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Darlene Lancer, JD, MFTDarlene Lancer, JD, MFT
A blog about Women’s Issues, Self-esteem and Relationships

Are You Trapped in an Unhappy Relationship?

Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT Updated: Apr 10th 2013

Do you feel trapped in a relationship you can’t leave? Of course, feeling trapped is a state of mind. No one needs consent to leave a relationship. Millions of people remain in unhappy relationships that range from empty to abusive for many reasons; however, the feeling of suffocation or of having no choices stems from fear that’s often unconscious.

man trapped behind barsPeople give many explanations for staying, ranging from caring for young children to caring for a sick mate. One man was too afraid and guilt-ridden to leave his ill wife (11 years his senior). His ambivalence made him so distressed, he died before she did! Money binds couples, too, especially in a bad economy. Yet, couples with more means may cling to a comfortable lifestyle, while their marriage dissembles into a business arrangement. Homemakers fear being self-supporting or single moms, and breadwinners dread paying support and seeing their assets divided. Often spouses fear feeling shamed of leaving a “failed” marriage. Some even worry their spouse may harm him or herself. Battered women may stay out of fear of retaliation should they leave. Most people tell themselves, “The grass isn’t any greener,” believe they’re too old to find love again and imagine nightmarish online dating scenarios. Less so today, some cultures still stigmatize divorce. Yet, there are deeper fears.

Unconscious Fear

Despite the abundance of reasons, many of which are realistic, there are deeper, unconscious ones that keep people trapped – usually fears of separation and loneliness that they want to avoid. Often in longer relationships, spouses don’t develop individual activities or support networks other than their mate. In the past, an extended family used to serve that function. Whereas women tend to have girlfriends in whom they confide and are usually closer with their parents, traditionally, men focus on work, but disregard their emotional needs and rely exclusively on their wife for support. Yet, both men and women often neglect developing individual interests. Some codependent women give up their friends, hobbies, and activities and adopt those of their male companions. The combined effect of this adds to fears of loneliness and isolation people that they envisage being on their own.

For spouses married a number of years, their identity may be as a “husband” or “wife” – a “provider” or “homemaker.” The loneliness experienced upon divorce is tinged with feeling lost. It’s an identity crisis. This also may be significant for a noncustodial parent, for whom parenting is a major source of self-esteem.

Some people have never lived alone. They left home or their college roommate for a marriage or romantic partner. The relationship helped them leave home – physically. Yet, they’ve never completed the developmental milestone of “leaving home” psychologically, meaning becoming an autonomous adult. They are as tied to their mate as they once were to their parents. Going through divorce or separation brings with it all of the unfinished work of becoming an independent “adult.” Fears about leaving their spouse and children may be reiterations of the fears and guilt that they would have had upon separating from their parents, which were avoided by quickly getting into a relationship or marriage. Guilt about leaving a spouse may be due to the fact that their parents didn’t appropriately encourage emotional separation. Although the negative impact of divorce upon children is real, their worries may also be projections of fears for themselves. This is compounded if they suffered from their parents’ divorce.

Lack of Autonomy

Autonomy implies being an emotionally secure, separate, and independent person. The lack of autonomy not only makes separation difficult, it naturally also makes people more dependent upon their partner. The consequence is that people feel trapped or “on the fence” and racked with ambivalence. On one hand they crave freedom and independence; on the other hand, they want the security of a relationship – even a bad one. Autonomy doesn’t mean you don’t need others, but in fact allows you to experience healthy dependence on others without the fear of suffocation. Examples of psychological autonomy include:

  • You don’t feel lost and empty when you’re alone.
  • You don’t feel responsible for others’ feelings and actions.
  • You don’t take things personally.
  • You can make decisions on your own.
  • You have your own opinions and values and aren’t easily suggestible.
  • You can initiate and do things on your own.
  • You can say “no” and ask for space.
  • You have your own friends.

Often, it’s this lack of autonomy that makes people unhappy in relationships or unable to commit. Because they can’t leave, they fear getting close. They’re afraid of even more dependence – of losing themselves completely. They may people-please or sacrifice their needs, interests, and friends, and then build resentments toward their partner.

A Way Out

The way out may not require leaving the relationship. Freedom is an inside job. Develop a support system and become more independent and assertive. Take responsibility for your happiness by developing your passions instead of focusing on the relationship.


Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT

Darlene Lancer is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and expert on relationships and codependency. She’s counseled individuals and couples for 27 years and coaches internationally and is the author of two books: Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You and Codependency for Dummies. Her ebooks include: 10 Steps to Self-Esteem, How To Speak Your Mind - Become Assertive and Set Limits, Spiritual Transformation in the Twelve Steps and Codependency Recovery Daily Reflections. Ms. Lancer is a sought after speaker at national conferences, on radio, and to professional groups and institutions. Her articles appear in professional journals and Internet mental health websites, including on her own, and, where you can get a free copy of “14 Tips for Letting Go.” Find her on, Twitter @darlenelancer, and Facebook.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

don't give up - - Apr 15th 2013

I was in the same situation.  Only husband( now ex) decided working part time was ok. Food stamps were also "ok".  we have 5 kids, youngest with Down syndrome.   My ex is totally incompetent with the kids, lost my youngest twice, DCFS was called, big nightmare.   My daughter will never be alone with him again.  

You need to get some medication  to help u out of your deep depression. Your kids need you, your husband is unable, his brain isn't working like normal.   Aspergers /Autistic behaviors are hard to handle- it was easy for me to leave then live with a severely disabled person who put our kids at risk.  Maybe he can change a bit , maybe not but save yourself and you will save your children.  

When I left I was on disability with a 2 yr old with Down syndrome and 4 kids still at home. That was almost 8 yrs ago.  I now have bought a home and we are all doing sooooo much better!  good luck to you.  


Only one way out from unhappy relationship - AS - Apr 11th 2013

Time was I would have been so saddened for those women who couldn't leave an abusive or unhappy marriage.  Now I am one of them - not abusive, just unhappy.  My husband of almost 27 years and I have 2 sons, 10 and 15. The 10 year old has learning difficulties, ADHD, autistic tendencies - basically is hard work.  I suspect now my husband has Aspergers.  He is very intelligent, has a good well paid job but can't do the emotional stuff.  As an example, today is my birthday so yesterday he gives me chocolates and champagne.  Lovely except that last month I was told I had fibrosis of the liver (probably down to a paracetomol overdose or three last summer) and type 2 diabetes.  Lovely except it was the wrong day.

Four years ago I was diagnosed with depression. My psych said it was a social depression.  It has since cost me my job.  I have stopped all meds (at dr's suggestion) as a social depression needs a social answer but even he recognises that my husband could not cope with children.  Dr suggests I leave him. I need a break.  He was due to take 4 days leave from work over the past 2 weeks.  He took just half a day off and last night fell asleep with 10 year who then urinated in his sleep all over my bed.

The only way out from this marriage for me is death.  I pray for a car crash - I no longer wear a seat belt.  I have been told by so many that I can't take my own life as it would upset my children.  True, but I am past caring.  One day I will try again.

We should not criticise others.  We none of us know what it is like to stand in their shoes and how that makes us feel.


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