What is Marital Doubt?
I have to say when I was first introduced to this concept I had no idea the full extent of what it was speaking to. I thought it's just someone having a momentary doubt about the marriage. It will pass. It will resolve itself and everything resets. However, the more I learn about marital doubt the more I come to understand the magnitude of how it shows up within a marriage and the damaging affects it has short and long term on the individual and the relationship if left unchecked.
Let's unpack the concept together. As it relates to doubt people usually keep doubts about their marriage to themselves. Here we’re not talking about ordinary concerns about the relationship or even feeling in a stuck pattern—instead, we’re talking about worries about whether the marriage will survive. This is scary to think about. If you tell others, you might get unhelpful suggestions such as “just listen to your inner voice” or “make a pros and cons list”! So, the doubts stay underground, coming and going, sometimes for years.
Here's what new research says:
About 1 in 5 married people (22%) report having some doubt about whether their marriage will survive.
To put it simply, you have lots of company if you have doubts about your marriage. But this is not a permanent 24/7 state of mind, as you have likely already experienced.
Marital doubt can take a lot of pathways: sometimes it just lingers at the same level, but more often people describe it like a roller coaster. Sometimes you feel confident about the future of your marriage, and then something happens that puts you in a gloomy, doubt-returning place. You have a couple of good days and then the nightmare of your reality smacks you dead in the face. You talk your way back, reminding yourself that you love your spouse and that divorce would hurt a lot of people. But hours, days or weeks later, your doubts creep back. It’s anxiety-provoking and extremely unpleasant (to put it mildly). This limbo state of anxiety can seem to go on forever, draining your energy in the present and for the future.
It’s important to appreciate that marital doubt is by its nature a private emotion. So, it can feel isolating and lonely. There is no big public sharing as there may be for career angst, or when a family member getting a scary medical diagnosis and you have a cadre of people to process your emotions. Then there's when you were falling in love and everybody knew. Fast forward and now maybe you have just one friend or a counselor you’ve opened up to. Certainly not your spouse! Your anxiety grows from hiding such a threatening emotion and from worrying about the risks of “outing” yourself.
Many people in the marital-doubt camp are trying to figure out if their spouse is capable of changing. This is a big one and one in which has them at times stuck. This leads some doubters to unconsciously create “tests” for their spouse, to see if change is possible. (“If I don’t remind him of _______________, will he remember?”) When the spouse fails the test, the doubts are fueled.
Because there is no sharing, a doubter’s spouse has no idea what’s going on. Even if they sense the other’s discontent, they aren’t likely to see any threat to the future of their marriage. They just see it has it being a passing situation, feeling or conflict. Every marriage has its ups and downs, they think, and they may also have gripes about the marriage (but not about whether divorce is in the future).
So where do these doubters go on their journey?
During this marital doubt phase, according to researcher Diane Vaughn, the doubter may ask about marriage counseling. This may be a great idea (and hey, I'm a huge fan of marriage counseling!) but rarely do they come clean, at home or in the therapy office, that they aren’t sure about the future of their marriage. It's literally never brought into the counseling room.
Marital doubters are scared and not ready for a crisis, so the work in the therapy room may stagnate. If you’re not sure your spouse can change, and if you believe that without the change you have no energy for the marriage, it’s no wonder the couples therapy falls flat, fast!
The average number of couples therapy sessions divorced people report having? Just four sessions.
To state the obvious here, that’s not enough time to dig into issues and start to work on them. For these couples, often the excuses are that life gets busy, someone gets sick, someone feels on the spot in counseling. Basically, there is no real momentum to keep plugging away, particularly for the clueless spouse who thinks things are basically okay.
Sometimes the other spouse makes the argument that marriage counseling is unnecessary or that the time and money are not there for it. Especially if they are not seeing any warning signs about divorce! The doubter, perhaps also not sure about where marriage counseling will work, withdraws the request to start or stay with the counseling--and then keeps simmering.
Whether or not there is any attempt at couples therapy, some doubting spouses go into individual therapy. Sometimes it is a great experience, especially if the therapist helps them see their own part of the marital problems and offers ideas for self- change. Other times individual therapy becomes a “bitch session” every week, with no real personal growth and a terribly one sided view of the other spouse. (Some therapists are not good at seeing the perspective of the spouse who is not their client.) But I think that the majority of doubters do wish for personal growth and don’t want to just attack their spouse.
When marital doubts linger long enough, people start to rehearse in their minds what they would do after a divorce. They imagine being single again, and they think about how to prepare for that possibility—just in case. This may mean starting a job, finding separate friends, or not making big commitments for the future, like upgrading the house. This creates more distance in the marriage, something they don’t want, but the doubter’s dilemma is that verbalizing doubts to the spouse can propel them into crisis mode. They don’t know how their spouse will respond—constructively, nastily, or with panic? Now you may have two people in doubt—and bringing their worst selves to the situation!
But here’s the thing: the longer you prepare for the possibility of divorce without telling your spouse, the more blindsided they feel when you do tell them—and the more likely that your worst doubts are realized.
You may be wondering, then, how does marital doubt end?
In the three simplest “end game” scenarios of marital doubt, the following can happen:
Doubt goes away, replaced by normal ups and downs of marriage but without the edge and anxiety about commitment and stability. You’re back in, with maybe just occasional flare ups of doubt. You may get there on your own, or with help.
Doubt turns to crisis when it’s shared with the spouse prior to a decision to end the marriage. Sometimes the crisis leads to real change, with counseling help or on your own as a couple, and the doubt goes away. Other times it leads to divorce, but with enough time for the spouse to understand what’s going on and for both of you to try to save the marriage if possible. This shows the benefit of sharing doubts with the spouse before deciding to divorce—it gives them a chance to respond well and for reconciliation to occur—even though it’s scary because you don’t know how they will react.
Doubt is not shared and turns into a sudden announcement of divorce--a kind of “Dear John” discussion: “I am leaving you. I have a lawyer and I suggest you get one.” This is, of course, the most heart wrenching for the other spouse and can lead to bitter divorces and troubled shared parenting later. However, it might be necessary if the other spouse is a threatening person who could do grave harm if told in advance.
Marital doubt is way more common than most people realize. And there are ways to get past it and get clear about the future of your marriage. If you or someone you know is having marital doubts, there is hope for understanding what’s going on, gaining more clarity, and getting off of the roller coaster of emotions! Living with marital doubt does not have to be your normal.
Yvette E. McDonald is the owner and counselor at Traveling Light Counseling, a practice for individuals, couples and families helping them discover the person/couple they were always meant to be, as they become the best version of self in their roles and relationships in the Port Saint Lucie and Martin County area. She specializes in all things relationship. Relationship with self, others and children.