Are You Trapped in a Loveless Marriage?

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Feeling trapped in a loveless marriage is a familiar carrion cry from couples who attend couples counseling. Each member of the couple swing on a pendulum of feeling hopeless and wanting to escape on one arc, to insisting that their partner change and become more nurturing and closer on the other arc.

Feeling trapped in a loveless marriage but sticking it out

No matter how uncomfortable it is to feel trapped in a loveless marriage, most couples choose to stay and endure tension, stress, lack of affection, and constant friction.

What’s the strong pull that makes couples choose to stay in and feel trapped in a loveless marriage?

  1. Parents had a loveless marriage so it’s just the norm

Tess a 36-year-old home maker had always dreamed of a close marriage and loving family. When she met her future husband, who had been the caretaker in his family of origin, it seemed she had found just the right person – a proven family man with unfailing loyalties and eager to please. Ken, her husband, a 37-year-old professor of bio-chemistry was excited that Tess was interested in his preferences for outdoor sports, was a companion who would share some of the burden of family life. Now as they approached 40 years of age with three young children, both felt trapped in a loveless marriage.

Tess’s parents stuck together despite her dad having affairs and her mother turning a blind eye to it. Personal loyalty and honesty was nothing to the fidelity to the formal tie of marriage. The quality of the relationship was not significant, as each parent did their own thing and bundled the kids into a frenzy of activity, disguising the lack of genuine care and intimacy between the adults.

Ken’s parents were at each other’s throats when they were together, and unmercifully scathing about one another when they were not. Ken mediated and tried to keep them both happy, hating them and wanting to escape to a happier family life of his own. His parents remained together in their loveless marriage, and Ken found himself in the same boat – trapped in a loveless marriage.

Both Tess and Ken would talk about leaving the marriage, fantasizing about being free to be themselves without the passive aggressive critical stance from one partner or the explosive judgmental threats from the other. Yet they kept the marriage going – sticking to the norm of unhappy and loveless marriage that their parents modeled for them.

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What’s the pull to stay trapped in a loveless marriage?

  1. Martyrdom and goodness will soften my partner and bring love to the marriage

Anderson, a 45-year-old webmaster for a social media platform complained bitterly that his wife was cold and didn’t like sex. He was constantly anxious, feeling rejected, devalued and demeaned. He had fantasies of walking out on the marriage and finding a warm, inviting and doting woman who would make him feel desirable and treasured. Even when he did have sex with his wife, he felt it was done out of duty and it was therefore not satisfying. Anderson felt undesirable because his wife wasn’t a naturally affectionate woman, depriving him of his longing to put his head in her lap and have his head and back stroked.

As a child he had watched his drunken father physically abuse his mother, and he too was often the butt of his father’s inebriated wrath.  It seemed that his parents were trapped in a loveless marriage. He had fantasies of leaving and finding another home but kept a low profile, hoping his quiet loyalty to his mother would make her notice him; play with him, show love and affection. But his martyrdom didn’t work then and it wasn’t working in his marriage. He was trapped in a loveless marriage.

Jackie his 44-year-old wife, a property management agent, was obsessed with being a “good wife and mother” at any cost. She worked herself into permanent exhaustion at work and at home wanting to be recognized as the ‘perfect’ caregiver – martyred on the cross of sacrificing her own need for her family. As a 5-year-old she had experienced survivor guilt when her younger and much cherished brother died after a sudden illness. Her parents had shut down in their grief, making her feel unwanted. Her parents estrangement after the death of their son found themselves trapped in a loveless marriage. They ignored their daughter who strove unsuccessfully to make up for the loss of her brother and fill her parents’ lives and save the family. Trapped in a disengaged family she was now trapped in a loveless marriage hoping that her self-sacrifice and martyrdom for her family sake would make Anderson love her for it and not see her as a disappointment.

Anderson and Jackie competed for the role of most suffering martyr and unconsciously committed to that act of martyrdom being the ultimate source of being loved, willing to continue on that path no matter how unhappy and exhausted they were.

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What’s the pull to stay trapped in a loveless marriage?

  1. A belief that proving and asserting your upright moral code will make your partner value and love you.

Abby, a 29-year-old trainee accountant had been hell bent on escaping the discord in her family as she grew up in a large family full of sibling rivalry and needy parents. She was embarrassed by her family and longed to marry into another strata of society where she could distance herself from her poisonous history. Abby believed that her goodness and desire to make things right and proper, according to her upright moral code would lead to love and committed caring in a marriage. When she met Garry, a 33-year-old photo-journalist she was entranced. He represented a fascinating world of freedom and personal autonomy with the warmth and support of a close family of origin. Ascending into that stratosphere meant she could feel good about herself, her values and her goals. She would be loved for herself without her having to hide it.

Brent, Abby’s 33-year-old husband was attracted to her physically and the potential she had to grow as a person if he took her out of her oppressive and damaging family. His good moral values could be applied in a cause that would ultimately bring him love for who he was and not just for his better fortune in life.

But their marriage was fractious with immense communication problems.  They couldn’t find a synchronous rhythm that allowed them to feel cared for and loved. Abby’s entry into a more affluent setting made her greedy to get everything she wanted in case her ugly history and heritage seeped into her new world and smeared her reputation. She demanded more and more material things from Brent, exploding in temper tantrums when she didn’t get her way. When she was thwarted, she felt devalued and trapped in a loveless marriage with three young children who got all the attention she didn’t get in her childhood and wasn’t getting now. But her sense of upright moral code made her stick it out and continue to demand her entitlements.

Brent was deeply disappointed and angry that the potential he saw in Abby was a mere illusion, and in fact he had married a scared woman who wanted to hide her heritage – not align with his values as they parented their children and fulfill his wish to have his moral values validated. Brent was trapped in a loveless marriage but his sense of upright moral code gave him a strong sense of personal authority with which to manage his wife’s demands while bemoaning the lack of genuine love, empathy and care for one another.

Trapped in a loveless marriage – it’s a choice, but it doesn’t have to be insufferable

Couples who come into therapy having made unconscious decisions to stay married want relief from the daily disappointment that comes with lack of recognition, ingratitude and insensitivity to emotionally intimacy concerns. They have no idea that they don’t have to do it the way their parents did; or live a life of martyrdom or righteousness in order to have a partner and family.

Couples counseling offers a broadening of outlook, providing space and safety to aim for being loved for who you are and not the role you play or the functions you perform. That is a massive paradigm shift and takes commitment and determination if the marriage is going to feel comfortable, warm and loving. Survival of the marriage is not the question – that is given – but it’s the quality of it that can be enhanced with  individual counseling and couples therapy.


Copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D.


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