I’ve been with my husband for a decade. We married young and, in a lot of ways, he’s a great guy and right for me. But I still want to leave.
I did leave once a few years ago and he put me on a major guilt trip until I came home. Things have been better, but I’m still not happy. I feel completely obligated to him because he has no friends and I’m his whole world. I know me leaving would devastate him, but I also know I can’t stay and put his happiness above my own. For some reason I feel completely blocked to actually toughen up and tell him it’s over. There’s some barrier in my way, and I think it’s obligation.
— Dismayed to Stay
The hardest part of leaving a marriage is deciding to do it. And this you’ve already done. So, now what?
As a graduate student studying and practicing couples therapy, I would be remiss as to not recommend marriage counseling. Despite some popular opinions, couples counselors aren’t there to convince you to stay in your unhappy marriage or shame you for leaving it.
In reality, couples therapists are there to help couples make informed decisions about how to work on their relationships, give couples the tools and practice to do that work, help each partner make an informed decision about whether to stay or go, and even help navigate the transition of ending the relationship.
You don’t even have to have the same goal (Stay? Go? Separate? Divorce?) as your partner to benefit from work with an informed third party. In fact, couples counseling might help untangle this guilt/obligation cycle to the benefit of both you and your husband.
But I’m not your therapist, today, Dismayed, I’m just your local sex columnist. So, what say I? Consider what has your staying done to help your husband. It sounds like he still has no friends, no independent joys, and here you are still feeling unhappy.
This isn’t to say that your husband is a mean loser — you yourself describe him as a “great guy.” But you need to ask yourself: what has this obligation done for him, what has it done for you.
The tricky thing about anxiety, guilt, and obligation is that they hold illusions of grandeur. Obligation, for example, tells you “You’re definitely the only thing holding your spouse together. And if you don’t, you will be the sole person to blame for his eventual collapse.”
You have the power to break this misconception by telling Obligation to get over itself. You are not the only person holding your husband’s life together and though he may feel that to be true for himself, it’s abusive behavior for him to force that belief onto you in order to control your actions.
I’ve never seen anyone cure a spouse’s depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem by unhappily staying married. I have seen spouses support their partners independent decisions to see a good therapist or to make new friends — important parts of kicking depression, which your husband might have. But — very importantly — this is just a part of the work. The voice of Obligation has got it all wrong — you are not his whole world, you cannot make him happy by trying to be, nor should you have to.
Here’s what you’re obligated to do: Maintain your own happiness. Keep yourself safe and, if you want to, connect him with resources — suicide hotlines, crisis drop-ins, therapists, support groups, etc. — that can help keep him safe, too. Be kind and loving to your spouse of 10 years, which you can do even as you leave him. Let yourself off the hook and free-fall into bravery. Give yourself permission to be happy, Dismayed. Because if you wait for your husband to grant that permission to you, you’ll be waiting for a long time.
Yana Tallon-Hicks is a pleasure-positive writer and educator living in the Pioneer Valley. She has a website bursting with sex advice, resources, and workshops at yanatallonhicks.com.