9 Stages of a Dying Marriage

Relationships A-Z
08 Jun 2023
10 min read
9 Stages of a Dying Marriage: Should You Save It?

Time was, the major goals in life were to get educated, get a job, find a mate, get married, have children, and enjoy a cute house with a white picket fence all around. And all lived happily ever after. End of story, which doesn’t force that things may go wrong and you’ll witness all 9 stages of a dying marriage in front of your eyes.

Well, it’s time to clarify that fantasy. Do people still get married? Yes, they do. Is the divorce rate almost 50%? No, it’s about 37% today. But that rate must be tempered by other factors – there are fewer marriages today, and those that do are getting married a bit later than in years gone by.

But marriage is definitely on the decline for a number of reasons. Women have come into their own and have their own goals in life; having children out of wedlock is no longer a stigma; couples choose cohabitation rather than marriage, etc. And because of these factors, we can certainly talk about why marriages begin with such joy and die and the stages of a dying marriage. But let’s expand the concept of “marriage” to include long-term relationships too. Because those die as well.

Defining a Dying Marriage/Partnership: 4 Factors to Look at

“It all begins with a disconnect, discomfort, and not finding any connection with the partner. Sometimes the connection is never established in the first place. Also, abuse of any kind is a clear first sign that this relationship is going downhill. Lack of communication is also a deal-breaker and sets the tone of the things to come in such a situation.”

Pooja Priyamvada, emotional wellness and mindfulness coach

There is no one-sentence definition for a dying marriage, considering all the stages and signs each individual story has. The death of a romantic relationship that results in a bad marriage or relationship can really only be defined by the factors that your marriage or partnership is on life support at best. Here are 4 most common signs that your emotional connection is in its final stage.

1. You’re Not Putting Forth Any Effort

One or both you and your partner no longer make an effort to keep your relationship alive. Romantic partnerships take work. But when one or both of you are just tired of trying anymore, it’s a pretty good sign that the marriage or partnership is dying.

2. Communication Is Primarily Negative

Negative talk and criticism become the daily norm. This is one of the major signs your marriage or partnership is in trouble. If all of your communication is negative; if you are making snide remarks to each other; if you are criticizing each other over flaws that you used to overlook, then you are past even the early stages of a dying relationship.

It would be a good idea to access the work of John Gottman, known as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse of communication failures, to understand where you are.

Related reading: How to Deal with Tumultuous Relationships

3. You’re No Longer Spending Time Together

Remember when your relationship was new? You spent a lot of time doing things together.

Now you seem to be leading separate lives – you have your own friends and interests, and seem to be like strangers passing in the hall, simply residing in the same place physically. Physical contact is minimal if at all – you are no longer interested in what your partner is doing. If they have a new hobby, you don’t care. If they are gone for long hours, you don’t care. You are forging ahead in your own life.

Oh, you and your partner may sit at opposite ends of the couch watching TV, but this is not doing something together. In this case, you might as well be in a movie theatre surrounded by strangers.

4. You Realize You Are Unhappy

At some point, you confront the elephant in the room. You are simply not happy with your spouse anymore. It’s an unhealthy marriage now. You’re not communicating except in negative ways; you are living separate lives with your own social relationships and outside interests; you’re not supporting each other in personal or professional goals. You may even observe other marriages and/or partnerships that are healthy even after years together, and sadly conclude that yours is not like that at all. And the physical intimacy you once had is now almost non-existent. In short, you don’t think you want this marriage anymore.

So, if you recognised your relationship as a dying marriage, don’t run to call the divorce attorney and begin that divorce process. There are some other things to look at. Let’s unpack the stages that a dying marriage goes through. Note that they may not occur in this order, because every marriage breakdown is unique.

All stages of a dying marriage

9 Stages of a Dying Marriage

Most marriages have their periods of stress. So, at any of these stages of a dying relationship, a marriage or partnership has a chance for revival, if both partners can get to the underlying issues and are on the same page in a commitment to make things work.

