When Is a Marriage Beyond Help?

One time in a land far away a client asked me if I could help her save her 15-year marriage. Her husband was threatening to leave her, was stonewalling and was generally emotionally cold, but she said he was willing to see me. I worked with him for several months, and they stayed together.

However, one day a year later as I was preparing to leave the community, she approached me, very troubled. This is what she said: “You’ve turned my husband into everything I ever wanted in a husband. But I don’t want to be with him.”

What happened? What was really going on was that she did not want to be in the marriage, but couldn’t face that reality. Instead she perceived the problem to be with her husband. It took positive changes in him for her to realize the deeper issue was hers, not his.

When a long-term committed relationship is deteriorating, there is typically a lot of guilt, shame, anger and resentment. Enter the big-four marriage-enders: contempt, criticism (blame), stonewalling and defensiveness. Often alcohol abuse enters the picture. Sometimes there is bullying and violence.

What is the fail point in a deteriorating marriage? When is a marriage beyond help? The underlying issue often turns out to be that one or both parties do not want to be in the marriage.

Marriage is a big commitment, and most people try hard to keep their commitments. The private “I don’t want to be here,” and the public “until death do us part” are in deep conflict.

Consequently, one or both parties can’t face their own desire for it to be over. Using whatever means they can come up with, they bring it to a head, thereby allowing them to blame their partner for deciding to end the marriage. They may use bullying, violence, alcohol abuse, cheating, high-risk behavior like speeding while intoxicated – anything that will force their partner to make the decision.

So if you are concerned about the health of your marriage  and want help, it’s time for each of you to take a long honest look at what you want. Can you see a future with your partner… for both of you? If you can’t think this through on your own, get appropriate professional help  in gaining some clarity. Do nothing until you can make a calm, clear decision to end it or recommit, and then act on that decision with respect, dignity and care.

Facing your own wants and needs, at a deeper level, can save you and your partner a mountain of hurt whether you stay…or part.

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Dr. Neill Neill retired his psychology practice at the end of 2013. He maintains an active coaching practice via telephone or Skype with select clients dealing with alcoholic husbands or ex-husbands. Check out his book, Living with a Functioning Alcoholic: A Woman's Survival Guide. http://drneillneill.com

7 thoughts on “When Is a Marriage Beyond Help?

  1. What if you know that you do want to be in the marriage “if” the unhealthy patterns can be resolved, but it doesn’t look like they can? I’ve known for years that I don’t want to stay if it’s going to be exactly like this (or only moderately better) in 10 years. It’s hard to know at what point to give up.

  2. As I am now learning, there is much truth in this. My husband is an alcoholic, and our recent separation has opened my eyes to the fact that there is much besides the addiction that I’m unhappy with. I’m longing for a deeper, more meaningful connection with a partner who really listens to me. This has never been there for us, although we’ve been great friends and buddies and have had a great sex life. But the deeper, almost spiritual part is not there. Will never be there, even if he goes into recovery. A real awakening for me, and very sad all in all.

  3. What if you’re married to alcoholic and have kids? I have twins, 14 and a 13 year old girl. I am afraid to divorce him during these years. He drinks and drives and if it was his weekend to have the kids, he wouldn’t watch them. The thought of my daughter being alone with him all weekend scares me because he would be in charge. I feel if I can wait until they graduate then at least I know they are safe.

  4. I have been married for 28 years to a man that has always worked hard for our family, but who has drank every step of the way. I have separated myself from him and live on my own now. He thinks that taking 5 pain pills a day and drinking 3-5 beers a night is not a problem. He says I am the one who is unhappy so it’s my problem. I just need someone to tell me that that is in fact a problem. I have asked him many times to get help and he refuses. He says that, “it helps me relieve the stress of my job.” He has a very short fuse when I try to talk to him about this. I have a good job and 2 wonderful kids that are young adults now, but I find them worrying about his health down the road and he doesn’t even care enough to seek help for their sake.

  5. I am married to an alcoholic. I recently moved back in, we had been separated for 6 months. I know now this is not what I want. Nothing changes!! He is very manipulating and controlling, I cannot have a life outside this marriage. He is constantly accusing me of cheating when I have never cheated. I have been 100% faithful. He has financially destroyed me. Two years ago we had to file bankruptcy because he lost his job, due to his drinking problem. He had accumulated so many bills that we couldn’t stay afloat. Of course I get blamed for the bankruptcy when it had nothing to do with me, I can maintain my own bills. I am very unhappy. My feelings towards him have become very calloused and I no longer love him. Years of abuse and neglect have finally taking its toll. He has a history of drug use and a family history of alcoholism. I wish I would’ve known then what I know now! I stumbled upon your website and I am so grateful. I know I am not alone and there are a lot of women who are in the same position I am in. He doesn’t stay sober for very long, only enough to be a functioning alcoholic during work hours. No one knows the hell I have been through because I keep it to myself. I really wish I would’ve stayed in my own place where I was happy and in peace… Lesson learned!

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