Mental Health: Fear of the Unknown Keeps Many People in Bad Marriages

When her marriage began to slide downhill, Ann Fry would often tell herself things like, “It’s not that bad,” or “I should be able to make this work.” After all, her career as a psychotherapist for much of her life had left Fry feeling like, if she could give others advice, she could surely work her way out of her own marital problems.

But then, an encounter with a tell-like-it-is speaker at a personal growth workshop left Fry feeling otherwise. “[At the seminar] I was saying that I’m always so nice and how I say ‘yes’ when I really want to say ‘no,'” relates Fry, 62 of New York. “The leader said to me, ‘Oh, so you’re someone who doesn’t honor yourself.’ It was like a knife went through my heart.”

And it turns out that many men and women may be feeling the mark of the dagger that touched Fry that day. New research shows that as couples grow older, they only begin to irritate one another more. And while those findings may garner a resounding “But of course!” from the happily married pair who finds a bit of nit-picking endearing, for the couple who is unhappy it can mean absolute distress.

What’s more, for many of the outsiders looking in on a bad marriage, they are asking, “Why bother sticking around?”

“The reasons people give for staying in a marriage are almost always a lie,” says Patricia Wall, who conducts regular workshops to help people move through personal barriers. “They stay because they’re afraid of the unknown —“ of change.”

“This means,” Wall says, “that among reasons like children, financial security, and religious beliefs, many people are also just scared to attempt to remedy a situation where they do not yet see a solution. When people can see options, they have hope. When people cannot see options, they feel hopeless and are much more inclined to give up.”

Fry says she began to see much of herself in the excuses that her clients would give her as to why they were still in their failed marriages. “I would tell myself that my husband wouldn’t be able to make it without me, and that my son — although in his twenties —“ would be upset,” Fry relates. “And lastly, because almost everyone else in my life was divorced, I would say that I wanted to be the one who could make it work.”

But, as Fry soon found out, staying in a marriage for any number of excuses can never possibly make up for the lack that one or both people begin to recognize in a deteriorating partnership. “My husband could be very stern and opinionated, and the way he spoke to me was very demeaning,” she said. Every time we interacted in these unpleasant ways, I would tell myself that nothing was worth my staying. We’d become so estranged, and I was lonely — that made me want to leave. And all of this made it difficult to stay or to buy into my excuses.”

“This tendency for a couple to begin to feel bad about themselves because of their need to leave a marriage is all-too-common,” says Dr. Elinor Robin, a certified mediator and family therapist. “Marriage is good; being in a good marriage is great,” says Robin, who is also the co-director of a Florida-based divorce mediation center, A Friendly Divorce. “And, most of us don’t want to be single, so it’s easy to stay in a crummy marriage. However, in my experience being in a bad marriage is draining, demoralizing, and depressing.”

In addition to emotional grief, continuing to live within a failed marriage also can cause poor performance at work and serious health problems, according to a three-year study released in May 2005 by the Women’s Studies Resource Center at Brandeis University. Researchers conducted stress indicator tests in order to determine how women and men are affected by the stress that goes hand-in-hand with marital displeasure.

The results showed that these unhappy men and women had higher cortisol levels in the morning, and more daily self-reported stress and blood pressure than couples who were generally happy with their marriage. Such a substantial amount of stress has been linked to a higher risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, and several other health problems. These study results understandably can have a person in an unhappy marriage asking oneself, “Is staying really worth it?”

But before one calls it quits with his or her spouse, experts agree there are several things to consider before deciding to divorce. Keeping an eye on a few warning signs —“ lack of sexual intimacy and affection, an absence of communication and feelings that the negative aspects of a marriage outweigh the good —“ will begin to help a person begin to make a decision as to where his marriage is headed.

And remember to put the excuses aside. “Keep in mind that the time is never right,” says Robin. “If you are sure that the marriage is over, remember it’s easier to leave at 33 than 43, and easier to leave at 43 than 53. Leave now while there is more time to create the life you want to live.”