People usually keep their doubts about their marriage to themselves.
I’m not talking about ordinary concerns about the relationship, or even feeling stuck in a pattern. I’m talking about worries about whether or not the relationship will survive. It’s scary to think about. If you tell others, you might get unhelpful suggestions like “go with your gut” or “make a pro and con list.”
The doubts stay underground, coming and going, sometimes for years. Marital doubt is way more common than most people realize. And there are ways to get past it and get clear about the future of your marriage.
Here’s what new research says:
About 1 in 5 married people (22%) report having some doubt about whether their marriage will survive.
To put it simply, you have lots of company if you have doubts about your marriage. But this is not a 24/7 state of mind, as I’m sure you’ve already experienced.
Marital doubt takes a lot of pathways. Sometimes it just lingers at the same level, but more often people describe it like a rollercoaster. Sometimes you feel confident about the future of your marriage, and then something happens that puts you in a gloomy, doubting place. You talk your way out of it (“I love my spouse,” “divorce would be so messy,” etc) but hours, days, or weeks later, the doubts creep back. It’s anxiety-provoking and extremely unpleasant. The limbo state can seem to go on forever, draining your energy for the future.
It’s also important to note that marital doubt is a lonely feeling, too. There’s no big Facebook sharing like there was when you were falling in love, or like there might be with something more concrete like a scary medical diagnosis. This adds complexity to the pain, because there aren’t a lot of outlets for it. Certainly not your spouse, who is often the first person we want to tell when we’re anxious or upset. The anxiety grows more from being hidden.
Many people in the marital doubt-camp are trying to figure out if their spouse is capable of changing. This leads some doubters to unconsciously create “tests” for their partners to see if change is possible. (i.e. “will he remember my birthday if I don’t tell him?”) When the spouse fails the test, the doubts are fueled. But because the partner doesn’t know about the doubts, they don’t know the stakes, which means that even if they do sense their partner’s discontent, they’re likely to brush it off as normal marital ups-and-downs.
So what’s a doubter to do?
During this marital doubt phase, according to researcher Diane Vaughn, the doubter may ask about marriage counseling. This may be a great idea (it’s no secret we’re big fans of couples therapy around here!) but the doubter often doesn’t come clean about the seriousness of their thoughts, even in the therapy office.
This is because marial doubters are scared and not ready for a crisis, so the work in the therapy room may stagnate. This is really common. If you’re not sure your spouse can change, and if you believe that without the change you have no energy for the marriage, it’s no wonder you stay in limbo. But this means that the couples therapy falls flat.
Do you know the average number of couples therapy sessions that divorced people report having?
It falls flat fast.
To state the obvious, four sessions isn’t enough time to dig into issus and really work on them. For these couples, we often hear excuses like life gets busy, someone gets sick, someone feels like they were on the spot in counseling. Basically, there’s no real momentum to keep plugging away, particularly for the clueless spouse who thinks things are fine.
Sometimes the other spouse makes the argument that marriage counseling isn’t even necessary at all, or that the time and money aren’t there, etc. Especially if they’re not seeing warning signs about divorce. The doubter, perhaps also not sure about whether couples therapy will work, withdraws the request or doesn’t bring it up again, but remains simmering.
Whether or not there’s an attempt at couples therapy, some doubting spouses try individual therapy.
Sometimes it’s a great experience, especially if the therapist helps them see their own part of the marital problems and offers ideas for self-change. Marriage and family therapists (LMFTs like myself) are particularly skilled in this type of individual therapy because we’re trained to look at the full context of a situation rather than the internal experience of one person.
Other times, individual therapy can become (to put it bluntly) a weekly bitch session, with no real growth and a one-sided view of the other spouse. Some therapists who don’t have that contextual training struggle to see the perspective of the spouse who is not their client. But I believe that the majority of doubters do wish for personal growth, and don’t want to just attack their partner.
When marital doubt goes on long enough, people start to rehearse in their minds what they’ll do after a divorce. They imagine being single again and how to prepare for that possibility– just in case, of course. This might look like starting a new job, finding separate friends, or avoiding big commitments for the future like upgrading the house or planning vacations together.
This creates more distance in the marriage, something they don’t actually want, but the doubter’s dilemma is that verbalizing doubts to the spouse may still seem worse. They could respond nastily or with panic. Now you’ve got two people in doubt bringing their worst selves to the situation.
But here’s the thing: the longer you prepare for the possibility of divorce without telling your partner, the more blindsided they’ll be when you do tell them, and the more likely that your worst doubts are realized.
So then how, you may be wondering, does marital doubt ever end? Well, there are three possible options.
- Doubt goes away, replaced by normal ups and downs of marriage but without that edge of anxiety about commitment and stability. Basically, you’re back in, with maybe just the occasional flare-up of doubt. You may get there on your own, or with the help of counseling.
- Doubt turns to crisis when it’s shared with the spouse prior to a decision to end the marriage. Sometimes that crisis can lead to real change, with marriage therapy or help on your own as a couple, and then the doubt goes away. Other times this crisis can lead to a divorce, but with enough time for the spouse to understand what’s going on and for both of you to try and save the marriage if possible. This shows the benefit of sharing doubts with the spouse before deciding to divorce– it gives them a chance to respond well and for reconciliation to occur– even though it’s scary because you don’t know how they’ll react.
- The fact that you’re doubting isn’t shared and it turns into a sudden announcement of divorce. “I’m leaving you, I have a lawyer and I suggest you get one, too.” This, of course, is the most heart-wrenching for the other spouse and can lead to bitter divorces and troubled shared parenting later on. (However, it may be necessary if the other spouse is a threatening person who could do grave harm if told in advance.)
If you or someone you know is having marital doubts, there is hope for understanding what’s going on, gaining more clarity, and getting off the rollercoaster of emotions.