"Wanting" to leave and actually doing so are two different things!
We’ve all witnessed it — a friend or family member in an obviously un-fulfilling or unhealthy marriage. We wonder: Why do they stay?
You hate seeing them suffer and the solution seems obvious and easy enough — just end the marriage.
But, ending a relationship is hard and complex, especially when you've invested a lot of time and energy into it.
Aside from the more obvious reasons people give for not initiating a divorce, such as the impact on the kids, inability to financially support oneself, and a basic fear of change, here are five less talked about reasons why people keep trying to make a broken relationship work ... or at least keep pretending it works:
1. They hate their spouse, but not their lifestyle
Your friend may think that the perks of the marriage, such as: a big house, lots of toys, mutual friends, co-parenting, financial security, or such, make up for the lack of harmony between the couple. No one but the individuals involved can make that ultimate cost/benefit analysis.
What you may find unacceptable, other people think is no big deal. The best support you can offer is just honoring your friend's prerogative to choose what works for him or her.
2. Their career benefits from the marriage
For an individual whose career benefits by being identified with their spouse (like in the case of Hillary Clinton), divorce is a less desirable option.
In the hit series, "The Good Wife", Alicia and Peter Florrick stay married and use each other for the sake of their careers, he as Governor of Illinois and she as an attorney. Alicia tells Peter he is free to have relationships with other women as long as it doesn’t impact their children or her job.
If your friend identifies self worth with his or her job title, that that could explain why the marriage continues to limp along.
3. Their personal values keep them stuck
Although we may not have specifically identified them, values influence our behaviors and emotions. If any of the following are primary values for your friend (family, loyalty, commitment), then choosing divorce is more difficult.
Individuals who stay in a painful relationship because of personal values say such things as:
- "I don’t believe in divorce" (faith and religion)
- "I was a child of divorce and swore I’d never do that to MY kids" (family)
- "I promised I would provide for my family" (commitment)
No one has the right to prioritize values for someone else. While you may not agree with or understand your friend’s value hierarchy, you can support them best by helping them live true to whatever values are most important to them.
4. They're afraid of being alone
We fear being alone because we are wired for connection. For some folks the fear of loneliness is so great that they would rather stay in a loveless marriage than risk it.
Stephanie Spielmann, a researcher at the University of Toronto, discovered that the fear of loneliness drove some individuals to remain with partners who aren’t good for them or to stay in marriages that aren’t healthy.
It is true that there are no guarantees your friend will find long-term love again. However, a person can design a fulfilling life as a single person if they are willing to put in the work to build and maintain a support network of friends and family.
5. They want to avoid social shame
Shame is toxic and negatively affects the way we see ourselves. In her book, Daring Greatly, Brené Brown defines shame as "... the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging."
If your friend believes that he or she is un-lovable or unworthy, filing for divorce can feel like donning a "Scarlet Letter" of judgment, telling the world "I failed" and "I’m not good enough." For some, staying in a painful relationship feels preferable to facing down shame.
Offering empathy, compassion, and unconditional love) will help pull your friend out of his or her shame spiral.
People stay in crappy relationships for a lot of reasons.
Try to understand the vulnerability and real intent behind your friend’s choices. If you see that your friend is making excuses to avoid the hard work of change, remind them that, as Earnie Larsen states, "nothing changes if nothing changes." Then be there as a true friend, whichever choice he or she makes.