Why Do Unhappy Couples Stay Together?

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Two of my friends have admitted that they plan to leave their husbands in the future. And several others have said enough to make me think they’re contemplating it.

My friends aren’t alone. According to a study of 2000 married parents in the UK, 18 per cent of couples have a date in mind for when they will leave their partner.

The research, commissioned by Family Law firm Irwin Mitchell, who presumably consider a spike in the divorce rate to be good for business, found that one in 20 couples have picked a date 10 or more years into the future to change the locks.

Of those who have already divorced a partner, almost eight in ten regretted staying as long as they did.

Why do unhappy couples stay together — some resigning themselves to unhappiness for over a decade before cutting their losses?

The romantic view is that couples want to work at things and see if they can learn to fall in love again.

But the research suggests that the optimists view is, well, optimistic.

The reasons couples stayed together makes you wonder if anything has really changed since the days when marriage was considered a good way to increase one’s estate.

Five of the top ten reasons for postponing divorce were financial, including: ‘I have too much to lose’, ‘I can’t afford to move out,’ ‘I can’t afford a divorce’, ‘For my partner’s money’, and ‘We have too many shared financial assets.’

Other reasons unhappy couples stick it out include worries about the stigma of divorce and fears that they won’t meet anyone else.

But the second biggest reason unhappy couples stay together is to save their children the distress of a broken home.

‘Staying together for the kids’ was the reason one in four married couples gave for putting off that trip to the offices of Bicker & Bicker. And they plan to split once their children have grown up.

Although ‘grown up’ doesn’t necessarily mean adulthood. One in five unhappy parents are waiting until their children reach at least 14 before going ahead with a divorce.

In Australia the term ‘post-HSC divorce‘ has emerged to describe the trend of women waiting until their youngest child has finished school before calling it quits.

Parents who are staying together for the children use a range of strategies to disguise their unhappiness — and their exit plans. They argue in a different room away from the children, sleep in the same bed to maintain the pretense, and even make a point of kissing and cuddling and going on date nights.

As a child of divorced parents I’m in two minds as to whether staying together for the kids is a good idea. I don’t know how I would have handled my parents’ divorce when I was younger but I do know that my parent’s efforts to maintain appearances gave me quite a warped view of marriage.

I had always assumed that the reality of marriage was a harmonious public appearance and an ice-cold passive-aggressive private life. I remember being genuinely shocked to discover that some married couples actually liked each other.

I carry this legacy into my own marriage. Even though I am genuinely happy in my marriage at the moment I am waiting for the day it will turn bad. I have few role models for happy marriage and even when I do meet people who claim to be happily married, I rarely believe them.

From the outside looking in, people would have thought that my parents were happily married too. In fact, people used to comment when they saw my parents holding hands that I was lucky to have parents who still loved each other.

When they did actually divorce when I was in my late-twenties it came as a complete shock. I was crushed when my dad told me that he’d wasted 30 years of his life. Not only did it make my entire childhood a farce, it made me feel responsible for my parents’ unhappiness.

I would never have wanted my parents to endure three decades of misery because of me. And even though I didn’t make that decision for them, I often feel the brunt of my father’s resentment for it.

I’m not about to tell my friends to rethink their decision to stay together for their kids, but I do think that sacrificing your own happiness for someone else rarely turns out well in the long run.


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