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When is a marriage worth fighting for, and when to move on?
October 8, 2012 7:16 AM   Subscribe

When is a marriage worth fighting for, and when to move on?

So often here on the green, I see questions about troubled relationships that are answered with the recommendation to work hard, fight through the tough times, see marriage counselors, do your best to make it work. Is there a time when that's not the best path?

I have a nice marriage, but I would describe it as like the effects of an antidepressant: there are no major lows, but there are no major highs, either. In many ways, that's great, and it means we don't fight, we live well together for the most part, etc.

But we also don't do things that I crave. I want long conversations about the meaning of life or politics or the changing of the seasons, but he doesn't talk that way. I want to explore and go for hikes and travel, even for the weekend, but he's a homebody. I want to entertain and have people in my life, but he's a loner. I want someone to share my interests and my passions, or at least to enjoy that I enjoy them, but he just tolerates them.

I've sought out many of these things with friends and have been largely successful. But more and more I just feel like I'm leaving my partner behind and that I'm thinking of myself more as an independent person. It makes me unhappy that I can't share these things with my partner, and he starts to feel more like a weight than a buoy.

I've taken these aspects of our lives as a trade-off for the good things we've had, but I'm starting to feel a major emptiness in my life - something essential to who I want to be. We have talked about these things and he's trying harder, but I'm increasingly realizing that we may just have a fundamental compatibility issue. We've both compromised in many ways, but he's never going to be the kind of person to have long talks with, to know me intimately, to have the kind of curiosity about the world that I want to share with another person. He would have to become a different person.

There is, also, the matter of my no longer wanting to be physical with him, which I believe is tied into these more emotional issues.

We do enjoy one another's company and can still make each other laugh. I love him deeply and value him as a friend. But I'm not sure that marriage is the right thing for us (or me) anymore. Is there something worth fighting for here? Is there a point at which it's OK to just move on, and know the relationship isn't serving you anymore?

FYI: We've lived together for 15 years, married for 7.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (26 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
never...know me intimately

This was the low point for me in your write up.

The reason everyone recommends counseling or some other manner of marital arbitration is because it forces discussion. It is a wake up call for both parties to examine what the hell they are doing.

You guys don't fight, but you also are sinking into a solitary and sexless marriage.

There is a lot of pressure now-a-days for a marriage to be everything .. your best friend, your favorite college professor, your sexiest sex partner, your firmest companion, your hiking buddy etc. It's an endless list and it is often not reasonable.

What do you need from a partner? A lover? a husband?

Make a list. Try to separate "what I want in a partner" from "what I want in life". Talk about that list with him. maybe it will cause a fight, maybe it will force you into some counseling, maybe it will force a call to a divorce lawyer.

But it will stop this slide into hopelessness you are on.
posted by French Fry at 7:25 AM on October 8, 2012 [8 favorites]


You could stay in a companionate marriage and mutually agree to seek physical and emotional intimacy elsewhere. If you have children this is what you should do; if you don't have children you'll have to make a choice as to whether you want to have someone else be your primary partner. Count yourself lucky, this situation seems to be very amicable.
posted by moammargaret at 7:30 AM on October 8, 2012


Come on now, lived together for 15 years and now you discover this? I doubt
these things come as a "surprise."

You write your question hinting & inviting validation of your soon to be made decision. The better, more mature, and certainly more sensitive route would be to fully reveal your desires and pain to him, give him enough time and chance to fix them, while you mutually discuss this with a talented counselor.
posted by Kruger5 at 7:37 AM on October 8, 2012 [29 favorites]


Because I am a guy, I just want to suggest seeing things from his point of view.
Does he actually not want to do anything or is he actually just tired all the time?
What kind of job does he have, is it stressful mentally? When you ask a guy what he's thinking about and he says "nothing". It's usually true. How us guys relax is to shut down our brain. Women go shopping. When was his last checkup, maybe he has health issues.

The other thing is guys are straight forward. Playing mental games is exhausting and stressful to us. Just be straight forward to him. I'm all about talking about the purpose of life, but don't bring it up by saying, if I die, will you re-marry?
posted by udon at 7:53 AM on October 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


The grass is always greener on the other side.
posted by AugustWest at 7:58 AM on October 8, 2012 [8 favorites]


I have a nice marriage, but I would describe it as like the effects of an antidepressant: there are no major lows, but there are no major highs, either. In many ways, that's great, and it means we don't fight, we live well together for the most part, etc.

