My Marriage is Over, So Why Can’t I Leave?

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Reader’s Question

I’ve been married for more than 22 years to a man who I discovered, by researching relationship issues on the internet, is passive-aggressive. This was a shock to me but also a relief because I finally knew why my marriage has been failing.

We went through therapy both as a couple and as individuals. It was better, much better, and I thought for sure this was the end of those issues in our marriage. However, it was not and I have attempted to leave. Every single time, though, he managed to “manipulate” me into staying or “convinces” me that it was only a small episode and that he’s “going to try” harder to change.

The problem is that I’m not convinced, I’m forever mad, and I no longer trust him. So my question is: what the hell am I still doing with him!? Is there something wrong with me? I need help because I seriously can’t move one step in either direction.

Psychologist’s Reply

Twenty-two years is a long time, and your marriage is woven into your everyday life (not to mention identity). I assume you see your husband daily, and share the same residence, meals, and so forth. Even when it’s clear intellectually that the relationship should not continue, hesitancy to make such a life disruption “real” through action is understandable.

There is comfort in sameness and status quo compared to major life change. I’m certainly not saying that the status quo is satisfying or healthy, but it is the norm and therefore predictable. Even when we “know” rationally that life will be better after the turmoil of the breakup has settled down, initiating that turmoil and feeling ready to undergo everything necessary to get through it is not very inviting.

To complicate matters, your husband, like many spouses in troubled marriages, has promised change, and perhaps even shown such change for at least brief periods. Given what I said about our reluctance to initiate such a major event as divorce, it’s reasonable that we tend to grasp hopefully at repeatedly presented opportunities to avoid the big break up. Also, very few people are 100% awful, 100% of the time, so it can be easy to feel hesitant because there are non-negative aspects on which it’s possible to focus (especially at the moment that the spouse admits guilt, asks for forgiveness, and promises change).

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It sounds as though you’ve moved beyond the point at which it’s still possible to see your husband in an overall positive light, and to trust that he has the marriage’s best interest at heart. Anger and mistrust are certainly negatives that will eventually propel you from your current inertia. Continuing to baste in such corrosive emotions, however, is not in anyone’s best interest, including your own. So, how might you build the motivation for leaving without waiting until you feel badly enough to overcome the anxiety and downsides to plunging into the unknown of divorce and single-hood?

One strategy to generate motivation is to focus on how much better your life can be post-divorce. That way, instead of focusing on the hurdles to overcome, you balance out the picture by becoming clearer as to why it’s best for you to leave. Your imagined future might include living peacefully and independently by yourself, or dating, or settled down with a much better life partner. Regardless of what your ideal future looks like, you might spend some time visualizing it on a regular basis. The more detailed and concrete your image, the easier it will be to feel as though the future is not as unknown as it may feel right now. And, as you flesh out the details of what you do and do not want in your future, it may become easier to feel as though a decision to leave your current marriage would be a choice for a better life, not a choice to create disruption and anxiety.

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