Dear Patti,

I want to leave my wife. It’s not because I’m in love with another woman or because of anything she’s done wrong. It’s just that, after four years of marriage, I’m finally facing the painful truth. She’s a great person, but she’s just not right for me to be married and committed to for the rest of my life.

I know it’s sad, especially for her, but it will be even sadder for me if I live a lie and stay. We’ve never had children, thank goodness. I haven’t wanted them, but I’m now realizing it may just be because I’m married to the wrong person.

I don’t have intimacy problems. I’m not afraid of closeness. I just know now that I married the wrong person. I don’t want to stick with a mediocre marriage, settling for low-level dissatisfaction.

  — Ethan

Dear Ethan, 

Sometimes unresolved conflict can fool a person into thinking love is lost when it’s actually only buried beneath simmering resentment. The love could still be there but can’t be accessed. Before making a final decision, take care not to simply believe you only have two options: staying married and unhappy, or getting a divorce to be happy again. Perhaps your marriage can be saved if you’re both ready to do the work it takes. Instead of repeating your mistakes, a marriage can sometimes be repaired and an unnecessary divorce avoided. 

If you’re absolutely sure you don’t want to fight to save your marriage, no one should try to talk you into it. What concerns me, though, is what motivated you to write to me if you’re already positive that divorce is the right choice? Are you asking me for information on how to tell your wife or is there still a small part of you that wants to make sure you’re 100 percent certain before you actually leave? 

I’m also concerned that your letter lacks so many specifics. Could this be a form of avoidance? For example, you don’t mention why you married her in the first place, if you ever loved her, or what experiences you’ve had in the last four years that have changed your mind. I’m not saying you’re necessarily wrong, just that you’ve communicated very little information for me to work with. I can’t help but wonder why.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself: Do you have regular daily communication with your wife? Is your sex life regular and satisfying? Was it ever? Do you threaten to leave the marriage when you argue? Have you tried to go to couple’s counseling without finding help? Commitment is the promise you make to be there for each other, to work together, to “make it work” no matter what life throws at you. Before marriage, did you ever make a conscious, clear decision to be committed to your future spouse? A low commitment level is a warning sign that perhaps your marriage never really began. Do you need to establish a full and enriching life of your own outside of your marriage or do you solely depend on the marriage to create your happiness?

While many psychotherapists get criticized for being too pro-divorce (which I actually agree is often true), there may also be something to say about tolerating bad behavior and bad relationships for too long. Staying in a seriously unhappy marriage can have long-term effects on mental and emotional health. Research shows that people in bad marriages often have low self-esteem, struggle with anxiety and depression and have a higher rate of illness than those who don’t.

If after much reflective thought you’re positive that you want to separate and eventually divorce, it’s important to end the marriage respectfully and with integrity. While your feelings may have changed and you’ve broken the emotional bond between you and processed your emotions, your wife may not have. Be patient with her, allow her to express her feelings and begin to heal.

If you truly wish to close a chapter in your life, are at peace with the fact there’s nothing more you can do or give to your relationship, and believe this is a sincere decision based on self- awareness (and not just an emotionally reactive decision), I hope you get all the support you need to create the life you truly want. n

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has an office in Pasadena. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com.