7 Signs You’re in a Loveless Marriage
Making the decision to leave a loveless marriage is scary: There’s often a deep fear of being alone, not to mention the possibility of an unknown future. So many stick with mediocrity, settling for low-level pain and dissatisfaction instead. But it’s not your best bet: “Staying in a seriously unhappy marriage can have long-term effects on our mental and emotional health,” says Carrie Cole, a couples therapist and Master Certified Gottman Therapist by the Gottman Institute. Research shows that people in bad marriages usually have low self-esteem, struggle with anxiety and depression, and have a higher rate of illness than those who don’t. We feel sad and grieve when we decide to let go — but people who divorce recover emotionally, and Cole says most find new relationships. In fact, “one statistic reported that 85 percent of those who divorce remarry within five years,” she says.
Now, we’re not saying it’s time to divorce just yet. But if these signs hit home for you, it’s time to take a hard look at whether this is a marriage you want to stay in.
1. You’re actively ignoring your gut. Our instincts can often tell us first when a relationship just isn’t working — but we don’t always trust that voice, says couples therapist Susan Pease Gadoua, author of The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels. “We often ignore our gut instincts because that voice is very quiet and calm, unlike the internal voice in our heads that thrives on high drama.” We’re trained to trust logic in many areas of life, so when a niggling feeling (“Am I really still in love with this person?”) presents itself, it’s hard to pay attention to it because there aren’t any hard facts or rational reasoning. Drill down on that initial instinct and ask yourself more specific questions. If you find your responses are things like, “I don’t feel safe to express myself, I don’t feel respected and haven’t felt happy in a long time,” that’s a sign that things have gone awry — and you shouldn’t ignore it. “The truth doesn’t go away simply because we don’t want it to be there; that voice stays in the background and weighs on you,” says Gadoua. “Getting quiet within is key to being able to hear instincts. And like a muscle, the more you trust your gut, the easier it becomes to decipher that voice — which comes from your heart — from the voice in your head.”
2. You’re preoccupied with other people’s needs and problems. Many women stay in relationships longer than they should because they tend to put the needs of others before their own. And since women often naturally take on the role of caretakers, they can lose parts of their own identity — and a sense of their own needs — in the process. “In order to face her relationship unhappiness, a woman needs to stop distracting herself by putting other people’s needs ahead of her own,” says Gadoua. “Doing this can be a way of avoiding her own painful truth.” So if you find yourself getting unnecessarily involved in a fight between your mother and sister, or you’re always rushing around trying to make other people’s lives easier, it might be time to take a hard look at your own relationship.
3. The distance between you keeps growing — and you wait too long to get help. One way to distinguish between a run-of-the-mill marital rut (where you’ve, say, fallen into boring routines and don’t have much sex anymore) and a loveless marriage is to ask yourself how long the situation has been this way, and whether it’s been steadily worsening. “Most couples go through rough times, but if the difficulties last more than two years, with no sign of relief, I’d recommend seeking professional help,” says Gadoua. And sooner is always better to avoid passing the point of no return. “It would be ideal if we could tune into our longings and needs well before we get to the point that the love we once had is dead,” says Cole, who notes that the average couple waits six years from the time they recognize relationship problems until the time they try therapy. By then, it’s often too late — the problems in the marriage can corrode it to the point where it may be unsalvageable. So play it safe and consider scheduling a therapy session if you’re struggling.
4. You fantasize about a life without your spouse. If you often imagine a happy (happy is the key word here) future without your partner, that’s a major sign that things aren’t right. This is a part of the emotional detachment process, during which you may try to convince yourself that you don’t care anymore so that the eventual separation feels less painful, says relationship therapist Jamie Turndorf, Ph.D., author of Kiss Your Fights Goodbye. “Detaching psychologically by fantasizing about having an affair or making plans for the future that don’t include your partner can all be signs that you’ve fallen out of love,” says Turndorf. “It’s as if the mind has pulled its own plug so our hearts won’t suffer as much when the relationship ends.” If you notice this mental pattern, take it a step further to see if the fantasy holds weight. Gadoua suggests checking out real apartment listings online, and paying attention to how you feel. “It’ll give you another layer of reality, which can then help you know what the right next step is,” she says. As you click through, check in with your emotions. If excitement or relief is your prominent emotion (rather than fear or apprehension), it may be a sign to acknowledge that there are serious problems in your marriage. “But before actually taking steps to leave, see if there are things you can — or want — to do to work on the relationship,” says Gadoua. That way, if you ultimately decide to leave, “you can do so with some peace of mind,” she says. “It’s never easy to end a relationship, but having lingering regret that you could have done more can make the decision harder.”
5. You’ve stopped fighting. If you’ve given up fighting, but feel farther apart than ever, it’s a sign that you’ve reached a crossroads. “If there’s a fight and the couple doesn’t talk about what happened, or becomes gridlocked in their position and refuses to listen to their partner’s perspective, that’s not good,” says Cole. However, you might still be able to turn it around. “Unresolved conflict can fool us into thinking that our love is lost, when it’s actually only buried beneath the ashes of smoldering resentment and anger,” says Turndorf. In other words, the love could still be there, but you just can’t access it. To get back in touch with those feelings, turn toward your partner emotionally — which creates closeness and connection — rather than ignoring them or responding negatively, which creates distance and disengagement. “Fights can lead to greater intimacy if the couple processes the fight and repairs the relationship,” says Cole. It’s up to you to decide whether you’ve got it in you to turn toward your husband and give it one last go, or whether you’ve maxed out your ability to keep fighting for your relationship.
6. You have one or more of the big relationship destroyers. According to Cole, there are four behaviors that are super-destructive to relationships. If one or more is present in your relationship, you could be on the fast track to loveless-ness (if you’re not there already). Every time you criticize your partner — by attacking, blaming, and putting the fault on them by flinging negative statements like “You’re always running late,” or “You never do anything right” — you corrode your connection. By being defensive and refusing to accept responsibility, or attacking in response to feedback from your partner, you chip away at the trust and goodwill in your marriage. If you have an attitude of contempt, and call your partner names or make stinging, sarcastic remarks, you imply that you’re superior and your partner is defective. And every time you stonewall one another, or emotionally shut down instead of openly addressing the issues, you create more distance and dishonesty, rather than openness, communication, and love. If any (or all) of these sounds familiar, schedule couples therapy to discuss why you do these things — and how you can fix them.
7. You don’t feel heard (and you might not be listening). When you sit down to talk with your spouse about what’s working and what isn’t, do you hear crickets? Or feel like nothing changes, no matter how vocal you are about your feelings? That’s a problem, says Turndorf. “The most powerful tool we have for resolving our conflicts is listening and understanding one another,” she says. “When we invite our partners to share what we’ve done to let them down, and when we truly listen and understand their feelings, decades of hurt and anger can easily fade away.” So make a point of listening for the underlying emotions and messages in your partner’s words — everyday issues, like yelling about whose turn it is to take out the trash, could be stemming from something deeper. “In most situations where couples go from being best friends to loveless opponents, I uncover a pattern of poor communication, dashed expectations and unhealed resentments,” says Gadoua. “They think the fight really is about taking the garbage out, when in fact it’s more likely about one or both feeling unappreciated, overwhelmed or unacknowledged.” And once you finally hear what they’re trying to tell you (or vice versa) you can get to the bottom of the real issue.