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

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

  1. Why do so many of these articles start off great and then veer into, “You don’t have to end your relationship! That’s right! Keep beating your head against a wall, even if there is abuse! Even if you would rather swerve into oncoming traffic than go home some nights! Especially if watching you and your spouse tear each other apart is ruining your children’s lives! There’s hope!” Eff hope!

    • They’re a system, and they can improve when even one person changes. Relationships have a dynamic. This article wasn’t meant to address very abusive or violent relationships, which are covered elsewhere on my blog. However, I have counseled people in verbally abusive relationships and by setting effective and consistent boundaries the verbal abuse substantially diminishes or stops.

  2. We have been together for 7yrs we have a 4 year old and 2year old. I’m a stay at homeom and a student. I try to be the best mom girlfriend I can be. I try not to let little things bother me but everything builds up and I explode. He is so selfish, he doesn’t help me with absolutly anything except for watching the kids while I’m at school. And whenever I try to talk to hI’m abou t anything, neededing more affection, spending time with the kids and I, he just starts yelling a tme when I’m not at school and he’s not working he can never stay home or go somewhere with me and the kids, and if he to he’s aggitated. he has to be out drinking and or gambling. I don’t need just sex and that’s what he thinks as long as we still have sex are relationship is fine. I need to connect with someone I need to talk to someone.. sex isn’t the only thing I need in a relationship. I want to leave but I have a year left in school so ivfeel stuck.. I have no one.. I cut off ties with pretty much everyone bcuz it caused problems in my relationship it just gave him one more to yell at me wen I hung with friends or family soo I pushed everyone away which I know I should have never done.. to late now.. now I’m alone with no support In a emotionless loveless relationship.. with nowhere to turn

    • There is help! Run to an Al-Anon meeting and start building a support group. You will need that if and when you decide to leave. Terrific that you’re finishing school. Assume your decision to stay now is just tactical in your long term strategy, and stop looking to him for emotional support. Get it at meetings!

  3. Some people may read my story and not think much of it, however this experience has really struck me and I have found myself emotionally destroyed. I have left the guy because I realised I was involved in a vicious cycle which was ruining every other aspect of my life; however it does not make it any easier.

    I’m a 24 year old woman who has had several relationships and have managed to recover from each one just fine. This one however, is really burdening me and making me withdrawn and distraught. My ex from the very first beginning was doing so many wrongs e.g. kissed another girl whilst being overseas and I excused him because I thought it was honourable at how honest he was being with me. Also, lied to me about his age, thought that i was constantly faking my pleasure during sex, didn’t want me coming to visit him at work because he was embarrassed that I was already in my profession while he worked at a cafe, spat at me once during an argument, compared me to my girlfriends by saying that they were better looking than me, pushed me when we were in bed and was verbally abusive. In terms of my behaviour, I was obsessed with him from the very beginning and kept on excusing his poor attitude. He was switching from two extremes, he either loved me immensely or lost his temper and did something silly, which I did pull him up on every single time. I broke up with him the first time because he spat on my feet at a public place, however i took him back months later. I was confused because at the same time my family was giving me grief because he was younger than me and I kept excusing his anger attack on the fact that he was stressed because he wasn’t being accepted by my family. I finally left him for the reason that I felt flat and lost faith in our future. I was ready to fight the whole world for us two, even my family; however over time his behaviour made me lost that faith, and i felt safer at home, than I did moving in with him, which he was planning for us.

    I knew it would be hard leaving him, but this is merely impossible. I have seen him about 3 times since our break up where he randomly would come to my house as he knew i was living alone as my family went overseas. The last time we organised a dinner to properly say goodbye and still then, he kept contacting me afterwards and at one point send me 70 messages within an hr which i was not responding to. He has organised coffees with my friends to discuss us and has tried to contact me more and has even used the whole “i will be leaving the country to see my family overseas” (he isn’t a permanent resident here yet). I consider myself very good at analysing people and everything he did, I felt like I was aware of; however he completely grabbed me emotionally and I have found myself in a complete rut. It has only been 2 months since our break up, but I am constantly experiencing ups and downs and will break down crying about 4/5 times a week. I refuse to date anyone else and am sympathising myself at a point that I have never ever before. I only dated him for 9 months, but i feel as though our connection was something unreal and we called ourselves ‘soul mates’. I do not know what it is that I am experiencing. He has been dealing with his mistakes in the right way and has been fighting his own devils and I am very proud of him. But I felt like it was time to prioritise myself and not keep excusing him for his bad behaviour. I wanted something serious and he made so many errors along the way and hurt me a lot. I feel like my mind is made up, but my heart is wondering off in all sorts of directions and I am just in a bad place. I have never ever had anyone in my life who effects me and has that much impact on me. It has captured me and I am lost. He claims that I have the same effect on him, so I am not sure what to say. Please help..