But we also don't do things that I crave. I want long conversations about the meaning of life or politics or the changing of the seasons, but he doesn't talk that way. I want to explore and go for hikes and travel, even for the weekend, but he's a homebody. I want to entertain and have people in my life, but he's a loner. I want someone to share my interests and my passions, or at least to enjoy that I enjoy them, but he just tolerates them.


Is the purpose of marriage to have an emotional roller-coaster of highs and lows?

What I take from my question is that you are married to a a man who is a dear friend, makes you laugh, and who's company you enjoy. There is no indication that he mistreats you in any way whatsoever. His big problem is that he is a bit drab and doesn't like discussing politics or nature hikes.

Please forgive me, but so what? I do not believe it is written anywhere that couples must share hobbies or recreational interests. When I want to see the latest action movie or have a beer, that is what my friends are for. Do you think my wife wants to talk with me about the latest computer game? Similarly, my wife has friends with whom she can share certain interests of hers e.g. I have no interest in playing the koto.

It is my opinion that the search for emotional satisfaction is just as shallow as the search for pleasing physical features. Is saying "I divorced him because he doesn't like hikes" any more profound than "I divorced her because she couldn't drop some weight"?

You say that you have been pursuing your hobbies and other interests with friends, which is what they are for. There is no indication that your husband is distressed when you go off with your friends on some adventure. He is letting your happiness be his happiness. Is there any reason you cannot do the same?

[ObBio: married for 11 years, father of two with the same wife]
posted by Tanizaki at 8:03 AM on October 8, 2012 [41 favorites]


I am normally a stick-with-it commenter, here, but I've been in a very similar situation to yours, and I say leave. The grass was, in fact, greener.

Marriages like this happen, in my experience, when you marry very young, before you really know what you're going to want out of life. You don't quite see it for a long time (to address what Kruger5 suggests), because you don't even know to look for it.

When I left my marriage that was like this, my life improved a lot. The guy was with was not a bad person--he was a very nice guy, but we were deeply incompatible for, oddly enough, many of the reasons you list here.

I am now with someone else, and plan to be with them forever. It is not a perfect relationship (I believe few are), but since I left my ex, I insisted on certain things in my relationships, and it was absolutely okay to do that.

You only get so much time in this world.

Here are my only reservations:

1. If I had had children, I would not have left my ex. Because, we have to admit it, this is ending a mediocre marriage because we have vague feelings of wanting more in life. I think that's fine between two adults, but not for kids.

2. Is your husband actually working on it? If he really is, and he understands what you need, maybe wait.

3. Is he depressed at all?

In any case, good luck.
posted by hought20 at 8:17 AM on October 8, 2012 [13 favorites]


I once was feeling this way about a long relationship, and a few months with a couples counselor worked magic, for three reasons: (1) It didn't take a major shift in his personality for our conversations to become more intimate. (2) He better understood and more actively supported me in those goals that he didn't share (e.g., wanting to entertain). It turned out that, for me to be happy, he didn't have to want to entertain, he just had to understand what entertaining meant to me and support me in my desire to do that. (3) Hearing him discuss his own deeper feelings made him once again a person of allure and mystery, the way that someone you're pursuing romantically is someone that you respect but want to get to know better. I realized how much about him I still didn't know but wanted to.

If you try this, just know that every couples counselor is different. Find someone who really works for you. If we'd chosen the first or second one we'd tried, I don't think that we would have had good results.
posted by salvia at 8:33 AM on October 8, 2012 [8 favorites]


You kinda throw in the not wanting to have sex with him (almost as an aside) because of the emotional fallout of, well, all of the above. Have you told him that? Just sayin that it is not beyond the realm of possibility that he might be feeling unloved with the lack of physical intimacy. FWIW, I would estimate that more people enter a marriage with an expectation of regular physical intimacy than those who expect shared hobbies. For many men (and women, I presume), the desire to participate in activities that they would ordinarily not want to do, would increase with more intimacy, particularly sex. A crude assessment, yes, but one worth considering.
posted by teg4rvn at 8:45 AM on October 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


This sounds like some relationships I've had, although I think that the longest one like that lasted 2 years (because we had a *lot* of hobbies and recreations in common) before I decided I wanted/needed a deeper connection for the longer term. Perhaps you've just grown, either in breadth of interest or even just in confidence that your interests are valid, or maybe it's taken you this long to realize that you need a higher percentage of your needs fulfilled inside the marriage rather than outside, but it seems like you're just not compatible in the ways that you need for the long haul.

