When One Partner Wants to Leave and the Other Wants to Stay

Adult with gray hair pulled back in ponytail sits outside under tree looking seriously into distanceWhat do you to when one person wants to leave their marriage and the other person wants to keep working on it?

The would-be marriage leaver may have limited motivation to work on the relationship. They may complain that therapy is “too little, too late.” The marriage may no longer fit who they’ve become. Over time, a traditional marriage can feel like the wrong container for one or both members of a couple. Sometimes marriages adjust to allow for new desires and needs. Sometimes the infrastructure fragments, unable to adapt to change.

For the partner fighting for the marriage, fear and loss may loom large. They’ve built a relationship with their partner — possibly over many years. They rely on it for comfort, connection, stability, and a sense of belonging. The relationship is home. Who would choose to be homeless? For partners in this position, the relationship may have been taken for granted. It can feel like an essential requirement for their very existence, like gravity or oxygen. It’s what keeps them rooted, what allows them to go about their life with confidence and certainty.

The partner fighting for the marriage may struggle to see the other person’s perspective. This is a time of powerful emotions. It’s hard to comprehend the reasoning of the partner who wants out. Many who leave still love their partners, even if the love has lost its erotic charge or emotional heat. For others who leave, there may be toxic secrets or an affair lurking in the background.

Wanting to leave the marriage doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no appreciation for what’s been created, but it may mean something else has become a priority. Rarely is wanting to leave an intentional act of aggression or cruelty, though it can wreak havoc on peace of mind and well-being, particularly during the uncertain transition phase.

For the leaver, wanting to leave may be their attempt at psychological survival. What they need to feel connected to their life force may not seem to exist within the relationship. This realization may create a painful dissonance which the person hopes to resolve through separation or divorce.

The would-be marriage leaver may be rash in their decisions. They may not make space for the scope of their partner’s emotional and psychological disorientation. The experience of the person fighting for the marriage may well be the polar opposite of theirs. Where the person wanting out is eager to see what it feels like to fly solo, the other partner may feel like they’re being forced to untether their life line from the mothership. The person wanting out seems to be saying, “You’ll be okay” and waving at them from a distant window.

The more self-awareness, vulnerability, and honesty each partner can bring to their positions, the easier it may be to connect and explore options that take both partners’ needs and fears into account.

Terrified and panicked, the partner who wants to preserve the marriage may feel as if they’re drifting into an existential abyss. The assurances they sometimes hear from their partners in these situations can ring hollow and opportunistic. “You deserve real love.” “You’ll find someone who can give you more than I can give you.” It’s better to allow the bereft partner to arrive at their own silver linings and keep these philosophical observations to oneself.

It’s rarely easy or smooth for couples who have different commitment levels to their marriage. The more self-awareness, vulnerability, and honesty each partner can bring to their positions, the easier it may be to connect and explore options that take both partners’ needs and fears into account. Different levels of commitment create a power imbalance in a relationship. Talking about it vulnerably and openly may remind you that you’re figuring things out as a team. Active, thoughtful, respectful communication will minimize impulsive actions and destructive reactions.

The partner seeking to preserve the marriage can:

  1. Find the right group/community support through workshops, programs, retreats, or special interests and activities.
  2. Make daily time and space for embodying and expressing feelings through dance, art, or outdoor activities such as hiking or exercise.
  3. Practice taking responsibility for their 50% of the marital relationship issues through journaling and self-inquiry exercises.
  4. Negotiate the physical and emotional boundaries that will help them feel grounded.

The partner who wants to leave the marriage can:

  1. Take responsibility for their 50% of the relationship issues.
  2. Give the transition process the time it deserves.
  3. Honor their partner and their boundaries, allowing for honest, non-defensive communication.
  4. Plug into community support.

It can help to establish a time frame and ground rules for the transition process when renegotiating a marriage. This may mean no dating, no solo vacations, and no major solo expenditures. Agreeing on boundaries that fit your living situation, finances, and when and what to tell family members and children may minimize conflicts.

A couple working through differing levels of commitment may need to establish safe and respectful methods for checking in and sharing feelings and challenges. This is not a time to go it alone, although you may not be able to lean on each other in the ways you’re used to. Consider hiring a counselor, mediator, financial adviser, attorney, and/or other guide to help support you.

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Alicia Muñoz, LPC, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Darlene

    May 23rd, 2018 at 10:32 AM

    very true about the relationship feeling like oxygen or homebase – I couldn’t imagine living without him broke my heart when he left still don’t understand it but only lessen is to choose better next time and never take it for granted

  • Wanda

    May 31st, 2018 at 11:03 AM

    You cannot make another person stay in a relationship with you. You’re either both 100 percent committed to it or it’s not going to work. Been there done that.

  • Hunter

    June 12th, 2018 at 11:09 AM

    I have been married for almost thirty one years and we tried but I feel like I am drowning in lies and I am starting to hate him for what he has done. Yet he keeps lying to me and trying to make it my fault

  • Jeri

    June 20th, 2018 at 1:06 PM

    Very thoughtful piece. I was the one who left but after 40 years of being separated when my husband was dying I was able to take him back into my life and we spent his last days together. The most interesting thing about that year was how differently he remembered our marriage…

  • Cindy

    February 21st, 2021 at 12:22 PM

    Good elaboration but right now am not ready to leave my relationship now that he wants to leave i love him even more its impossible to live without him we have belt a life together

  • karen

    September 15th, 2021 at 3:52 PM

    so very painful if you want to try after 23 years but he feels to walk away without EVEN trying. My heart is broken for all 3 my girls, they deserve better

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