    • Congratulations on not wanting to continue abuse. You can easily block his number on your phone. Attend CoDA and SLA – Sex & Love Addicts Anonymous. Read my books on shame and codependency and get some counseling. You’re reacting to unmet needs in your childhood outlined in Ch. 13 of Codependency for Dummies and in more detail in Chapter 2 in Conquering Shame that require healing. Best wishes.

  4. I have been in a relationship for 7 years and we have a 6 year old son. the past 2 years feel kind of empty. i love her im just not sure if im in love with her anymore. I have thoughts of straying i can say for myself i have been faithful but cant say so for her we have had issues in the past. Basically i feel trapped in a dead relationship and dont want to hurt her feelings, we dont argue or fight. It is kind of like we are friends with accational benifits.(sex). I do not know how to approch this or where to start. any advice would be appriciated thanks.

  5. I’ve been with my (ex) husband for 14 years (since I was 19). I divorced him back in 2007 because of drug use and anger issues on his part, and the year and a half we were apart was really great for me. We have 4 kids-2 before the split and 2 after. We got back together because it was just easier that way. I wish I’d never let him come back. He has destroyed me financially. I am currently in the middle of a bankruptcy. I have been the main breadwinner since he moved back in. He has worked full time except for the year he stayed home with our third child, but when he works he takes care of his needs first and might help with some bills if he has any left over. Mainly, it falls on me. I helped him open a business a couple years ago with my tax return as capital, and since then it has operated at a loss and he refuses to take any of my suggestions as far as pricing and business strategy goes even though I am highly educated and have a business degree and he has a GED. What do I know, right? So again it falls on me. We are currently living off my student loans (which he cosigns-a reason why I have been keeping his business going-I need his good credit to get through school) and food stamps. I have a year left in my masters program, and I plan to leave at that time. I am sick of making the rounds at the food pantries and begging for food stamps while he takes any profit he makes and buys things for himself and the business rather than paying our electric bill. We’ve almost been shut off several times. He works 15-18 hours a day, 7 days a week, comes home, complains about dinner and goes to bed. Unless his friends come over then he gets drunk and throws beer cans in the yard and drives up and down the road drunk. All those hours at work and no profit. He has this homeless girl living in our camper trailer we have at the shop, and this isn’t the first one. I don’t really suspect him of cheating, but I really don’t care either. We never take time for ourselves. Its not that we can’t, it’s that he doesn’t think it is important. We have had 2 “date nights” in the past 4 years, so a total of about 4 hours mostly filled with uncomfortable silence because we have nothing to say to each other. I didn’t realize how codependent I’d become til I read this article. When I was working, I didn’t form friendships or join in on plans with coworkers because I was not allowed to go out while he was “babysitting.” Yesterday I made a suggestion of a new place to go over Labor Day weekend and I was told that it wasn’t what he wanted to do, so we are not doing it. I can’t wait to tell him to go eff himself. We have totally different goals, values, and ideals in life. And his feet smell, he is a slob who expects me to clean up after him, and I go between hating him and feeling totally ambivalent towards him. I hate to take the kids away from him, but I really hope I can move away from here and get a great job somewhere when I am done with school and move on with my life. Just had to get that out!

    • It is always amazing to me how intelligence and outward success can have little to do with how codependent we are. Now that you know the problem, there’s lots you can do toward the solution, such as joining a 12-Step program, counseling (there are low-fee clinics), and doing the exercises in my books. Best wishes to you.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

    • First, get treatment for your STI’s. You don’t need to be in pain. You can learn to ask for what you want assertively with consequences to get him to be tested for STI’s. When he makes threats, don’t react. You can tell him you don’t want a divorce, but that it’s up to him. That you “fell” pregnant, may be a sign that you are unable to be assertive and sabotage yourself and independence, since there are responsible ways to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. I suggest that you read Codependency for Dummies and my ebook, How to Speak Your Mind: Become Assertive and Set Limits. Also, see my blog, “24 Tips for Conflict Resolution.” Finally, you can insist on couples counseling to work through your communication problems.

      • 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.

    • Maybe don’t breakup then but! Tell him maybe the truth – that your truly not willing to take the relationship between you to not serious anymore. That you can understand him or trust his words anymore! & that you just wanna be friends… But start off before you even talk about anything you come up to him & huge him & kiss him to show your love you have now. After you say you just want to be friends really…. The next few days or week he will probably be saying & doing anything to only get what he wants back! “Sex” & you not having it with no one else but him maybe! Only saying if he’s not acting committed & not being emotionally & verbally intimate with you!….

      P.s. A person that lives with no forgiveness in heart for a day – lives in pushing peace & happiness away from themselves for a day! Forgive & then learn what’s wrong! “don’t hold”.

      Don’t be weak in life!!
      Be strong & nice at same time… It’s called being classy & respectful… Just be a nice person “don’t get involved” & leave to the extent you can get away from the fighting…

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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?

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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

  15. 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.

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