Emotional Health · Marriage & Life Partners

UNHAPPY TOGETHER, Part 1: Locked In to Marriage


“Where loving [conversation] between man and woman cannot be, there can be nothing left of wedlock but the empty husk of an outside matrimony.”

   —John Milton, arguing for the right to divorce on the ground of incompatibility, 1644.


14756953490_b245e5f066_zArtwork from Flickr via Christian Weidinger

I got married simply without thinking it through, back when marriage and kids was the major requirement for every woman, whether or not she had a college education. However, I did suspect, on the day of my engagement, that I might be making a mistake. My husband gave me an engagement ring at his stepdad’s 70th birthday party. Blackmailed! And . . . I felt insecure. Who would marry me if I did not marry now? I was 22, after all, and my soon-to-be husband said that if we did not marry, he would leave and find someone else. Blackmailed into becoming engaged, frightened into marriage! I suspected I was making a mistake even before the wedding, but I ignored that gut feeling.

Twenty-eight years later, as I was going through a disastrous divorce, I found myself asking my divorced friends, “When did you know your marriage was in trouble?”

My friend “Mary” (all names have been changed) got a flash of knowledge at her wedding rehearsal. The minister told them, “Now this is the part where the groom kisses the bride.” Her fiancé grabbed her roughly, she flinched, and he pushed through the kiss, saying, “This is the part where we kiss, and we’re gonna kiss!” That night she knew that marrying Chuck would be a mistake. But family members had come from all over; the presents were waiting to be opened; and Mary just couldn’t say, “The marriage is off.” The weight of tradition and the fear of humiliation pushed her into walking knowingly into an unhappy marriage. Fourteen years later, she and Chuck divorced.

My friend Sonny, a musician whose wife sang in his band, told me that he knew he’d made a mistake when he said, “I do.” He stayed married a good 20-plus years before he sought a divorce. He felt morally committed, even though at the very wedding ceremony his gut was saying no.

When my friend Alice married in the early 1970s, she knew almost immediately that she’d made a bad choice. She told me, “I had no voice in my marriage.” But it took her 17 years to leave; it took that long not only to garner enough courage, but also to get the ability to support herself and her two children. She worked as a forklift operator while going back to college . . . a long haul for her, but something she had to do for her own well-being.

Here’s a daunting tale: Paula told me, “When I was walking down the aisle and my eyes met his, I had this cold chill, and I thought, ‘I do not want to spend the rest of my life looking at his face every morning.’ The night before, she had expressed her misgivings to her bridesmaid cousin, who told her that everyone gets cold feet. But, Paula reflects, “You should follow your instincts.” On the day of her marriage, walking down the aisle and feeling that cold chill, she was too embarrassed to stop in her tracks and say, ‘No way!’ Her father had really sealed her fate when he told her, after she became engaged, ‘Finally, I can be a grandfather!’ She felt that she was pushed into her marriage because she wanted to please everyone. She stayed married for 24 years, until her two boys were in college, an agreement she and her husband had made a few years earlier.

Ron, a man I dated when I was single after my divorce, told me that he was married for 22 years to a woman he had met before going into the Navy. While he was away, she began to befriend his family, so when he was discharged and came home, everyone expected them to marry . . . a foregone conclusion, according to the family. Ron meekly went along with his family’s “decision” to have them marry.

A professor I worked for after my divorce told me that he had stayed married for 44 years, even though he knew within two years that it was a mistake. By then, a child was on the way and he felt he had to stay. But 44 years?

When I became another divorce statistic, I felt somewhat ashamed that I had “failed.” I was married almost 30 years, and we had tried couples counseling and separate counseling and a trial separation. Finally, I knew that nothing I did would work, and the divorce was painful.

The struggle against the burden imposed on two people who want to part goes back at least 500 years. Consider the pain of John Milton, who dared to publish four controversial pamphlets protesting against the requirement that a married couple stay together in a situation of “unspeakable wearisomness and despaire of all sociable delight.”

Knowing when it is time to leave takes courage, stamina, and commitment to yourself and your mate. I learned that too late, but maybe it’s not too late for someone reading this. And that’s why I wrote it!

NOTE: Social mores have changed dramatically since Ellen Sue Spicer-Jacobson and her friends married decades ago. No longer does the weight of tradition lock unhappy married couples together—though there are still many other constraints (religion, economic problems, responsibility toward children among them). Psychologist Cecilia Ford, who writes a regular Thursday column for us on emotional health, today gives us her take on how even contemporary couples get psychologically “locked in” to unhappy marriages. See her post, “UNHAPPY TOGETHER, Part 2: Quelling the Inner Voice That Says No.”


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  • Roz Warren September 25, 2014 at 8:51 pm