Are You Trapped in an Unhappy Relationship?

Woman Confined Behind a Chain-Link FenceDo you feel trapped in a relationship you can’t leave? Of course, feeling trapped is a state of mind. No one needs consent to leave a relationship. Millions of people remain in unhappy relationships that range from empty to abusive for many reasons; however, the feeling of suffocation or of having no choices stems from fear that’s often unconscious.

People give many explanations for staying, ranging from caring for young children to caring for a sick mate. One man was too afraid and guilt-ridden to leave his ill wife (11 years his senior). His ambivalence made him so distressed, he died before she did! Money binds couples, too, especially in a bad economy. Yet, couples with more means may cling to a comfortable lifestyle, while their marriage dissembles into a business arrangement. Homemakers fear being self-supporting or single moms, and breadwinners dread paying support and seeing their assets divided. Often spouses fear feeling shamed of leaving a “failed” marriage. Some even worry their spouse may harm him or herself. Battered women may stay out of fear of retaliation should they leave. Most people tell themselves, “The grass isn’t any greener,” believe they’re too old to find love again and imagine nightmarish online dating scenarios. Less so today, some cultures still stigmatize divorce. Yet, there are deeper fears.

Unconscious Fear

Despite the abundance of reasons, many of which are realistic, there are deeper, unconscious ones that keep people trapped – usually fears of separation and loneliness that they want to avoid. Often in longer relationships, spouses don’t develop individual activities or support networks other than their mate. In the past, an extended family used to serve that function. Whereas women tend to have girlfriends in whom they confide and are usually closer with their parents, traditionally, men focus on work, but disregard their emotional needs and rely exclusively on their wife for support. Yet, both men and women often neglect developing individual interests. Some codependent women give up their friends, hobbies, and activities and adopt those of their male companions. The combined effect of this adds to fears of loneliness and isolation people that they envisage being on their own.

For spouses married a number of years, their identity may be as a “husband” or “wife” – a “provider” or “homemaker.” The loneliness experienced upon divorce is tinged with feeling lost. It’s an identity crisis. This also may be significant for a noncustodial parent, for whom parenting is a major source of self-esteem.

Some people have never lived alone. They left home or their college roommate for a marriage or romantic partner. The relationship helped them leave home – physically. Yet, they’ve never completed the developmental milestone of “leaving home” psychologically, meaning becoming an autonomous adult. They are as tied to their mate as they once were to their parents. Going through divorce or separation brings with it all of the unfinished work of becoming an independent “adult.” Fears about leaving their spouse and children may be reiterations of the fears and guilt that they would have had upon separating from their parents, which were avoided by quickly getting into a relationship or marriage. Guilt about leaving a spouse may be due to the fact that their parents didn’t appropriately encourage emotional separation. Although the negative impact of divorce upon children is real, their worries may also be projections of fears for themselves. This is compounded if they suffered from their parents’ divorce.

Lack of Autonomy

Autonomy implies being an emotionally secure, separate, and independent person. The lack of autonomy not only makes separation difficult, it naturally also makes people more dependent upon their partner. The consequence is that people feel trapped or “on the fence” and racked with ambivalence. On one hand they crave freedom and independence; on the other hand, they want the security of a relationship – even a bad one. Autonomy doesn’t mean you don’t need others, but in fact allows you to experience healthy dependence on others without the fear of suffocation. Examples of psychological autonomy include:

  1. You don’t feel lost and empty when you’re alone.
  2. You don’t feel responsible for others’ feelings and actions.
  3. You don’t take things personally.
  4. You can make decisions on your own.
  5. You have your own opinions and values and aren’t easily suggestible.
  6. You can initiate and do things on your own.
  7. You can say “no” and ask for space.
  8. You have your own friends.

Often, it’s this lack of autonomy that makes people unhappy in relationships or unable to commit. Because they can’t leave, they fear getting close. They’re afraid of even more dependence – of losing themselves completely. They may people-please or sacrifice their needs, interests, and friends, and then build resentments toward their partner.

