Stuck in a bad marriage?

Recognise that staying in a bad marriage is a choice. You can break free if you want...

Husband dominating wife

A woman once came weeping to us showing scars of physical abuse on her body. She said that she could not take it anymore. We had a long session in which a systematic action was planned for her to get out of the marriage. Counselling sessions with the children and with her were planned to help them make the transition smoothly, and she was referred to a good divorce lawyer.

We never saw her again for a long time. After a year from our first meeting she appeared again, this time again sobbing bitterly because her teenage son had run away from home after being brutally beaten by his father. She had continued to stay in a bad marriage for some rational-sounding, but perverted reason. We went through an arduous process of extensive counselling which included a lot of confrontation, before she finally walked out of the marriage.

But more often than not, the bad marriage continues. The partners continue to suffer themselves and inflict suffering on the other, and the children bear the brunt of this toxic relationship, just because of bad choices made by their parents.

Besides physical abuse, there are other extremely toxic elements in a relationship which warrant the end of the relationship. For example, if one of the partners is an alcoholic or a drug addict, if there is a life-threatening mental illness in the partner, or even if there is extreme and sustained mental and verbal abuse causing emotional torture. Why the aggrieved partner does not end such a toxic relationship is worth examining.

Like we said earlier, reasons for remaining in a bad marriage are always rational-sounding, but are truly perverted.

Reasons or excuses?

Some of the rational-sounding excuses are, “He says he is sorry, I  think I should give him a chance”, “He is sick, he needs me”, “He says he’ll change and this time he says that he means it”, “He is a good man really”, “The children need both of us” and many more. The aggrieved partner believes what s/he wants to believe and continues to derive comfort in this delusion. The real reasons for staying in a bad marriage are of course completely different.

Counselees often come for therapy sessions claiming that they want to end their suffering in bad relationships, but in their innermost beings, they consciously or unconsciously do not want to end such relationships. On the contrary, they cling to their bad marriages, which are obviously advantageous to them in some way and are giving them some pay-offs.

These pay-offs could be in the form of financial security, social status—the unwillingness to be labelled a divorcee which they equate with being a failure—emotional co-dependency, a false ‘belief’ that I deserve this suffering for past sins… the list is endless.

Often, those who have rebelled and married against the wish of their parents, either out of caste or with a person from a different financial or social status, stay in a bad marriage. They fear exposure, and retrospectively being proven wrong, and this is what keeps them in a bad marriage, till the very end. They are willing to suffer in the marriage, but their pride cannot bear the thought of even retrospectively being proven wrong. They thus sacrifice emotional health at the altar of the ego-centric mind.

The critical point

Very often, we come across people who are sitting in front of us after traumatic experiences in their relationships. Why did they wait for so long? For some, such traumas are a turning point, a soul-searching time, a moment of truth, and counselling works miracles with them; they get out of a bad marriage. But for others, the marriage ends in a mental asylum, the intensive care unit of a hospital or even in the morgue. Many learn a lot through traumatic relationships, and many don’t!

Being honest with yourself

But do you really want to live a balanced life? That is the million-dollar question. If you say you want to and yet continue to be in a bad marriage, see what is stopping you, why the discrepancy between the insight and the behaviour, what is the pay-off/benefit being derived out of remaining in the relationship?

As you seek to understand why you act in certain ways, look hard and honestly at what you are getting out of your action. If you never take your eye off that truth, you can continue to close in on the answer. Identify the pay-off that drives your behaviour. Name it, label it. You can’t change what you don’t label. Say it in words. Once you clearly identify and label the pay-off, you can consciously unplug from it. Fail to identify it, and you are like a puppet on a string, being controlled by some unknown person or thing.

Victim or victor

Once you are aware of the dynamics of your behaviour, you can then make a conscious choice—the choice between being a victim or a victor.

When you choose to be a victim, you gain in external power [the poor-me, so good and helpless v/s the big bad world—is a very powerful ego state] and lose internal power [you are resentful towards those who have victimised you and thus you lose inner peace]. When you choose to be a victor, you lose in external power [you are not better than the world around you] and gain in internal power [peace and harmony].

You are accountable for the choices you make today. Is it truly a profitable transaction to continue to remain in a bad marriage, to continue to play the role of a victim? You have a choice. If you do want to get out, then listen to the wisdom that is trying to come through to you in different forms, from within, i.e. the mirror of your soul, and also from without, i.e. the mirror of the relationship. Take responsibility now. You can do it. It is so exciting to know that I am not a victim of my body-mind, but a creator of my own health. I can choose not to be a victim anymore. Instead, I can be a victor. Choose to be a victor.

Bad marriage affects stress levels

woman worried about marriageYou know people who take their work life home with them. But research shows that men and women who are in bad marriages may take that stress to work, thereby increasing their risk of developing heart disease and diabetes.

“What is happening is that marital problems are spilling into the workplace,” said Brandeis University’s Rosalind Barnett, one of the study’s authors. “If these persist over time, they could lead to serious health problems.”

In the study published in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine, Barnett and colleagues looked at 105 middle-aged married adults—67 men and 38 women—to determine the relationship between the quality of their marriage and several physical and mental stress indicators.

A standardised scale was used to analyse the participants’ feelings about their marriage. Then, their blood pressure and stress-related hormone cortisol levels, determined from saliva samples, were checked throughout a working day.

Those who expressed more marital concerns had higher blood pressure during the work day. They also had higher morning cortisol levels, with fewer changes in levels during the day, than those with fewer marital concerns. People who scored worse on the marital quality scale also reported feeling more stress.

Eventually, high cortisol levels can increase risk for obesity, diabetes, depression, immune problems, and high blood pressure raises the risk of heart attack and stroke. Contrary to what some may expect, these effects were seen in both men and women.

“It’s generally assumed that primary relationships are more critical to women’s psychological well-being than men’s, but this is not the case,” Barnett said. “When there is marital concern, men and women are equally affected.”

This was first published in the August 2009 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

Magnifying lens over an exclamation markSpot an error in this article? A typo maybe? Or an incorrect source? Let us know!

Minnu Bhonsle
Dr Minnu R Bhonsle, PhD, is a Mumbai-based consulting psychotherapist and counsellor. She conducts training programmes in Personal Counselling [Client-centred Therapy] and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, and also workshops in Stress Management, Art of Listening, Couple Therapy, and Communication Skills. Minnu has co-authored the book, The Ultimate Sex Education Guide along with Dr Rajan Bhonsle.
Rajan Bhonsle
Dr Rajan Bhonsle, MD, is a consultant in sexual medicine and counsellor. Along with his wife Minnu R Bhonsle, PhD, who is a consulting psychotherapist and counsellor, he runs a unique therapy centre


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