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How Staying in an Unhappy Marriage Impacted My Mental Health

Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced domestic violence or emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

I went through a trying period of self-reflection around 15 years ago when I realized my marriage was no longer working for me. After much deliberation with my inner voice, I decided it was time to go. Slowly, I began laying the groundwork for my post-divorce life, including talking to the New Orleans law firm where I worked before becoming a stay-at-home mom about the possibility of returning. It looked promising.

However, those talks never came to fruition because Hurricane Katrina forced us to relocate to my in-laws’ house in Georgia without more than a few hours’ notice. Along with our four young kids, my husband and I showed up at their doorstep to stay only a few nights and left about a year later, still married. Yes, I had made plans to go, and yes, God had laughed. But as I look back, maybe not as much as I thought. Perhaps a higher power was telling me I needed more time.

We relocated a second time, this go-around to Minnesota. And once again, I began to plan for my return to work as a lawyer. I took a low-paying job as a substitute teacher, which enabled me to study for the bar exam before and after school. It was a challenge, mainly because my husband did everything in his power to hinder my efforts at passing. He knew becoming licensed in the state and having the potential to earn a salary ample for supporting myself and our kids post-divorce was my ticket out of there.

My husband was right. It was. I filed for divorce soon after finding out I passed the bar. It was a long time coming — five years since I first decided to leave my marriage.

For me, putting off divorce had been more a matter of logistics than anything else. With no home of my own, no savings, a mountain of debt and no way to earn a living where we had moved in rural Georgia, I decided leaving my marriage would be more detrimental to my children than staying. So I decided to stay and use the time to get my life in order while ensuring my kids remained in a stable environment.

It worked out in the end, with me getting my affairs in order and relocating all of us to Seattle, this time without my husband and as a single, divorced woman. But what I will say is that the years I stayed were hard. Real hard. And lonely. Eventually, the delay took its toll on my mental health, causing me to live with constant anxiety and experience the occasional panic attack.

Was staying worth it? From a financial standpoint, yes. Would I advise a friend, my child or a client to do the same? Only if they felt the benefits of staying would seriously outweigh the costs of leaving. At the top of that cost-benefit analysis would be whether they or their children were living in an abusive situation. If that were the case, at that point, I would tell them all bets are off, and no matter what’s going on, you must go. When tensions in my deteriorating marriage became too high, and a confidant began fearing for my physical safety, as well as my emotional well-being, I finally left.

Staying in an unhappy marriage required incredible energy and faith. It demanded I see the forest for the trees and believe my situation wouldn’t last forever, although I had no way of knowing when that would be or if I would ever get out. It was hard not to go through periods during which I felt hopeless and depressed. It’s why feeling anxious became a way of life for me. And that’s no way to exist.

Eventually, I realized that I deserved to live a life I loved, even if getting there required me to disrupt the status quo and that of my children temporarily. I left, and I am so glad I did because I wound up happier and much more relaxed. I became a better caregiver, friend, daughter, lawyer, and, eventually, wife to my new husband. My children fared better than I had expected, too, probably because as strong as anxiety is, resilience is a lot stronger.

Getty Images photo via fizkes

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