People usually keep doubts about their marriage to themselves.
Here we’re not talking about ordinary concerns about the relationship or even feeling in a stuck pattern—instead, we’re talking about worries about whether the marriage will survive. This is scary to think about. If you tell others, you might get unhelpful suggestions such as “just listen to your inner voice” or “make a pros and cons list”!
About 1 in 5 married people (22%) report having some doubt about whether their marriage will survive.
But this is not a permanent 24/7 state of mind, as you have likely already experienced.
There is no big public sharing as there may be for career angst, or when a family member getting a scary medical diagnosis and you have a cadre of people to process your emotions.When you were falling in love, everybody knew. But now maybe you have just one friend or a counselor you’ve opened up to. Certainly not your spouse! Your anxiety grows from hiding such a threatening emotion and from worrying about the risks of “outing” yourself.
Many people in the marital-doubt camp are trying to figure out if their spouse is capable of changing. This leads some doubters to unconsciously create “tests” for their spouse, to see if change is possible. (“If I don’t remind him of my birthday, will he remember?”) When the spouse fails the test, the doubts are fueled.
Because there is no sharing, a doubter’s spouse has no idea what’s going on. Even if they sense the other’s discontent, they aren’t likely to see any threat to the future of their marriage. Every marriage has its ups and downs, they think, and they may also have gripes about the marriage (but not about whether divorce is in the future).
In the three simplest “end game” scenarios of marital doubt, the following can happen:
- Doubt goes away, replaced by normal ups and downs of marriage but without the edge and anxiety about commitment and stability. You’re back in, with maybe just occasional flare ups of doubt. You may get there on your own, or with help.
- Doubt turns to crisis when it’s shared with the spouse prior to a decision to end the marriage. Sometimes the crisis leads to real change, with counseling help or on your own as a couple, and the doubt goes away. Other times it leads to divorce, but with enough time for the spouse to understand what’s going on and for both of you to try to save the marriage if possible. This shows the benefit of sharing doubts with the spouse before deciding to divorce—it gives them a chance to respond well and for reconciliation to occur—even though it’s scary because you don’t know how they will react.
- Doubt is not shared and turns into a sudden announcement of divorce–a kind of “Dear John” discussion: “I am leaving you. I have a lawyer and I suggest you get one.” This is, of course, the most heart wrenching for the other spouse and can lead to bitter divorces and troubled shared parenting later. However, it might be necessary if the other spouse is a threatening person who could do grave harm if told in advance.