listening with empathy, acting with authority