How to Survive a Bad Marriage Without Divorce (11 Critical Steps)

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When you got married, you didn’t plan for an unhappy marriage.

But now that you’re in one, it may be comforting to know that it’s still possible to find happiness in a bad marriage—or shall we say, despite a bad marriage.

This is how to survive a bad marriage without divorce:

  • Learn and practice detachment
  • Develop your own interests and sense of self
  • Speak respectfully to each other and create a positive home environment
  • Communicate clearly and stay away from triggering subjects
  • Have neutral shared activities that are not emotionally demanding
  • If all else fails, try Living Apart Together (LAT)

If divorce is not an option, the bottom line is that you have better odds of surviving your bad marriage if you reframe it in a new context.

If you need help quickly, there’s some invaluable advice on how to hack your psychology and change your marriage in Dr. Lee Baucom’s system, Save The Marriage.

Click the link above to check it out, or explore our guide on how to survive in an unhappy marriage below.

Is It Worth Staying in an Unhappy Marriage?

upset couple sitting on a couch with a quote about how to decide if you should stay in an unhappy marriage

Before we talk about how to survive a bad marriage without divorce, you need to make sure you’re fully committed to this decision.

There’s no magic right or wrong reason. But you’ve got to believe in your reason to stay in a bad marriage.

That’s vital if you’re going to succeed and live your life contentedly, meaningfully and at peace with your choice.

So ask yourself—is it really worth staying in my broken marriage?

What is most important to me?

The reality is, whether you find it worthwhile to stay is a personal decision.

It can’t be rationalized, legitimized by outside sources and forced into a nice, neat little box.

Here are some of the most typical rationalizations people wrestle with in deciding whether to stay together.

Read Next: How to Save Your Marriage

Most Common Reasons People Stay in Bad Marriages

For the kids

Studies estimate that approximately 25-50% of married couples stay together for the sake of their children.

Especially if your kids are still young, you may determined to stay together to provide stability and consistency.

For faith reasons

Some people decide to stay in an unhappy marriage because of their religion.

Many faiths look unfavorably upon divorce, and to some it’s simply not an option.

Financial insecurity

couple frustrated looking at bills with a quote about not being able to afford a divorce

Some people simply cannot afford to get divorced.

Large differences in income between spouses, complicated assets and high costs of divorce are all part of why some married folks decide it’s not worth the risk.

If you are financially dependent or you think you won’t be able to support a separate household (especially if kids are in the picture), you may choose to keep things the way they are.

Not wanting to be alone and lonely

It’s not uncommon to stay out of fear of ending up alone.

As long are you are not in an abusive relationship, no one can tell you that your concerns are not legitimate.

(*If you are in any way experiencing violence of a physical, mental, verbal, emotional or sexual nature, don’t wait! You should immediately seek help.)

However, it’s worth noting that simply staying in a loveless marriage is not likely to increase your happiness or make you feel any less lonely.

Not wanting to hurt a spouse

Sometimes we’re just too attached to our spouse to even consider divorce.

We feel guilty asking for a divorce, but unfortunately guilt can easily cover up a toxic situation and blind us to our best choices.

Fearing the stigma of divorce

Other times, it’s our image that we want to save—in the eyes of our families, our in-laws, our neighbors and social circles.

That’s a very personal choice that often has a lot to do with indirect ways divorce may impact our quality of life in our perception.

Read Also: How to Save My Marriage After I Cheated on My Wife

How to Survive a Bad Marriage Without Divorce

If you’ve decided to stay with your spouse despite your bad marriage without divorce, you need to know how to weather it gracefully.

It’s possible to still feel fulfilled, and—yes—thrive.

As long as you’re not actively working against yourself with negative thoughts, unrealistic expectations and attachment to the past.

Here’s what you need to do.

1. Commit to practicing detachment

closeup of man and woman reading on a couch with a quote about detachment to save a bad marriage

Whether you hope to rekindle your relationship someday or you know there’s no hope for that, detachment is a crucial beginning step to stay in a difficult marriage.

