The most common reasons why people stay in their marriages are usually quite understandable. However, at the same time, I've seen many people use these reasons as excuses for remaining in unhealthy situations. I often refer to them as "misguided reasons" for staying in a bad marriage. They include (in order of how often they are used) the kids, money and security, love (this is misguided, because a marriage requires much more than love to be workable), fear, guilt, comfort and familiarity, pain avoidance, maintaining friendships and relationships with relatives (such as in-laws), keeping up appearances, and keeping promises.
When you have a tolerable marriage, staying for the kids can help them, but if you and your spouse constantly fight or have a great deal of contention between you, staying together will probably harm your children. It's important to consider what you model for your children about marriage and relationships and ask yourself if you are conveying good messages about marriage.
If security is important to you and you are not terribly unhappy, the marriage may be good enough for you. Some would judge this as wrong and deem it a superficial reason for staying, but the premise of marriage has been based on security (financial and otherwise) for centuries. This is a personal decision that only you can make. If you are staying for the security but are unhappy or enduring abuse in some way, I suggest working on developing your financial independence. For example, if you have been out of the workforce for some time raising your kids, begin rekindling old contacts, get back into school, or take a job that could be a stepping-stone to where you want to ultimately land.
If you feel fearful or guilty about leaving but are in a highly unworkable marriage, I suggest that you get some type of counseling or support. Both of these emotions are healthy, but allowing them to factor into your choices will probably not yield the best decisions.
As with security, some people feel that staying for comfort, to avoid pain, and to keep up appearances are reasons enough to remain married. If you are reasonably happy, there's nothing wrong with choosing to stay. But if your needs aren't being met, you will likely end up hurting yourself or your spouse in some way (physically, mentally, or emotionally) by staying.
Staying married when you are unhappy just to maintain friendships and relationships with in-laws or other family members is understandable but can be quite damaging to you and others. While these outside relationships can be beneficial for a variety of reasons, I encourage you to think long and hard about whether this is truly enough reason to stay with your spouse. It's also important to keep in mind that the people with whom you have deep, meaningful relationships will remain a part of your life regardless of your marital status.
Finally comes the reason of wanting to remain married because you took a vow to stay "until death do you part". This is an honorable desire, and many people believe that you stay no matter what. However, if you are truly unhappy or living in an unhealthy situation, the vows have already been broken. Part of what the marriage vows address is taking care of each other. If you and your spouse don't care for each other reciprocally, you may have more of a legal arrangement than a marriage.
These misconceptions keep couples in unfulfilling or unhappy marriages, and are based on what I consider to be impure reasoning. But what is a good reason to stay or go? This is actually subjective territory, but I will attempt to clarify the differences. As you can see, every one of these misguided reasons can also be a perfectly valid reason to stay. This is where the motive piece comes in.
So much depends on the level of thinking the motive comes from. Generally, moving toward a goal is a higher level of thinking than moving away from something you want to avoid. For example, working toward a college degree comes from a more advanced and mature place than wanting to avoid being poor or homeless. Your motive is to be empowered rather than to avoid disempowerment.
Because I'm aware of the potential for misinterpretation and abuse of this concept, I will elaborate. Someone might say, "I wanted to feel happier, so I left my husband. I was going toward empowerment and happiness and away from disempowerment and unhappiness," without any real attempt to work on the relationship. Certainly, that action may be necessary, but marriage is a commitment to be taken seriously. By virtue of our throwaway mentality, many people today see marriage as "just another relationship", "a financial arrangement", or simply "not that big a deal". They view divorce in the same way. That's why there are social and political groups vehemently trying to reinforce the importance of commitment. It's important that you be as honest as possible about your motives to stay or leave your marriage.
Are You Looking for the Easy Way Out?
Only you know whether or not you have put your heart and soul into your marriage. Only you know how happy or unhappy you are. Only you know if you're trying to get instant gratification or avoid dealing with some challenges.
After examining your own reasons for wanting to leave, if you feel that your desire to leave is based on a true need or something you can never change (you have tried over and over again to no avail), then your motive to leave is probably less about avoiding the problem and more about moving toward taking care of your own mental health.
By no means is divorce easy, but it can seem justified to people who don't want to look at their own inner demons or ask their spouses for what they need, or who would rather complain about others.
Does Your Spouse Qualify as a Friend?
Sharing in a Contemplating Divorce group one day, Tina realized that her husband didn't even make the grade as a friend. Noticeably pained by this awareness, she revealed, "He's not kind to me, he has no respect for me, we don't do anything together, and sometimes I wonder whether he would even notice if I never came home again!" Tina added that if this were a girlfriend, she would feel quite justified in dumping her without hesitation.
Then why would she accept this treatment from her spouse, who was supposed to be held to an even higher standard than a friend? When asked this, Tina responded that she didn't want to hurt the kids, was afraid of losing money, wanted to avoid conflict, and didn't want to be single; and this situation was just what she knew. You may recognize many of the reasons that we poked holes in earlier, because they are about avoiding something feared rather than moving toward a goal.
Tina was busted and knew it. No one in the group judged her. In fact, almost all of the other women could relate closely. Rather than get defensive, Tina just sank into her chair, sipped her tea, made a commitment to the group that she would ask her husband to treat her better, and added that she would commit to treating him more like a friend as well. Although she expressed a lack of hope that he would respond positively, she felt that taking these steps would satisfy her need to feel as if she'd done everything reasonably possible to save the marriage.
Susan Pease Gadoua, LCSW is founder and executive director of the Transition Institute of Marin, an agency that provides coaching, therapy, and workshops to people who are at some stage of marital dissolution, in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. This article has been edited and excerpted with permission from Contemplating Divorce: A Step-by-Step Guide to Deciding Whether to Stay or Go (New Harbinger Publications, 2008).