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My marriage looks great from the outside – but all I want is to leave

Ask Roe: You need to start trusting yourself, and giving yourself permission to do what you want and need to do with your one and only life

Dear Roe,

I am 20 years married with three children. In many regards I have a “good” marriage because my husband is a decent, intelligent and loyal man, and we have built a solid and comfortable life for our family. We are fully devoted to our children’s welfare and rarely disagree on rearing them. We also have never fought about finances, religion, family or any of the usual things that can cause trouble.

However, we have had many bumpy times in our marriage because of serious differences in our temperaments and because I feel totally different to him as regards our marriage. He thinks it’s good: I think I’ve only stuck with it because of the kids. But we have always tried to work through our issues. We have done couple’s therapy, are both doing individual therapy, we seek advice and help from books and articles and discuss issues regularly.

Every piece of advice on marriage and relationships is to communicate and work through issues and keep striving to work on one’s marriage. We’ve done all that many times over. I don’t want to work on my marriage anymore. I don’t see the point, my heart isn’t in it. We seem to run repetitively into the same problems that likely stem from a fundamental incompatibility between us.

I dream of nothing other than getting out of this marriage. I can’t imagine growing old with him or spending time alone with him when the kids aren’t around. I dread it. He wants the marriage to continue and I don’t. Why do I have to keep working and communicating and trying? I feel like there’s so little relationship advice out there about how to get out of marriages that aren’t working (except for the violent, toxic or harmful marriages).

I’m sick of hearing about communicating and working through things. I need your fresh and frank perspective please.

You don’t need my perspective, or my permission. You don’t need anyone else’s perspective or permission. You need to start trusting yourself, and giving yourself permission to do what you want and need to do with your one and only life.

No one else knows or understands you or your needs better than you do. And yet you keep deferring to others – your husband; counsellors; books; articles; me, an advice columnist you’ve never met. You don’t need us to tell you what you want, need, or should do. You know with every fibre of your being what you need, want and should do. It’s the truth that you’ve tried hard to silence, but it keeps ringing through your mind and body, every day. You want to leave. You need to leave. You should leave.

The reason you can’t do it yet is because you have internalised the idea that what you want doesn’t matter. You’ve internalised the idea that you should stay, settle, keep the peace. You’ve internalised the idea that a marriage has to be violent, toxic or harmful to justify wanting to leave it; that you should stay in an unfulfilling relationship because you don’t deserve more, and because this is what good, respectable, responsible people do: they make vows, and they stay. These narratives can be particularly gendered, as women are made to feel like their life’s purpose is to keep their partners and children happy; to sacrifice their happiness for everyone else; that to do anything that brings even temporary discomfort to those around them makes them a selfish mother and a bad woman.

These narratives are not true. Of course they’re not. But they prevail because we don’t hear about the others often enough. We hear endless laments about the “tragedy” of people growing apart, as if that can only be a negative thing – focusing on the “apart”, as if the goal of every person’s life should be to stop growing in order to stay with someone they met decades ago, when really, growth can only ever be positive, and if two people do that in opposite directions, they can cherish the time they had together and be grateful for the ways it let them evolve into who they should be. We hear stories about children being sad about their parents’ divorce but so rarely about the deep damage done to children who grow up watching their parents live without love, passion, joy, laughter, fulfilment; and how those children can internalise that they shouldn’t expect more from their own partnerships.

Ireland’s relationship with divorce is still in its infancy, really. It’s still overly difficult to complete and not spoken about enough, and so we don’t hear enough stories of people just like you, who decided to leave marriages that were, on the surface, fine, because they knew it wasn’t right. But these people are there – good, respectable, responsible people who really wanted a relationship to work, who tried hard to make it work, and then, finally were brave enough and hopeful enough to end it, and start living their life in a different way. And I do mean brave. There can be a comfortable complacency in settling, in succumbing to the idea that there’s nothing better out there, and so there’s no point in trying. This thought process provides a simple answer: stay.

But hope? Hope is messy. It interrupts and disrupts; it requires imagination, bravery and, most importantly, action. Hope doesn’t provide you with an easy answer; instead it provides you with difficult questions and a to-do list.

You want to leave because you are brave enough to believe that life could be better. That’s your hope. Are you ready to embrace it fully, and move on to the next steps?

If your current therapist has been trying to convince you to stay in your marriage, find another one. Find one who will help you start crafting your questions, and making your to-do list. These questions will not include: “Can I leave?” You have already given yourself permission to do so.

There are questions about ending the relationship. How do you want you and your husband to navigate this split with care and respect? What practical supports and emotional supports are you going to need immediately, how can you put these supports in place, and who can help you? How do you want to make sure your children have support while not over-extending yourself or shrinking your own needs?

Then there are questions about you, and your future. Why have you devalued your own needs for so long? Who are you, beyond the needs of your husband and children? What do you value and enjoy, what awakens your curiosity and passion? What do you want your life to look like, and include? You mightn’t know yet. That’s okay. You might have a very clear idea that changes completely as you begin to live it. That’s fine too. Hope is an exploration of what is possible. You are about to start exploring all the other possibilities of your life – not all of them will stick. But the more you try, the more you’ll learn about yourself and the closer you’ll get to the life you want.

You don’t need my permission to leave. But let me extend my admiration, best wishes and gratitude. Thank you for giving yourself permission to hope – because in so doing, you show others how to do it, too. Good luck.

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