What is detachment?

In short, detachment is about emotionally disentangling yourself from your spouse’s behavior.

Essentially, you will become more like roommates and less like “spouses” (or even good friends) in the normal sense.

(And just to be clear, this also means physical intimacy is out of the question.)

You’re not just waiting for your relationship or your spouse to change.

Instead, you choose to focus on how to live on good terms with each other.

This may be temporary or permanent—but it’s important to begin now.

By releasing yourself from your emotional dependence on your spouse’s behavior, you’re free to stop obsessing, stop getting angry and stop letting unrealistic expectations rule you.

2. Prioritize your mental health

You should never suffer in silence while struggling to keep a bad marriage going.

Your mental health and well being should take priority, or else you will not be able to function as an individual, a parent, or in any of the other roles you’re responsible to fulfill.

Talk to a supportive friend or family member.

Engage the support of a therapist if you need to.

You must focus on self-healing now, because everything starts from there.

3. Explore your happiness independently

happy woman on a laptop at work with a quote about finding what makes you happy in an unhappy marriage

If you’re in an unhappy marriage, you can’t rely on your spouse for your happiness.

Ultimately, you need to have the active intention to discover what truly makes you feel happy and confident.

You may need to ensure you’re dedicating enough time to your friends, social life, passions and hobbies.

Put your energy into your children, your career or finally getting that graduate degree you always wanted.

In many ways, you are now rediscovering who you are.

Especially after many years of marriage, that could be hazy.

4. Join a support group

Support groups can play a crucial role in getting you back on your feet mentally and emotionally.

It lets you connect with other people in unhappy marriages who can identify with your situation, and perhaps you’ll even learn new coping skills in the process.

Sometimes joining relationship support groups is a much simpler first step than seeking out professional help.

Whatever your situation, don’t underestimate the value of surrounding yourself with people who get it.

5. Consider marriage counseling

Even if you’re not interested in rekindling the romantic aspects of your marriage, couples therapy could help you.

A trained professional who can look at your marriage objectively can help give you the tools to avoid conflict and succeed in what you want to accomplish.

It’s their job to help you cooperate as a unit and reach your goals.

And if you are trying to reestablish an emotional connection, a relationship counselor can help you get to the root of the relationship issues blocking that connection.

Even the best relationships need some guidance sometimes.

6. Have respectful behavior and attitudes toward one another

If you’re being rude to your spouse because of your unhappy marriage, you need to stop.

For your marriage to succeed, you’ll need to at least treat your spouse with the same dignity as you would any other human or stranger.

Basically, it means being civil and polite with one another.

If you’re practicing detachment, you should have healthy emotional boundaries set in place regarding being too intimate or vulnerable with each other.

But the next piece of the puzzle is to find a middle ground where you can speak respectfully to one another and treat each other with kindness.

You don’t want to ignore your spouse or punish them with passive-aggressive behaviors.

With this rule, it’s still okay to ask your husband or wife how their day at work was.

And in any case, treating each other like ghosts will set a bad example for communication and relationships for your kids if you have any.

7. Try to foster healthy communication

man and woman talking with a quote about communication in a marriage

Communication is a foundational aspect of any marriage or partnership.

The problem is, in a bad marriage, communication is something that tends to be disrupted.

But that shouldn’t stop you from trying to establish healthy communication to the best of your ability.

Learning how to communicate effectively does not require a loving relationship.

If it helps to imagine it this way, treat communication as you would in a professional setting.

It means speaking to each other respectfully, having good listening skills and not letting emotions take over.

Good communication also plays a crucial role in shared decision-making.

In fact, studies show that feeling able to voice your opinions and share the burdens of everyday decisions has an enormous impact on relationship satisfaction.

No matter what, you’re going to need to be able to talk about things like your financial future and your kids’ education in a healthy and productive way.

8. Create a peaceful environment

Living in an unhappy marriage doesn’t have to be misery day in, day out.

If you live together, you’re going to want to let go of negative energy.