A Way Out

The way out may not require leaving the relationship. Freedom is an inside job. Develop a support system and become more independent and assertive. Take responsibility for your happiness by developing your passions instead of focusing on the relationship.  Find out more about becoming assertive in my ebook, How to Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits.

©Darlene Lancer 2013

22 thoughts on “Are You Trapped in an Unhappy Relationship?

  1. I’ve never felt so much shame as when my husband of 31 years told me he’d “fallen out of love” with me and left. I often felt uncomfortable during our marriage with his too-close relationships with coworkers, but nothing I said ever made him to stop these behaviors. After he left I discovered a letter he’d written that proved he was in love with a married coworker. Although I’m doing better a couple of years out from the divorce, I still carry shame over not “being good enough” to keep him from leaving. When he did leave, it was like I’d been waiting 31 years for the shoe to drop, and it finally did. Sometimes I think my fear of him betraying and abandoning me actually caused it to happen. How do I get rid of the shame? Accepting that I failed is very hard for me, even though I know I couldn’t control his decisions. I still feel like we had a lot of good things going for us, and it wouldn’t have taken that much effort on his part for things to get better. I just keep thinking if he could have ever opened up and talked about his feelings that we could have worked things out. Most of the time I feel like I’m moving towards a more positive future, but I still have times where I feel haunted by the past and my failures in my marriage. Women are supposed to be the heart of our families, and it just kills me that mine fell apart. My mother came from a broken family and that is the last thing in the world I would have wanted for my children.

    • There were intimacy issues in your marriage, and shame contributes to them. Bottom line is that you can’t control someone’s feeling or make them love you. You can begin to heal your shame by doing the steps suggested in Conquering Shame and Codependency.

  2. I’ve been in my relationship for 15 years and we have 4 kids.

    12 months ago I found out I had an STI and when I confronted him, he denied it and to this day has not admitted. Over the last 12 months there has been turmoil and the relationship suffered. I also fell pregnant with our 4th child who has since been born.

    I decided to forgive him BUT, since it is now the anniversary of finding out about the STI all the memories are flooding in and I’m not coping. In fact, I’m in pain every day but it’s hitting me hard right now.

    I have my own interests and friends but am heavily dependant on him financially and as a co-parent. He literally bends over backwards for me and if I get upset or get mad, he packs his bags and leaves – but ends up back home sometimes within just a few minutes.

    I feel trapped because we have small children and I don’t want to be a single mum.

    I can’t talk to him about how I feel because he will dismiss it and most likely pack his bags and leave again.

    Please offer any readings you can recommend.

    Thank you.

  3. Hi there,
    My common law husband and I have lived together for 5 years. we were both married and had children with other people before. I am frustrated and angry, depressed and afraid. This relationship has been so hard. A lot of stress and difficulties. He has an anger problem and I’m always trying to just be happy in spite of it. I’m going crazy. I’ve lost my joy and spark for life. My son’s grew up and moved away about the time we got together and I am having trouble finding me. Who am I now. What do I want? This relationship has been so emotional and stressful Ive lost my ability to make decisions and enjoy life. I am also menopausal. He recently told me he feels trapped in this relationship and all the ones he’s had. *smack* that hurt! So, I pulled away. It’s what I do. I back off and take time to think about what to do. I tried the No Contact Rule for 3 days now but it’s kind of inappropriate because we haven’t technically “broken up” and we are still in the same house.
    I don’t know what to do.

  4. my boyfriend I love him, i wish to marry im but i’m not happy with him. I can’t bear the state he will be in if i leave him. We argue almost everyday. I cry at night sometimes while his sound asleep. we are two very different people. i had hope it would work out but it didn’t. I dont want to leave him but im not happy in this relationship, we have rare happy moments. he doesn’t see that im upset. i have tried to talk to him and tell him, he just thinks im going through mood swings and i’ll be fine after a while. But I love him. I don’t know what to do

    • Your feelings are what I describe in Codependency for Dummies in that you feel responsible for his feelings. You’re not. If you feel trapped and unhappy now, you won’t do him or yourself any favor in getting married, since it will be even worse. Do some work on yourself. That’s who you’re responsible for, not him.

