What happens if your marriage really hasn’t been that great but you’ve been sticking it out for the kids, or for some other reason. Let’s say the reason you’ve been sticking it out is no longer relevant… Now what?

If the purpose for staying married is no longer relevant, is your marriage toast? Or can you do something to redeem and reconfigure your relationship so that new life is breathed into it?

Barriers and Rewards in Marriage

Why do people stay married? In 2003, two researchers set out to answer this. They cited past research that showed that people typically stay married due to either rewards (positive outcomes associated with being in a relationship) or barriers (psychological forces that restrain people from leaving relationships).[i]

Happy marriages often stay together because of rewarding aspects of marriage, while unhappy marriages often stay together because of barriers to ending the marriage.

The researchers were interested in specific rewards and barriers that kept marriages together and used data from a 17-year longitudinal study of marital instability to find some answers.

In this study, couples were asked to list (1) specific barriers that prevented them from moving forward with divorce, (2) specific rewards that kept them together, and (3) whether they stayed due to a lack of alternative relationships.

The results showed:

  • When couples were asked why they stayed in their marriage, 74% listed various rewards, 25% listed barriers, and 1% listed lack of alternatives.
  • Of those who listed barriers, the number one barrier to ending the marriage was staying for the sake of the children. The second largest barrier listed was religion.
  • “People who attributed the cohesiveness of their marriages primarily to barriers (such as staying for the children) tended to be relatively unhappy with their marriages and were likely to be thinking (or acting) in ways that might lead to divorce.”
  • “Thinking about marital cohesion exclusively in terms of barriers predicted divorce up to 14 years later, even after controlling for marital happiness and divorce proneness.[ii]

The researchers also noted that barriers were not as powerful as rewards in maintaining cohesion. Without a strong attraction between spouses (as reflected in love, friendship, or positive communication) many people eventually find ways to overcome existing barriers and leave their marriages.

For example, couples that are concerned about the effect of divorce on children may wait until their children are older or have left home before divorcing.

Here’s the point: what’s keeping you together now could lead you to your ungluing later.

You can think of this from a Scriptural perspective, too. Marriage, in terms of purpose, is cast in Ephesians 5 as a way to express the relationship of Christ towards his people on earth: there’s communication, intimacy, covenant faithfulness, loyalty and commitment, and deep, unfailing love.

If your marriage has been carried along on the winds of any other kind of purpose, it’s time to seriously consider how you can remanufacture and build something that is aligned with the divinely ordained purpose. Surely, this is a far richer, far more joyful, perspective!

But, just because you’re staying together for the wrong reasons doesn’t mean divorce is inevitable! If there’s pain in your marriage, why not find a place for the truth of redemption to be expressed in your marriage? Surely this is a better route than the devastation of divorce.

Don’t Wait to Get Help

Based on the research (above), marriages that stay together for the children are often unhappy marriages that could be headed for divorce once the children grow up. What should these marriages do? How can they find help?

A large part of the problem is that many unhappy marriages don’t seek help at all.

Other research shows that “most distressed couples do not seek marital therapy” and those who do wait an average of 6 years after serious relationship problems develop. In fact, only 37% of divorcing couples report seeking any type of counselling or therapy for their relationship.[iii]

Trying to resolve issues after they have escalated for 6 years, is much more difficult than resolving them right when they start. So, why wait? What is stopping you from getting help today?

Most people will answer that question by identifying a problem in their spouse. We understand that it’s often the case that your spouse isn’t on board for getting help, but if you’re creative and prayerful about this, you can find ways to improve things.

What Motivates Couples to Seek Help?

If you are wanting to get help, there’s this really tough question that we spoke about somewhat in our last podcast that we return to today: How do I get my spouse and I into counselling or some kind of marriage help.

There was a recent study that looked at what motivated couples to enroll in a marriage checkup, which serves the purpose of increasing marital health.[iv] It turns out this is a really complicated problem to solve! Often one spouse is unwilling to seek help and therefore can either veto this or find ways to undermine it. It may also be hard to find time in your schedule or even find childcare.

What these researchers found is that couples are motivated by relationship distress and that it’s usually more about the wife’s desire to find help. Husbands tended to be more affected by their wives’ assessment of the relationship than their own. This supports the idea that wives tend to function as a relationship barometer. So, if you’re a wife reading this, don’t underestimate your capability to influence your husband to pursue help together!

Caleb had a thought about this for you wives:

Men tend to hide. They’re afraid that if you see them as they really are, they’ll be rejected. Or, they withdraw as an attempt to save the marriage because they feel that if things are calmer, the marriage is safer than when you’re fighting.