I agree with the thing about kids but presume you don't have them. If he's aware that these are serious issues for you and is making his best effort -- which clearly isn't enough to bridge the divide -- then I think this relationship has run its course. It's sad to leave somebody you care about and have history with, but this isn't the thing you need. Move on.
posted by acm at 10:10 AM on October 8, 2012


It is my opinion that the search for emotional satisfaction is just as shallow as the search for pleasing physical features.

It is my opinion that there is nothing wrong with wanting an emotional connection to your life partner. The OP gets to decide how important that is for her. Some people just want someone around. Other people want more.

I am in almost exactly your situation, OP, and I ended things about a month ago. Memail me if you'd like to talk.
posted by misskaz at 10:41 AM on October 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


It is my opinion that the search for emotional satisfaction is just as shallow as the search for pleasing physical features.

It is my opinion that this is particular view tends to get deployed against women and their "silly emotions" way too often.

Being spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally whole is why we are on this planet (in my opinion). It's how we're wired to be most useful and engaged with the world. You have a good man for a partner. He may be a helpmate for you in life, or he may not.

You are the only one who can make this decision. It's always OK to move on. You don't need to be mistreated and abused to want to leave. He can be a good man and you can still want to leave. Some people (see above) will see this as shallow, but it's your life.

My advice would be to share with your spouse your feelings and give counseling a chance. It's possible this could be a route to a new awakening for both of you.

You may not be able to choose to fix the relationship (your partner has exactly 50% of that job) but you can always choose to treat others with respect and compassion.

Also feel free to memail me.
posted by pantarei70 at 10:54 AM on October 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


It is my opinion that the search for emotional satisfaction is just as shallow as the search for pleasing physical features.

I've seen communities where this was the prevailing attitude that they raised their children with, and the results aren't pretty: the two most common outcomes are either not getting married at all or walking away from the community and marrying someone who's hostile to the community because of their corrosive believe system about marriage.
posted by deanc at 11:28 AM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


But we also don't do things that I crave. I want long conversations about the meaning of life or politics or the changing of the seasons, but he doesn't talk that way. I want to explore and go for hikes and travel, even for the weekend, but he's a homebody. I want to entertain and have people in my life, but he's a loner. I want someone to share my interests and my passions, or at least to enjoy that I enjoy them, but he just tolerates them.


You sound bored and a little resentful. I think you need to understand the nature of people. Even the guy who likes to talk about the meaning of life or politics might change on you. Everybody has the capacity to change.

You say you have a nice marriage. You know you could have those conversations with a friend/best friend. Do you need to have it with the person you manage a household with and have sex with?

I've always thought that if you expect people to accept you for who you are, you need to be able to do the same for someone else. Your husband's life purpose is not to fulfill your every whim (especially since politics and existential thinking can get tiring after awhile).

You guys have a nice marriage. Take care of each other, support growth in each other and yourselves. Make friends, expand your social circle, grow and change. But you don't have to do that at the expense of the nice marriage you have just because you crave drama.
posted by discopolo at 11:55 AM on October 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


I want someone to share my interests and my passions, or at least to enjoy that I enjoy them, but he just tolerates the…We have talked about these things and he's trying harder, but I'm increasingly realizing that we may just have a fundamental compatibility issue. We've both compromised in many ways, but he's never going to be the kind of person to have long talks with, to know me intimately, to have the kind of curiosity about the world that I want to share with another person. He would have to become a different person.

here's the thing: presumably your husband was like this before you got married and yet…you married him anyway. and now you resent the hell out of him for being…the person you married?