  5. This article and the 14 tips for letting go have both been very helpful. I am married to a man who has been diagnosed with “sex addiction” by a certified sex addiction therapist. My sister who is also a therapist disagrees with the diagnosis and says that he has BPD and NPD. He has had more affairs than he can count. Once I found out he started drinking and is now a functioning alcoholic. He has wrecked two cars and has had one DUI. I am beyond miserable because he has become so severely depressed. He says that he just can’t live without his family and won’t live if I leave him. So, the fear of what he might do to himself leaves me feeling trapped. I want out so badly, but I simply don’t know how. I have a great job and I am financially able to provide for myself and my children. I could take care of them without any support from him at all. So, why can’t I do it? He grew up in a terrible home, suffered several types of abuse, and has no family to speak of. How do I move forward? I want to be happy. The whole autonomy thing makes perfect sense. I lived at home until I was 26 years old and moved in with him. Any suggestions on books that might help me? Thank you.

    • What I hear is that you’re putting your husband’s needs and feelings ahead of your own, which you’ve likely done throughout your marriage. (Narcissists expect this – and the two diagnoses don’t conflict, but nicely dovetail). Where’s your empathy for yourself? He’s broken your trust and doesn’t deserve more sacrifice from you. Moreover, you cannot help him. There is help for depression: medication; help for drinking; A.A.; help for sex addiction: S.A, and help for him in therapy. None of this is your role. You’ve become an enabler by not asserting yourself. If you haven’t already, start Al-Anon meetings, find some therapy for yourself to help you become more autonomous. Read my Codependency book and ebooks on 10 Steps to Self-Esteem and How to Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Limits. Start setting clear boundaries with him and see how serious he is about changing and getting help. His decision not to is his own and not your responsibility.

  6. I am in one of those unfortunate situations that many people are in. I am 50 years old and stuck in a marriage because house is upside down. Husband has been sober for 3 years now and unfortunately there’s still nothing there. I do not live him and want out. I am intrigued by the concept of autonomy and continuing to detach myself from his behaviors that repulse me still. I am going to try and wait a few years until my son finishes school. Don’t want to ruin my credit at this age with foreclosures or bankruptcies. Any recommendations?

  7. I’m 24.my husband 28. my husband and I have a 5 year old daughter. we’ve been married since I was 19. together since I was 16. He was my first real boyfriend and I feel like I’ve invested so much of my life into this relationship and horrified at the thought that a divorce could have on my daughter.

    When I met my husband, I was in a very vulnerable state. I was being abused by my father, I was depressed and suicidal and he was there for me. At the beginning, he was or seemed like a very caring and compassionate person. But over the years he has grown to be very controlling, verbally and emotionally abusive. He has never hit me and I don’t think he would. But I am not happy.

    I feel trapped. I’m constantly walking on eggshells at home worried about what he thinks or feels about whatever I’m doing. I feel like I have to have his approval for everything. I’ve been going to therapy, trying to improve myself, and am in college. But I feel like whenever I start growing or flourishing he gets upset and starts to treat me harshly. I don’t feel like I am in a loving relationship. I feel trapped like a caged bird. I love my daughter and want whats best for her but fear I will lose her if I leave. Confused and getting more and more depressed when I’m around him.

    • There isn’t any reason why you should lose your daughter if you divorce. Courts want to protect what’s in her best interest. He’s escalating his anger and control, because he fears losing control. See my blog posts and for some ideas of how to talk to him. If you need help setting boundaries with him, get my ebook, How to Speak Your Mind. Couples counseling would be helpful, too. (See my blog, “Do We Need Couples Counseling?”) You can get additional support in CoDA.

