by Nancy Wasson, Ph.D.
There’s no one simple answer to the question that I’m often asked, “Should I stay in my marriage, even though I’m unhappy, or should I leave?” It’s impossible to give a “one size fits all” response because every marriage is different.
But there are some general guidelines that you can consider if you’re in this situation. Use these thirteen tips to reflect on your marriage, your energy level, your commitment, and the degree of your dissatisfaction.
1. Don’t give up prematurely. You have invested time, energy, money, hopes and dreams in your marriage. The only way many people can initiate divorce without feeling unduly guilty is to know that they have tried everything they possibly could to make the marriage better. It just makes good sense to focus on how you can improve the relationship you’re in now.
2. Consider your children and how a divorce could impact them. Divorce is never easy. Preschool children and kids who are still in school will be affected in ways grown children are not, such as possible changes in schools if a parent moves, a parent possibly having to work two jobs to make it financially, the loss of daily contact with both parents, etc.
3. If your spouse has an addiction or is abusive, utilize all resources and support groups that offer help. For example, If your spouse is an alcoholic, join Al-Anon, which provides support for family members, and get your teenage children involved in Alateen so they can get the support they need to deal with the home situation. Of course, a top priority is keeping your children safe, so do not keep them in any situation that is dangerous for them.
4. Focus on how you can change yourself to be a better partner instead of how you want to “fix” your spouse. When you work on improving yourself and changing non-productive habits and approaches, then your spouse will have to relate to you differently. You may have gotten in a habitual mode of pushing each other’s buttons in the same way and always eliciting the same response. But if you change your normal response, then the interaction between the two of you will change.
5. Have on-going support from a counselor who knows your issues and what you are going through. This will give you the help and encouragement you need to keep trying new things and experimenting with new approaches.
6. Encourage your spouse to consider marriage counseling. If he or she is resistant, use the techniques detailed in the special report, “How to Motivate Your Spouse to Talk to a Marriage Counselor (Even When Reluctant, Resistant, and Unwilling”). These techniques have been used successfully by numerous spouses. The report is available at http://www.keepyourmarriage.com/Special_Reports/Report_sale.htm.
7. Examine whether or not you are depending too much on your spouse to meet your needs or “make you happy.” No one else can make you happy; it’s an inside job. And no one person can meet all the needs of another. That’s why you need friends, hobbies, and outside activities. Expand your world and see if this takes some of the pressure off of your marriage.
8. Keep a gratitude journal each day, listing all of the things you are thankful for in your life. Each day, try to find five or six new things to list that you haven’t written down before. During the day, notice what happens that’s a blessing: the friendly sales clerk who efficiently handles your refund with a smile, the parking space that suddenly opens up just when you need it, or an unexpected compliment from a co-worker.
9. Make a list of your spouse’s positive qualities and contributions to your marriage, including things he or she has done that you appreciate. Read over this list every morning and every evening, anchoring these good points in your mind. At some point, share your list with your spouse.
10. Make a consistent effort to be positive and encouraging. Sandwich any criticism or request for a change in behavior between two compliments. For example, “You’re always so responsible about mowing the yard each weekend. Could you also sweep the grass clippings off the sidewalk? Thanks for all you do to help keep the yard looking so good.”
11. Work on keeping your heart open in love to your spouse. It’s easy to close down emotionally when you’re angry or hurt. Visualize beams of love or golden light radiating out from your heart to your spouse’s heart. You can dislike the behavior but still love the person. When you send the energy of judgment and criticism to another, the response will be very different than when you send the energy of unconditional love.
12. Try writing your thoughts, feelings, and requests in a letter to your spouse. There are many spouses who have responded positively to a letter who have been notorious for tuning out the spouse’s verbal pleas for years. It’s a different medium of communication, and it often commands more attention.
13. When you have given your marriage your best efforts for at least a year and nothing has changed, then ask yourself the famous Ann Landers question, “Are you better off with him (or her) or without him?” Life is too short to stay stuck in a miserable marriage for years if you are the only one who wants your relationship to be different. Even at this point, though, sometimes the shock of having a spouse initiate a legal separation makes the other partner finally realize the seriousness of the situation and agree to work on the marriage.
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