I have a nice marriage, but I would describe it as like the effects of an antidepressant: there are no major lows, but there are no major highs, either. In many ways, that's great, and it means we don't fight, we live well together for the most part, etc.

i would fight for this marriage tooth and nail before i threw in the towel. go to counseling, couples and individual. and every thing that discopolo said.
posted by violetk at 12:40 PM on October 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Why stay with someone once you've married them? Isn't this the fallacy of sunk costs

No, because the costs aren't "sunk" in that the OP has something that's gone down the drain, because the marriage has a non-zero value (it seems), and the OP will have to give it up and possibly not be able to replace it with something of higher value.

Furthermore, the resources spent leaving this marriage and finding a new one could possibly be better spent improving the current one.
posted by deanc at 12:51 PM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you are not safe, emotionally or physically, you should move on. Otherwise, fight.

If you are judging your marriage by your own emotional fulfillment, it will never measure up. Neither will the next one. Or the next one. Rinse, repeat.

Research shows that couples with the most satisfying long term marriages fight through similar "blah" periods. The marriage education movement is awash with things to try. It would be a shame for you to give up now.

I would recommend my recipe for every "stuck" or "blah" period I've ever had -- get out of yourself and focus on making the "other" -- in this case, your husband -- feel loved the way he wants to be loved. What you inspire from him will be worth it.
posted by cross_impact at 1:22 PM on October 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


[Folks maybe leave the gender essentialism and the "not to derail but..." stuff out of this thread and just answer the question? Thank you.]
posted by jessamyn at 3:03 PM on October 8, 2012


There is such a big difference between a "blah" period and a "blah" marriage, though. The idea that she should stay because she might not find anything better is just so sad.

It's not true for everyone that the next marriage won't measure up. Mine has.

I think a crucial part of this is that a lot of people get into marriage young, without knowing what they're doing, without really understanding what commitment is or what they want out of their marriage. Some of us do it just because it's what you're supposed to do--you reach a certain age, you get married.

Then, later on, maybe we attain a little more of a sense of self, and we start to figure out what we really want out of life and out of our relationships.

On reflection, I don't know what this marriage is like, down to the bones, right. But from my experience, which is all we can offer on Ask MeFi, sometimes you do leave the marriage that has come to feel lame and sad and like it's keeping you from the big life you want to live.

Then other times, yeah, if you got married when you're older, and you chose someone a much more right for you, who meets the basic requirements you developed after your first marriage ended, you totally have blah times. You wade through those and fight for your marriage. Absolutely. That's what commitment means.

But sometimes you don't, especially when you have never known anything else and have no idea whether what you have is worth fighting for, when you barely understood commitment when you first got married, and it certainly never occurred to you that "solemn vow" means exactly that.

This stuff is so hard, and I feel like a lot of people are dismissing the OP's dissatisfaction with her marriage. That dissatisfaction is important! She deserves to have an awesome life. If she can find a way to have that with her husband, that's cool, but saying that she shouldn't want better is just so amazingly sad to me. Better is always possible. Never stay in a relationship because you think you can't do better or because you're just afraid of being alone.

But totally stay if you can work it out. But ONLY if you can work it out. Don't settle. Gah.
posted by hought20 at 5:31 PM on October 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


You're allowed to drift apart. All relationships end somehow.

The worst thing I think is holding onto something for too long until both parties are in the resentment stage. I can tell you of numerous couples who've been together 10 years too long. Ten years ago, they were starting to have problems, and now, the problems are there alongside new problems and, as well, there is an undercurrent of complete resentment from everyone.

But, no one wants to move on. Why? Because they're all holding onto moments that passed a long time ago and symbolic concepts that speak more to their ideal than the reality of the situation.

It is even more of a problem when there are kids involved because the kids grow up thinking that being bitter and resentful of your partner is acceptable.

So, yes, fight for what you have if you have underlying passion for your partner - but if you know you're just going to wind up bitter and resentful of someone who you do currently love, it's a kinder act to move on with love rather than with anger.
posted by heyjude at 6:03 PM on October 8, 2012


I'm reading Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay by Mira Kirschenbaum. She lays out 36 criteria that, in her experience as a couples counselor, are key to predicting whether two people would be happier together or apart.

