To leave or not to leave a ‘so-so’ marriage? An expert speaks.

You may be feeling unhappy in your marriage – you may have felt this way for a while. But is it time to push the detonate button? Divorce coach Emma Heptonstall, author of Amazon bestseller How To Be A Lady Who Leaves, shares her insights.

My partner is a good person, but…
I get frequent calls from women who say ‘Should I leave my marriage? My husband is a good man. He’s a great father, a fantastic provider, but I’m just not in love with him anymore and I’m bored and feel like there’s more to life than this’. These women struggle more than the ones for whom the decision is clear. Friends and family may look at you with envy and say ‘He’s such a lovely man, he’s really kind to you, what have you got to complain about? I’d kill for a husband like yours,’ and then you feel guilty because you think you’re being greedy or unrealistic. And there’s still a certain stigma about divorce.

For me, I always bring it back to what’s important to you. How do you want your life to be? You’re the one who’s responsible for your happiness, it’s not somebody else’s job to make us happy. And if that means leaving somebody because we’re not happy with them, we could actually be giving them the greatest gift, because there may be somebody out there that’s more suitable as a partner for them as well.

Wherever you go, there you’ll be
If you leave a marriage, wherever you end up, whether you go to a yoga retreat in India or you just move to a different city, you take yourself with you. So before calling time on your marriage, you need to be clear about the nature of your unhappiness. Is it the relationship? Is it something within yourself that you need to work on? What are you willing to change?

You’re never going to be able to change your partner unless they want that change for themselves, so change is always going to be within you. When you have explored the innermost aspects of yourself and got back in touch with the person you were 20 or 30 years ago, what aspects of her do you want to take into the future? What can you do to reconnect with that person or to reinvent yourself now? It feels sometimes like a bit of a cliche, but if we have fallen in love with ballroom dancing aged 50 and we’ve never done it before, it’s okay to say, ‘This is who I am now’.

80% of my clients knew they shouldn’t marry their husband on the day of the wedding.

Are you a good match?
I would say that 80% of my clients knew they shouldn’t marry their husband on the day of the wedding. They knew they were making a mistake but say ‘I told my father I didn’t want to go through with the wedding and he basically told me, ‘Well, you’ve made your bed so lie in it, because we’ve spent £20,000 on this day’. A friend of mine went on honeymoon and cried the whole way there because she knew she’d made a mistake and 20 years later she’s never been happy or fulfilled. She told me ‘He’s a lovely guy, we are great friends, but we should never have got married’.

I think sometimes there is pressure in making this huge decision, this public declaration, but as it gets closer and the realities of what it actually means start to dawn it’s a different story. A wedding is just a day, a big party. A wedding is not marriage. So be honest with yourself. Are you now and can you ever be a good match?

Nobody leaves on a whim

The women I coach don’t just wake up one day, realise they’re unhappy and walk out. Even if they think they’ve made a mistake they will try everything to make it work. But if they find that after relationship counselling nothing has changed, or it only changes for a while, they eventually give up. And I think there’s still a lot stigma about divorce, especially if the partner is a good guy but it’s just not working. But remember you’re always a role model for your children, and if they see you in an unhappy relationship, even if it’s not abusive, they get the message unconsciously that we don’t have choice in life and that if we’re unhappy, we stay with it.

Many of my clients leave because they’ve met somebody else and they’re having an affair. If you haven’t had a vast array of relationships before the marriage, this can be an eye opener as you have nothing to compare your marriage to. One client had a fling with a builder while he was doing building work in her house. She said it was only through him that she realised how bad her marriage was. ‘This man just showed me a different way of being – sexually, emotionally, in every way. He made me smile and feel good about myself’ she said. Affairs are quite common and they tend to happen when your needs are not being met in the relationship. If we don’t pay attention to what we need emotionally we’re in trouble. The human animal is designed for connection.

One client had a fling with a builder while he was doing building work in her house. She said it was only through him that she realised how bad her marriage was.

Your own needs get forgotten
Women can lose themselves when they have children, but once the kids become independent these women can look at their lives and think ‘But where am I in all this? Where is that independent woman that that bought her first flat on her own, that sorted out her own mortgage, that went out partying but still managed to get to work for nine am the following day, even though she didn’t get to bed till three? Where is that person? Because she seems to have disappeared in motherhood…’

It’s a role that a lot of women almost fall into because it makes sense at the time. If they’ve married a man who earns more than them and decided that they want to keep the childcare costs down, or think it’s important that one parent is more available to the children, it just naturally will fall to them. But there are also the women who are the breadwinners in the relationship. They tend to be married to partners who are possibly a little bit less effectual, so they end up being the one that has a better career as well as the drive to ensure that the family thrives, because it’s easier.

And when women are busy having a career and raising children, they don’t really have time to think about what they want and ask for it. When they start reflecting on their own needs and realising they want more, that’s when an open and honest conversation is needed.

You get these super coercive controlling partners who will almost gaslight the woman by saying, ‘Well you’re not very good with money are you? I’ll deal with it’

The hidden finance issue
It’s quite often the case that prior to marriage the women I coach managed their money just fine. But then they got married and gradually their other half started to manage the money. Over time, the wife consciously or unconsciously will let them take control and be blindly trusting when they are told ‘We don’t need two pension pots, we’re fine with just one,’ and ‘We are remortgaging but you don’t need to worry about it’. Or you get these super coercive controlling partners who will almost gaslight the woman by saying, ‘Well you’re not very good with money are you? I’ll deal with it’.

This is a dangerous route to take. In a divorce scenario these women don’t know how much the mortgage is, what assets they have, even what their other half earns (which just blows my mind). So, from a divorce point of view they’re on the back foot, because they don’t know if full disclosure has been made; they don’t actually know what needs to be disclosed. So if you’re thinking it’s time to call time on your marriage, first get your ducks in a row. If you don’t understand the family finances start doing your investigations, paying attention to the mortgage and household bills and to what your family home might be worth.

Most of all, if you’re ending the marriage, think about who you want to be afterwards. Start with the end in mind. Do you want to stay in the family home? Do you want a different career (the courts may require you to start earning again)? The more you take ownership of all these things, the more in control you’ll be, enabling you to direct the proceedings and end up with a settlement that works for you.

And here’s a scary thought: Many of my clients will say ‘Oh, my husband will openly acknowledge that we’re unhappy but divorce is not part of our plan because it’s going to mess up the pension pot and retirement plan if we separate now’. In other words: we’re just gonna stick with it because it makes sense financially. It takes a lot of courage for a woman to say ‘That is not enough for me. I want more’. But is staying really better?

Words: Marina Gask. With thanks to Emma Heptonstall

Looking for expert advice? The Audrey Members’ Club is a whole world of support, coaching and expertise for women through self-employment, changing careers, running a business or launching one. Join us to kickstart your future, whatever that may be.