Three Things to Consider Before Giving Up on Your Spouse

by Carey Nieuwhof

You married with the hope of sharing your life with someone who’s as pumped to make the most of it as you are, so how did the two of you end up here? Maybe the turbulence of the recent months – with lifestyle disruption, threat of COVID and economic uncertainty – is taking its toll on how you both feel.

Your daily activities are no longer what they used to be, and while there some changes you enjoy, your marriage feels worse than before.

Lockdown has amplified all the annoying habits of your spouse. He chews his food too loud. She never gets out of yoga pants. You wonder to yourself, if you ever need to be quarantined again in the future, is this the person you want to be quarantined with?

As a divorce attorney and mediator, I’ve walked with hundreds of people who’ve left unhappy marriages. If you’re like many of us, you’re not dealing with a harmful or toxic marriage, but an unhappy one.

The line between harmful and unhappy is not black and white, and you may need to reach out to someone wise you trust to help you discern the difference.

If you’re like most unhappily married people, when your disappointment feels strong, you wonder whether you’ve signed up for a lifetime of misery.

I get it. There are times every marriage feels hard, even impossible. In today’s blog, I’m asking you to set aside your cynicism, your disappointment and your disillusionment for a few moments to ponder a few thoughts about separating .

Why am I writing? Because I’m so grateful there were people, including friends, speakers, authors and counsellors who I listened to and learned from while our marriage felt like it was breaking down.

Carey and I now enjoy a thriving marriage we wouldn’t dream of leaving. Who knows? Maybe one of these 3 things will help you start to move out of your distress, too:

1. Your Victim Story Will Blind You

Let me guess – so you think it’s all your spouse’s fault your marriage is so hard?

For many years when Carey and I had heated arguments, I would withdraw.

I would slip off into my own little world and go silent and become basically unreachable. But going silent wasn’t Carey’s wiring and it drove him crazy. I would insist he leave me alone while he persistently tried to draw me back into some kind of engagement. I labeled Carey’s behavior as aggressive and this dynamic carried on over time only led us into bitterness and resentment.

Years in without realizing it, I was telling myself a victim story that threatened to derail us. It was a tangled version of I can’t do this anymore and if only he would also fight for peace and leave me alone… Turns out, my victim story distorted the truth.

When I slipped into silence during an argument, I wasn’t simply ‘fighting for peace’ – I was also stonewalling. There were times when I withdrew into my self-made fortress and treated every advance by Carey as an attack.

It was only after I absorbed the wisdom of counselors, engaged in some serious self-reflection, and developed the maturity to face my own blind spots that I could see my role more accurately.

My victim story was clouding my vision.

When it comes to relationships, if there’s a victim, there’s a perpetrator. When you adopt a victim mindset especially in marriage, the psychology of ‘we’re a team’ breaks down. Then you feel divided and disconnected from each other.

The vast majority of my family law clients saw themselves as having been victimized by their spouse in some way. Most people who were leaving said their spouse was emotionally abusive.

That label has really caught on. A victim narrative is problematic because it takes relational dynamics with inherent complexity and oversimplifies them.

You, like me, will have a human tendency to oversimplify the story in your favour, to help you avoid pain and cause you the least personal discomfort.

A victim narrative is problematic because it takes relational dynamics with inherent complexity and oversimplifies them.

Is there a subject you and your spouse avoid because one or both of you gets triggered when you broach it?

How to get the other to stop being so negative? How to fight clean instead of ‘dirty’? How to solve that nagging parenting problem? How to handle your growing money problem? How to fix your failing relationship? How much sex?

Chances are, you both believe the other person’s to blame for the unsolved problem(s) in your relationship.

You too, may have a victim story running in the background, blinding you to your own part in whatever your problem may be. But if you walk away without trying to spot your own role or offense, you’ll leave believing your part truth, part fiction victim story.

If I’d walked away when my victim story spoke to me the loudest, I would have carried the same stonewalling-under-the-guise-of-peace tendency into my next relationship.

Maybe after two or three partners, the part of my story that was fictional would become more visible. I’m grateful it didn’t happen that way.

And you don’t need to wait for the passage of time and experiences of life to open your eyes to the whole truth, either. As long as your marriage is unhappy and not toxic, you are not a victim. While the ‘blame’ for the struggles between you may not even out at 50:50, and perhaps your spouse is 90% responsible – you still have your 10% to own.

Make yourself a promise to look for your part. Avoid passively allowing time to teach you.

Search for the fictional part of your victim story, with humility. When you find it, own it, apologize for it, and start taking steps to make it right.

