Ask Dr. Zoe – Should I Stay in My Marriage at the Cost of My Happiness?
‘Languishing in London’ asked:
Hi Dr. Zoe,
I am currently in an unfortunate (self-induced) situation and am in need of clarity.
I have a difficult decision I must make, one in which will affect several people’s lives in a hurtful way— regardless which path I take. With that, I will dive in.
I have been in the same committed relationship practically my entire adult life. We have two children together and the youngest will be 19 this year. The word committed is used loosely here. We have not been good to each other in different ways. I have been unfaithful and he is unwilling to meet me halfway in terms of our financial wellbeing. I remain fiscally responsible for the lion’s share of our living expenses, though he is employed full-time and unable to make his (considerably smaller) financial obligations timely.
I have always carried almost the entire load and I’ve done so for so long, I’ve become quite bitter about it. We have talked and he knows and always says he will do better but when the time comes he always makes excuses. Shamefully, I must confess we are both repeat offenders with our transgressions against one another.
I’ve analyzed our situation on repeat for every bit of a decade, languishing over the decision and paralyzed in fear that I end up not making a decision. I recognize refusing to decide is still making a decision.
I’ve been emotionally involved with a work colleague for nearly two years, but the relationship became physical about seven months ago. It started as a friendship that developed into something deeper and progressed beyond that. Currently, we have ended things because we both know this cannot ever be right as long as it is wrong and we have agreed to distance from each other to give ourselves oxygen to sort things out.
I must make a decision if I want to stay in my relationship or not. My youngest son (18) told me he would never speak to me again if I was not with his father. He does not find it fair that he should have to bear the majority of financial responsibility of his father and would view my choice to get out as selfish and self-serving.
I do love my partner and I know he loves me, but I think it’s fair to say we don’t love each other enough to do things differently. We are complacent, comfortable, and for the most part the relationship is tolerable—but neither of us are really happy. Well, I know that I’m not. He may very well be. He certainly seems to be perfectly satisfied.
He’s also told me in the past that I am non-ratifiable and I will never be happy with anyone.
Of note, my long-term partner is a believer. My recent affair partner is not. This is important to me, despite the actions my behavior suggests.
I am afraid I will regret not ending my relationship with my children’s father and I am simultaneously afraid if I do, I will get to the other side and regret doing so.
I know I am free to choose, but I am not free to choose the consequences of my choice. I am afraid of the guilt I will face if I walk out of my current relationship and the pain it will cause my children and his family, whom I love. I am really afraid of my son cutting me out of his life.
One question that has continually come up in the past was this: “If the cost of my happiness comes at the expense of the people I love, isn’t it just plain selfish?” The relationship works for everyone else, just a bit less for me.
I can’t keep doing this but I don’t know what to. Frankly, I do not trust myself to make this decision. It’s as if I say “I wanna drive my life, let me drive my life. I won’t wreck it this time,” and then I get in the driver’s seat and drive into a ditch. Every. Single. Time.
How can I get God to drive my life and know what is His will for me?
Any advice you can provide on the matter is immensely appreciated.
Dr. Zoe answered:
You have one of the most difficult decisions that a mother has to make and I want to honor the anguish and fear involved in such as decision.
I hope it offers you consolation that your story is in no way unique. I hear some version of it regularly. You are aware of the dysfunction, but you’ve convinced yourself that it works for everyone except you. That’s a cognitive distortion. The truth is, if it isn’t working for you to such an extent that it’s causing tremendous distress (which this is), it isn’t truly working for anyone.
You are thinking, “I shouldn’t choose happiness at the cost of my family.” But maybe you should be asking yourself, “What is the cost of my unhappiness (dysfunction) on my family?” Your family situation may be familiar to everyone else, but that doesn’t mean it’s working for them.
Your affair is a symptom of the dysfunction in your relationship. You know the affair was not the answer. An affair is never the answer. I’m so happy to hear that you have chosen to end it while you iron out your current relationship, but part of healing is understanding what led you there to begin with.
Why would your 18-year-old son bear the financial burden of caring for his father when his father is able-bodied and working?
I have never yet met a child that has permanently cut off a parent for ending a relationship with the other parent. Children cut off relationships because of the toxicity between themselves and the parent. I don’t know the extent of your relationship with your son, but it is likely you will not lose him even if he is not happy with the end of your relationship with his father.
You questioned, “If the cost of my happiness comes at the expense of the people I love, isn’t it just plain selfish?” As horrible as this reality is, children don’t know what’s good for them. They know what is familiar. I have heard stories of young children in burn units crying out for their mothers, when their mothers were the ones that burned them. They may feel pain because of the separation, but their long-term happiness and health requires that they are separated from an abusive parent.
Just because your children will be distressed if you separate, doesn’t mean that you are costing them their happiness. Your job as a mother is to determine what is best for your children presently and in the long run as best as you can see it- not what they want. This includes what you are modeling to them about what a healthy relationship is and what they should tolerate and expect from their partners in the future.
I think a better question is “Is the emotional damage my sacrifice is costing me compromising my ability to show up in the healthiest way I can for my children?”
You need to recognize your cognitive distortions that are keeping you stuck. You need to know the lies that you are believing and the lies that you are telling yourself. Ultimately, you need to decide which regret would be more painful to live with? The regret of not ending something you are well aware is unhealthy or the regret that you ended it?
I suggest that you not walk this journey alone. Your brain has a way of playing tricks on you. You can firmly make up your mind one minute and then find yourself easily swayed into putting up with status quo again. Find a support system, even if it is a paid therapist. Try to let your objectivity, not your fear, drive your decision. Read the book Should I Stay or Should I Go by Lundy Bancroft and Too Good To Leave, Too Bad to Stay by Mira Kirshenbaum.
Last, there will always be a seed of doubt with any decision you have to make on this issue. Don’t allow that doubt to convince you that it is the wrong decision. Make the best choice you can, keeping yourself and your children top of mind and then figure out how to make that decision work.
You’ve got this!!