Practice letting things go for the sake of a calm and pleasant environment.

You can diffuse tension and make things much more amicable between you and your spouse simply by taking the initiative to treat them with kindness, even generosity.

You can do this without crossing emotional boundaries.

Exchange pleasantries and give your spouse credit where credit’s due.

Extending this empathy to your spouse has a way of rubbing off on them and will soon become a healthy habit in your home.

9. Avoid touchy subjects

When you’re trying to foster a positive environment, it’s important to avoid trigger subjects.

You know—the ones that usually lead to arguments.

Focus conversation on neutral subjects.

Like tasks you share in common, or daily household events.

If you have children, likely much of the focus will be on them, school and their activities.

If you need to discuss something important or potentially contentious, schedule a time to talk about it so that you’re not bringing it up at a moment that could cause either of you to get flustered.

Don’t give yourself a reason to fight.

10. Create neutral shared activities

family eating at a table with a quote about spending neutral time together in a bad marriage

It’s a good idea to establish routines and activities so you can spend time together as a family.

You should find neutral ways of spending time together, such as eating at the dinner table and watching a movie with the kids on Sunday night.

This is especially important for children—almost certainly, living like strangers would negatively affect their psyches.

They need stability and an environment they can trust and believe in.

None of these activities should be based on emotional connection, romantic getaways or physical intimacy in any way.

You are supporting each other and your family in a healthy way that provides cohesion to the entire family unit.

Related Reading: How to Regain Trust in Marriage

11. If you can’t live together, consider living apart together

If you believe you won’t be able to peacefully coexist, the next best thing to try is Living Apart Together (LAT).

This relationship model gives a couple the freedom to live in separate homes, but still keep their marriage and common goals intact.

It works well for relationships with many different types of dynamics, not just an unhappy marriage.

But for an unhappy marriage, the point is to give each other the space that you need to feel whole and happy, and come together when you decide to in the best frame of mind and attitude.

Sometimes this is the only way to survive a bad marriage, although it can be cost-prohibitive paying for rent or a mortgage on two places.

Conclusion

Deciding to stay in a relationship that you’re not happy in is tough, especially if you feel it’s beyond the point of rekindling your shared love life and romance.

But it’s possible with enough mutual respect, trust and self-love.

With the tools of detachment, good communication and support resources, you can live together amicably.

You’ll learn to shift the focus from your unhappy marriage to what really makes you happy, without having to sacrifice the home and life you built together.

If you want to start changing the dynamics of your relationship and think you might even be able to fix things one day, check out Save The Marriage for proven techniques of shifting how you relate to each other.

FAQ

Can you live in an unhappy marriage?

The answer is going to be different for every individual.

Some people will feel it’s impossible for them, while others may feel they don’t have another option.

Technically, the answer is that it is possible to live in an unhappy marriage.

And provided you and your spouse can treat each other with respect and give each other adequate space, you can learn to live together conflict-free and put your attention on other things that are meaningful to you.

What happens when you stay in a bad marriage?

If you stay in a bad marriage without working on it or learning how to cope, you are in danger of suffering many mental, emotional and physical effects.

Research has proven that marital strife contributes to inflammation and poor heart and immune function, not to mention increased anxiety, depression and difficulty concentrating.

Staying in an unhappy marriage is not a decision to be taken lightly.

Which is why if you’re going to do it, you need to make sure you have all the proper resources at your disposal and the support you need.

When to call it quits in a marriage?

Generally, it may be time to call it quits if you’ve done or observed the following:

  • Thought about it for a long time
  • Gone through the divorce “in your mind” (as in, imagined being divorced and having you and your spouse move on), and felt okay about it
  • Recognized that there’s no way to resolve your conflicts
  • Your heart isn’t in it anymore
  • You experience abuse in any form—verbal, physical, emotional or psychological (you should never be abused in any relationship, and this is non-negotiable)
  • Your children’s health, happiness and grades are falling as a result of a poor home environment because you and your spouse fight or can’t get along
  • You’ve sought out couples therapy and you still want to end your marriage

How to survive a loveless, sexless marriage

The answer is not to look for fulfillment outside your marriage, even if there is a complete lack of emotional and physical intimacy.

