The decision to proceed with divorce is often clear cut when there is physical or emotional abuse, substance abuse or infidelity. Either spouse can finger point with conviction and say “See, this is the reason!” Divorce feels explainable and justifiable.

But Ambivalent Marriages sometimes lack obvious troubles. There isn’t the terror of abuse or angst of infidelity. The Ambivalent Marriage may be described as distant, cordial, and uninvolved. There may be separate bedrooms, little passion of any kind, and hardly any communication or connection. Some say they stay for the sake of the children, some say it is fear of making change while others admit to simple inertia. In an Ambivalent Marriage one or both may think about leaving, but feel they don’t have a strong enough reason to do so.

Alexis reports that her marriage has been in trouble for quite some time. She prays for “good” days and tries not look at the “bad” days. Recently, she reports they are “getting along better” as there are fewer arguments and hardly any full-fledged battles being waged. “We stay away from each other. It is only when we have to talk to each other that we fight. I have learned to stay clear of him. Things in the house are bearable.”

Couples in this situation are like two ice skaters who long to glide effortlessly on a pond that may not be frozen solid. While the surface looks smooth and sturdy, it may not hold the weight of the two skaters. They manage to avoid a possibly perilous situation by skating on opposite ends of the pond. Thus they can skate about without mishap. However, should they attempt to move closer and try to skate together, they fear the surface will give way and they will fall through to the icy waters. So, by tacit agreement, they maintain this delicate balance.

Since Ambivalent Marriages can last for decades, a routine develops that may take very little effort to maintain. In some ways, you are single; in other ways, a couple. You may own the house together, but keep other monies separate. The level of physical intimacy is minimal but may be bearable. Instead of passion the couple is cordial. The emotional intimacy of marriage has already dissolved. You may share some friends, but most likely your friendships are separate. You are more likely to confide in your friends rather each other. When the holidays and celebrations roll around you and your partner may “rally” in an attempt to present the illusion of a “Norman Rockwell Family.”

Like having a good roommate (one may reason) why would you want to kick him/her out? While the relationship is no longer a romantic or loving one, it may have its benefits: financial security, someone to share household chores, someone to take care of you when you are sick, a built in date. Without the anger at some injustice or betrayal, it may feel unjustified or unnecessary to go through the pain of uncoupling. So you may settle for what you have, rather than taking the risk of the unknown. In a culture that abhors the idea of “settling” you find that settling may be enough.

 Or is it?

©2005. 2011. Donna F. Ferber, LPC, LADC. Adapted from her book, From Ex-Wife to Exceptional Life: A Woman’s Journey through Divorce  which won Honorable Mention by the Independent Publishers Association.



  1. CJ Golden on the 03. Apr, 2011 remarked #

    This is when each member of the couple have to decide if “settling” is comfortable enough to maintain. In some cases it is.
    When “settling” becomes painful – then it’s time to think about a move forward with one’s life – and that may very well include uncoupling.

  2. Lisa on the 04. Apr, 2011 remarked #

    In my opinion, settling for half a relationship will deteriorate your self esteem and the respect you have for yourself.
    You owe it to yourself to have the kind of relationship that fulfills your soul. You owe it to your children to show them a happy & loving relationship. You don’t want to teach them to settle!

  3. Judy on the 13. May, 2011 remarked #

    That is interesting. Sometimes you do not recognize some of these things as big issues, thinking well, this is what marriage is right now and look forward to when all the responsibilities lighten up you will be a closer couple again.

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