I get that question a lot. I hear from women whose husbands have cheated repeatedly or from men whose wives refuse to have sex with them. One woman tells me that her husband is so depressed that he sits in front of the TV day in and day out. He refuses to work. He refuses to participate in family life. He refuses to be a husband or a father.
The situations vary, but the common thread is the same: One person desperately wants the relationship to work, but the other doesn’t seem to care and refuses to try.
Is there hope?
That depends on why your spouse has given up. Your husband or wife probably refuses to put effort into the relationship for one of two reasons:
Reason #1. She truly doesn’t want to be married to you anymore and is doing everything in her power to get you to ask for a divorce.
Reason #2. He can. You enable his behavior every single time you put up with it. Sure you nag. Sure you complain, but he continues to do it because he knows that no matter how badly he treats you, you will never leave. You won’t because you fear being alone (or some other negative outcome) more than you dislike being stuck in a bad marriage.
Note that I am using “he” and “she” interchangeably. I am not suggesting only women do #1 and only men do #2.
If you are caught up in one of these miserable relationships, I encourage you to do the following.
Step 1: Become okay with the idea of divorce. If needed, talk to divorcees about it. Visit divorce related websites. Do what you need to do to understand that the end of your relationship is not the end of your life. You can be alone.
Step 2: Grow your self-esteem. This will probably require a conversation with a friend who is in a good marriage. Talk about your marital problems. Ask, “Do I deserve this?” Your friend is going to tell you what you should already know, “No, you don’t deserve this. You deserve better.” If you don’t truly believe that, then sit with that knowledge for a few days, repeating over and over to yourself, “I deserve better. I deserve to have a happy marriage.”
Step 3: Know what you want from your spouse. This should be very specific. Seek treatment for your depression? Specific. Have sex with me at least once a month and seem like you actually enjoy it? Specific. Try harder? Not specific. Help me improve our marriage? Not specific.
Step 4: Give your spouse an ultimatum. When you are both calm, tell your spouse that her behavior is unacceptable. Here is one way to word it:
“I am not happy with our marriage. I think our marriage has potential and I would like to work with you to make it better for both of us. I get the sense that you are not trying. I find that really hurtful because I still love you. I deserve to be married to someone who [wants to have sex with me, does not belittle me, works for a living, etc]. This is a deal breaker for me. If I don’t have this, I don’t think I can possibly be happy in this marriage. If you are not willing to help me find happiness in this marriage, I don’t think I can stay married to you.”
Then you need to wait and see what your spouse says. If your spouse agrees to try, then ask for the change in behavior that you came up with in Step 3.
What if your spouse tells you to take your ultimatum and shove it up your rear end? In that case, you need to follow through. You’ve done the work. You know you deserve better. You know you are strong enough to get through a divorce, and you know your marriage in hopeless. End it.
So you might be wondering, “What about our kids? I want to stay together for them.” In that case, think about what you are teaching your children. You are teaching them that you are a pushover who continually takes crap from others and does nothing to stand up for herself or her own happiness. Is this a behavior that you want them to model when they grow up? What do you want your kids to do when they are grown up and facing a similar situation? Do you want them to stick it out, even if their spouse refuses to try? Even if their spouse is abusive? Even if their spouse is a drunk?
I didn’t think so. You’ll do more damage to your kids by staying in a hopelessly bad marriage than you will by getting out of one.
In the end, it’s the willingness to end it that often saves a marriage. If you both know your worth and know what you deserve, neither one of you will take crap from the other. When you both become I-Don’t-Put-Up-With-Crap-From-Others people, you stop taking advantage of each other. You start treating each other with respect and doing what it takes to keep each other happy, because you both want the other to make the choice every single day to stay married because you want to, and not because you think you have to.
Do you have advice for others whose spouses refuse to try? When should someone give up on a marriage? Do you think someone should stay in a bad marriage no matter what? Leave a comment.
A professional journalist, Alisa Bowman is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, a memoir of how she saved her marriage, and coauthor of Pitch Perfect, a must-read if you've ever had a sense of dread tie up your insides before a speech, presentation, or conversation. If you enjoyed this post, you will no doubt love her updates on Facebook and Twitter.