If living in a loveless, sexless marriage is not doable for you, you need to work to change it by taking such steps as:

  • Voicing to your spouse how the situation without any intimacy makes you feel
  • Making an effort to take your spouse out on regular dates
  • Taking the pressure off of sex as a goal and instead focusing on spending meaningful time together to bond
  • Taking it upon yourself to initiate more often
  • Being understanding and trying to see your spouse’s perspective
  • Discovering where hormone imbalances or changes could be at play
  • Taking the time to work on your marriage and any problems or conflicts that could be creating distance between you

If nothing you do changes things, it may be time to consider a couples therapist who specializes in sexual problems in a relationship.

Stages of a dying marriage

When a marriage is dying, here are the stages it will go through:

  • Stage 1: Disillusionment – Once happy, at least one partner becomes unhappy. The rose-colored glasses come off, but they’re not quite sure what to do about it yet.
  • Stage 2: Loss of Politeness – The unhappy spouse sinks further into disillusionment. More convinced that there’s something broken in the marriage, they start becoming snappy, distant and/or passive-aggressive.
  • Stage 3: Detachment – The unhappy spouse begins to emotionally and physically detach and pull away.
  • Stage 4: Crisis Mode – The other spouse recognizes there’s a crisis and goes into overdrive trying to “fix” it, which ultimately pushes the unhappy partner further away.
  • Stage 5: Unhappy Spouse Leaves – The unhappy spouse leaves, either formally or informally. This typically signals the end of the marriage.
  • Stage 6: Exes Move On – Now split, the ex spouses are moving on from their failed marriage, having abandoned the idea of reconciliation.

Are most marriages unhappy?

Surveys tend to side with most marriages being happy, or at least not unhappy.

Sometimes, one partner can feel discontent while the other is happy in their marriage.

What should you not do when separating?

Here are three very important things not to do when you’re separating from your husband or wife:

  • Don’t treat it like a divorce trial run. You are still married—the object of a separation is typically to take a break from constantly being around each other, but not to “try out” leaving your marriage.
  • Don’t sit around plagued by self doubt. Take an active role in your separation and work on yourself, or work toward reuniting.
  • Don’t tell everyone your private business. In general, spreading the news that you’re separated tends to generate unsolicited advice from everyone and their grandmother, which can hasten the end of your marriage.

How do you tell a man is unhappy in his marriage?

Often, men are less verbal in expressing their unhappiness in their marriage.

So other signs will pop up, such as spending more time alone, away from their wives or preoccupied with “projects.”

A man might not talk to his friends about his troubles, but he may drop hints that all is not perfect.

He will likely become less affectionate and may withdraw emotionally and sexually.

And finally, it will seem like he’s just not even trying anymore.

What is a walkaway wife?

A walkaway wife refers to “Walkaway Wife Syndrome,” or when a wife seems to suddenly leave her marriage.

She has felt a lack of connection from her husband and marriage for some time, though her pleas for change have gone unnoticed or unanswered.

So her pleas went quiet, though her discontentment grew.

When she finally asked for a divorce, it seemed to come “out of nowhere,” but this is only because she had stopped trying to communicate about it long ago.

What are red flags in a marriage?

  • Lack of physical intimacy
  • Emotional disconnection
  • Lying, cheating and betrayal
  • Regular fights
  • Constant criticism and lack of kindness
  • Zero compromising
  • Lack of communication

Are couples happier after divorce?

Sometimes, but not necessarily.

One recent study suggested that individuals who divorced were, on average, just as unhappy as individuals who stayed in unhappy marriages.

However, a variety of factors tend to come into play, and it does not mean people should settle in an unhappy marriage.

Marlene Davis is an experienced blogger with a focus on interpersonal relationships. Her dream is to help improve people's lives and relationships through sharing of practical knowledge and evidence-based practices.