Criterion # 33 is whether you have compatible conceptions of what intimacy is. Kirschenbaum's example is Terri and Flo:

"For Terri, the height of intimacy was revealing the deepest, darkest secrets and emotions. ... You were intimate when you told someone something you would never tell anyone else and when you told it with a depth of feeling you would never let anyone else see. ... For Flo, the height of intimacy was strolling through the streets of a city they'd never visited before, somehow vibrating in wordless unison in their response to this experience. Or it was working in the garden together, their activities and sensibilities meshing as they were busy together creating something that they saw in the same way. Or it was any shared activity where they did something together and meshed well as they were doing it and felt the same way about it."

I think the stark difference of opinion in this thread reflects people's differing ideas about the meaning of intimacy. The long talks and shared passions that you feel are important ways of being close to your partner, some people see as totally non-essential.

What about your husband? Do you think he resists intimacy out of fear or lack of skills, or do you think he doesn't share your definition of what intimacy is in the first place? According to Kirschenbaum, couples may be able to work through the first scenario, but the second one is a sign of ultimate incompatibility.
posted by Mila at 7:04 PM on October 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Some of these responses surprise me. I thought more people would tell you to move on.

I totally understand how you can love someone, how they can be a wonderful person, and yet you can still feel empty, lonely, distant, a little guilty for being sad. Having been there myself, I would tell you that it does not get better.

This part of your post really resonated with me: "I'm thinking of myself more as an independent person . . . I'm starting to feel a major emptiness in my life - something essential to who I want to be. We have talked about these things and he's trying harder, but I'm increasingly realizing that we may just have a fundamental compatibility issue."

I think you can give counseling a whirl, but I would also tell you don't beat yourself up for feeling this way and would encourage you to move on if counseling doesn't make these problems look more fixable. You say he would have to become a different person -- I think you are right, and I think you know you are right. And in that situation, it is far better for both of you if you separate.

This bit of an advice column is in my bookmarks, especially for that piercing line about "self-knowledge means you won't lie to yourself about X because the truth would cost you Y." I don't know if it will resonate with you as much as it did with me (and I don't even know what the original question was), but a few of those paragraphs were very helpful to me when I was in a situation similar to yours.
posted by half life at 7:05 PM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Important clarification to what I wrote above: Kirshenbaum says it's not simply a couple's differing definitions of intimacy that make them incompatible, but their inability or unwillingness to bridge the gap. If you have differing definitions of intimacy but are both committed to working together to give each other what you need to feel close, there's hope.
posted by Mila at 7:29 PM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


It sounds like what you have is a -- dead shark.
posted by musofire at 8:19 PM on October 8, 2012


A key flaw in the description of your situation is what's called the fundamental attribution error: a cognitive bias we all share such that we tend to prefer and overemphasize personality-based accounts of ourselves and each other rather than explanations that give proper credit to temporary or incidental circumstances. When you say you're such and such kind of person and your husband would need to be a different kind of person and so on, I have to discount that at least a little--as you should--to correct a basic problem of human psychology. Taking a step back to understand how much of this is a blah period in your marriage, how much of this is attributable to ongoing mutual misunderstanding, how much is colored by a lack of self-actualization in other aspects of your life, and so on is probably a worthwhile exercise.

It does sound like you've been thinking about this for a while, but I'd still be interested to know if you've done something like keep a diary where you note concretely when something nice happens in this marriage or note that something specific happened that felt limiting or problematic. I think trying to wrestle all the facts of what's been going on into a brief history written under the influence of doubts and passions is bound not to capture the full picture. Of course, the full picture isn't necessary if there are huge overriding issues, but that's not what you describe.

What you describe, I think, is something worth fighting for. Not forever--just long enough to know that you didn't throw something good away. Just long enough that you honor the feelings you used to have while giving your future self the most helpful and meaningful outcome. And long enough to be fair to your partner and see if he's willing and able to address your needs when he understands what a big deal this is.

He might need help in understanding how serious this is, just as you have questions about whether it's possible to resolve it. I am hopeful that marital counseling would be clarifying for you both. Good luck.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:49 PM on October 9, 2012


Once the "should I stay or should I go" question comes up for someone in a marriage, it usually means they are already checked out and are just looking for validation.
posted by PsuDab93 at 7:04 AM on October 10, 2012


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