  8. I’m feeling the same. Been married for almost 25 years and dated for 7 before that. I feel like we’ve grown apart. He is complacent in the marriage. I’ve told him I’m unhappy and then he tries for a bit and then nothing. I feel he is not engaged in the relationship or the family. Our interests have also changed. I love young people and love to go dancing. He has joined the legion and is on a committee there. If I don’t plan something we never do anything. I went for counselling and he reluctantly agreed to come once and then said we don’t need it any more so I also haven’t gone. I just don’t see us together for the next 30 years and me being happy but I worry what family and friends will say if I leave. I just want to be alone for a while to see if I truly love him and want to stay…..

    • Your complaint is common. I hear a few themes – one that you feel the need to be alone, which is a natural reaction to the ongoing rejection you feel, and that you fear what others will say if you leave, which is shame. It doesn’t sound like you’re ready to leave, and when you are, the second issue may slip away. I sense a great sadness, too, in the loss of your partner, marriage, and parts of yourself. Taking some time for yourself is always a good idea, whether or not you want to leave. It can further your autonomy, which I think is somewhat limited because you believe your happiness is tied to him and you’re dependent on others’ imagined judgments. Do whatever you enjoy and accept him as he is. Acceptance is the basis of a good marriage. People can be different and still love each other. Stop trying to change him and change yourself. Get therapy or other support for yourself. The marriage will either improve or you will have laid the groundwork for a new single life for yourself. Best wishes to you.

  9. My Fiance and I are having trouble getting along. We just recently moved in together and cant stop fighting over the littlest things it seems we’re not as compatible as we thought we were. We just bought a house together so breaking up is out of the question but we’re both so unhappy.

    Due to get married in April, I’m seriously having second thoughts about this relationship but love him to death. I cried when I went for my dress fitting because we had a fight prior to the meeting. I cried my first night in my new house because he yelled at me about something I can’t even remember what.

    I have a 2 year old daughter from a previous relationship who calls him ‘dadda’, they’re very close, and I also don’t want to break them up – I’ll rather work my butt off for this relationship to work as it once had.

    What can we do? Finances are tight (because of the house etc.) but we can’t go on like this.

    • Hi Lynette,
      You don’t say how long you’ve dated, so I don’t know how well you know each other. True love takes time and is a process of accepting differences. On the other hand, you or he may be experiencing the issues of lost autonomy that are raised in this post. It often happens when couples move in together. Suddenly, one partner feel encroached or trapped, and arguments ensue. It’s a good time to work out these issues and talk openly about mutual needs for space and closeness. (See my article “The Relationship Duet” aka “The Dance of Intimacy). If you love each other, counseling can really help and is worth the investment – rather than take a financial hit on the house. Best wishes. Darlene

  10. This article completely captures where I am at right now in my life. I am a codependent who has been living my life for my husband of 11 years and now I have a 2 year old son as well. My husband is a recovering addict and chronic pain patient. I’ve detached from his issues, maybe too well? All I know is I am unhappy and feel suffocated by him now that he is fully, if not overly involved in the relationship. We are losing our house and money is a nightmare with just my income. I feel empty in the relationship and lack desire. I am ambivalent about leaving though for so many codependent reasons, yet I feel compelled for us to separate with a move coming up anyway. How do you know when it’s time to leave that relationship?

    • I hope you’re in Al-Anon. Talking with a sponsor and therapist can be a big support and help in making life changing decisions. It doesn’t sound like you’re ready to leave. Examine your fears one by one, grieve the death of your relationship and hopes and dreams, and that may help you. A relationship should be supportive. Sounds like yours is draining. Create a happy life for yourself, just as you would have to do if you were single. Have a life to go toward if you decide to leave.
      Best of luck to you.

  11. Sorry I should have said he has not admitted to the cheating but understood he too had an STI and we both took appropriate steps to get treated. However, his denial of the cheating is what is playing on my mind. He says Ive had it for years, and I know this is a lie and I understand that he can’t admit his adultery despite the STI being the evidence. Hope that’s clearer now.

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