2. You May Be Listening to the Wrong Messages

Your friends will influence you either to lean into or away from your marriage. Research shows how much your marriage decisions are influenced by the people around you. In recent years, neuroscientific research has uncovered fascinating insight into how our brains respond to the influence of the brains of the people we surround ourselves with. Moran Cerf, a neuroscientist and professor at Northwestern University, has done research into the social aspect of decision-making. As one reporter says of Cerf’s research:

So long as we make the right choices, the thinking goes, we’ll put ourselves on a path toward life satisfaction.

Cerf rejects that idea. The truth is, decision-making is fraught with biases that cloud our judgment. People misremember bad experiences as good and vice versa; they let their emotions turn a rational choice into an irrational one; and they use social cues, even subconsciously, to make choices they’d otherwise avoid…”

His neuroscience research has found that when two people are in each other’s company, their brain waves will begin to look nearly identical.

Says Cerf, “This means the people you hang out with actually have an impact on your engagement with reality beyond what you can explain. And one of the effects is you become alike.”

Cerf’s research findings don’t strike us as counterintuitive; in fact, our life experiences have already taught us that people tend to rub off on each other. We become more like the people we keep company with.

If the norm among your friends or social circle is to get a divorce when the marriage feels over, then according to the research, divorce becomes a more likely outcome for you too. But it doesn’t have to be.

You already know that you choose the company you keep and the voices you listen to. Look around you. Are the people you’re closest to cheering for your marriage? Or are they cheering for you to walk away?

Look around you. Are the people you’re closest to cheering for your marriage? Or are they cheering for you to walk away? 

While you need friends who will be with you through the ups and downs, you may need to be selective about who you receive advice from. Do the messages of your friends bring you comfort, or wisdom?

If you were choosing between two job offers or two cities to relocate to, I’m guessing you would weigh the pros and the cons. You would try to see both the risks and the benefits as objectively as possible. You might also visualize what life would look like down the road for each option.

But for me, during our rough season of marriage, that kind of objectivity was hard to grasp through desperate emotions. Your pain will push you to give up, and may even cause you to visualize what a new chapter of love might look like.

But add your pain to the voices or influence of people around you who have left marriages, and you may do what you never would never do with any other major life decision.

You may be drawn by your emotions and the social influence of your friends to only see the pros and not the cons of walking away.

What to do? If you’re feeling stuck and unhappy in your marriage, you need to seek out some other voices to give you informed perspectives about your options.

Commit to spending more time with people who value their marriage and yours. Invest in a relationship with a couple who have gone through unhappy seasons but are now deeply satisfied.

Combat your internal resistance toward finding a qualified marriage counselor who comes with great reviews from couples who were distressed but aren’t anymore. Sign up for a marriage course, retreat or marriage support group.

There are people who have invaluable messages for you while you’re struggling with your marriage, but chances are they won’t just show up. You need to make the effort to seek them out.

Choose to listen for wisdom over comfort.

3. You Won’t Feel the Costs of Leaving Until You’ve Left

Ever witnessed a divorce that seemed hasty and premature? After dotting the I’s and crossing the t’s on the divorce settlement, I had a few clients who said, “If I’d only known then what I know now, I would’ve tried harder to save my marriage.”

There’s no way around it: splitting isn’t going to look or feel the way you imagine.

I walked through divorce with many clients who were shocked by the gap between what they expected after separating and what they experienced.

They had a hard time coming to terms with it. If you’ve been married any length of time, and especially if you have kids, even an out-of-court divorce will be harder and more complicated than you imagine.

Many of the parents I advised told me the primary reason they were walking away was to stop the negative impact of their fighting or their indifference toward each other on their kids.

Either through your own experience or that of others, you’ve seen the other consequences of divorce. Maybe you’ve helped a friend through the grief of their marriage breakdown. Maybe you’ve seen how the demands of making divorce arrangements pushed other priorities such as work or personal health further down the list.

I’m sure you’ve heard about the financial loss people suffer when they divide the family income between two separate households. The costs of separating only become stark reality when you take the real steps.

Please don’t hear me say that divorce is never an option. In some cases, the divorce is hard but spares the family from further harm. However, don’t make a hasty decision to split. Listen to wisdom first.

Choose the hard work of facing the fictions in your own victim story. Chances are, your courage combined with action will keep you from the regret of wishing you’d tried harder.

You may believe it’s your spouse who needs to do the hard work, not you. But this decision is high stakes, and you have more influence than you think.

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