So, if you’re husband is hiding, perhaps you could undo the whole hiding thing by bringing in his parents, or his best friend or your pastor? Not someone to take sides with you, but to take sides with your marriage.

Or, if he’s withdrawn, rather than pushing and pushing could you find a way to softly confess to him that everything you’ve been doing to try to save your marriage isn’t working and you’d like him to help you choose a counsellor so you guys can get some help.

Try SOMETHING because there is hope for your marriage. Think about how you can remove barriers to seeking help and you might find some new ways to get things moving in the right direction.

Ready for Help?

We have created a two-page worksheet you can download. It comes at the whole marriage quality issue very gently and would be a great tool to start a discussion about getting help without coming onto your spouse too strong. It’s more like, “Hey, how ready are we to get help for our marriage?” You can also do it yourself if you really want to challenge yourself to think about how ready you are to get help. Download it now!

Is There Hope For My Marriage?

Many marriages do not seek the help that they need. Many other marriages go through many years of distress, letting their problems become bigger and bigger before seeking help. But for those marriages that do seek help, there is a lot of hope!

Here are a few options you can try now: (Remember, these are suggestions, and you have to bear the consequences for whatever you decide to do in your marriage. We cannot accept responsibility for choices you make!)

  1. The first option is just sticking it out. Check out episode 111, “Is My Marriage Beyond Recovery?” In that episode we include this research:
    1. “Only about 10% of individuals say at any particular time that they are unhappy in their marriages….As this study followed these couples over the next five years, 15% of these unhappy individuals did divorce, but 85% hung on…About two out of three unhappy married adults who avoided divorce ended up happily married to the same spouse five years later.”[v]
    2. So, one strategy you could choose is to just stick it out and do your best at bringing the best version of yourself to the marriage. Think of an ocean freighter – it takes those long, heavy ships a long, long distance to get turned around. That is this kind of strategy: you’re looking for the long, slow turn.
  2. The second option is to take a little more purposeful approach. This might look like having a conversation about your commitment because of the kids and stating that you want to create something between you that will endure and thrive even if the kids are largely out of the picture. Who wants to be along or trying to find another spouse in their 50’s, right? The big scary question you may consider asking your spouse is if they are willing to commit to do this work with you – then you both figure out how. Maybe you take some time off tougher, maybe you read some marriage books together, or go to a marriage retreat, that kind of thing. Just be sure that somehow you’re giving yourselves some helps along the way.
  3. A third option is marriage therapy. The cumulative research on marital therapy comes to a general conclusion: marriage counselling does work.
    1. A study in 2003 looked at 20 different meta-analyses of marital and family interventions (that’s a lot of data!). They found that “marriage and family therapies produce clinically significant improvements in distressed clients, with success rates of 40-50%”[vi], and emotionally focussed couples therapy, which Caleb uses, has an even higher success rate.
    2. This is not offering a guarantee for your marriage, but I hope that you hear hope in this. Hope for your marriage.

So remember, what has defined your relationship to this point doesn’t have to be the final story. You can write a new story.

For example, some couples struggle with feeling the circumstances of life pressed them together into marriage and they wonder if they ever really chose each other. Well, even if your spouse married you because they had to, it doesn’t mean that you cannot create a marriage NOW where you choose each other!

Or, if you’ve made the mistake of having a child-centered marriage, it doesn’t mean that once the children are removed that it necessarily follows that there is no basis for your marriage. Why not get some help to create the marriage you want? Turn “there’s nothing there…” into “We love what we have!”

[i] Denise Previti and Paul R. Amato, “Why Stay Married? Rewards, Barriers, and Marital Stability,” Journal of Marriage and Family 65, no. 3 (August 2003): 561–73.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Brian D. Doss et al., “Marital Therapy, Retreats, and Books: The Who, What, When, and Why of Relationship Help-Seeking,” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 35, no. 1 (January 2009): 18–29.

[iv] C.J. Eubanks Fleming and James V. Córdova, “Predicting Relationship Help Seeking Prior to a Marriage Checkup,” Family Relations 61, no. 1 (February 1, 2012): 90–100, doi:10.1111/j.1741-3729.2011.00686.x.

[v] Hawkins, A. J. & Fackrell, T. A., “Should I Keep Trying to Work It out? A Guidebook for Individuals and Couples at the Crossroads of Divorce (and Before).,” 2009.

[vi] William R. Shadish and Scott A. Baldwin, “Meta-Analysis of MFT Interventions,” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 29, no. 4 (October 2003): 547–70.