Regarding such issues, the most common causes of a dying marriage are as follows:

  • a partner cheats,
  • financial issues,
  • communication breaks down,
  • one partner or both suffer addictions,
  • physical abuse,
  • one spouse or partner is not satisfied sexually, etc.

Some of these may not be fixable (e.g., physical abuse) and at least a legal separation is warranted. It all depends on your current situation and your willingness to work on your partnership. That said, it’s time to unpack the stages of a dying marriage.

Stage #1 – Unhappiness

This was covered in the previous section on signs of dying marriages, so there is not much more to say. At the first stage, you’ll just witness the final sign of a dying marriage. You recognize that you are unhappy, accept that you are, and realize that there are far more unhappy times than happy ones.

Stage #2 – Loneliness

Once the unhappiness settles in, you’re going to start to feel lonely. Your friends might be in solid partnerships, and you see that. And now, you don’t feel comfortable sharing a lot of your thoughts and feelings with your partner either.

Meanwhile, you and your spouse or partner are not socializing together anymore. So, who do you socialize with? Of course, a family member or two might help in this department, but you also need connections with peers. So, you may spend time being lonely unless you find someone you can share with.

Stage #3 – Communication Has Broken Down

Feeling lonely and separated from your spouse or partner, you will obviously not be communicating. There is no more talk of the future, sharing details of your day, and certainly not about what you or they may want or need from each other. Any conversation is mundane and only about practical matters.

Stage #4 – Intimacy Goes Out the Window

Intimacy is defined as including both emotional and sexual closeness. And both are critical for a satisfactory marriage, as research shows.

Related reading: How to Be a Better Lover – Inside and Out

Emotional intimacy means that couples can share their innermost feelings, dreams, successes and failures. And when they do, they receive support, encouragement, and empathy. In its turn, physical intimacy is a natural outgrowth of emotional connection and, of course, libido. When sex includes emotional intimacy, it makes the partnership and marriage stronger.

When a marriage begins to fail, both emotional and physical intimacy suffer.

Stage #5 – Detachment Begins

As the first four stages occur, you enter the later stages of a dying marriage or partnership. And when you get here, the chances of repairing the connections and the relationship become increasingly less likely.

The detachment stage means you are no longer bonded. You function like roommates living in the same space. You may not be having meals or sleeping together at all. Even more, you have no need to inform each other of your whereabouts or your schedule.

While the relationship may not be toxic, and you are not obnoxious to each other, you have simply lost interest. You have conducted some self-reflection and have concluded that you no longer care what your partner says or does. And you are probably wondering why you are even in this relationship anymore.

Stage #6 – The Withdrawal

Detachment is pretty much emotional withdrawal. And once that has happened, you no longer spend quality time together. You don’t go out with friends, take trips, or share outside interests.

In this situation, one or both partners may easily fall into affairs where they can get at least some of their needs met. Even if there are no affairs in the mix, both will look for fun, support, and connections somewhere else.

Stage #7 – Bringing Up the Past and Stupid Arguments

This next stage is when one or both of you are looking for reasons to get out. Your partnership is really in trouble now.

First, you dredge up past errors that your partner made. Why? Because you are looking for those reasons to justify calling it quits.

The other thing that a person will do during this stage is to pick stupid fights that will eventually escalate into major arguments. Again, one person may be hoping the other will walk out or even look for justification to walk out themselves.

Stage #8 – The Final Event

The marriage or partnership is in such serious trouble that there is probably no going back now. But still, the two of you are together for whatever reasons you have conjured up. Maybe you both like the acrimony. There are people who enjoy conflict in relationships.

But at some point, one partner does something extreme enough, that the other has finally told them the marriage is over. There is no hope for any reconciliation, and neither one wants to put forth any effort anymore.

Related reading: What Are the 5 Signs the No Contact Is Working?

Stage #9 – Separation, Breakup, or Divorce

This final stage is hard to come back from. Both partners may be licking their wounds a bit, but both will be looking for a new life and maybe a new relationship. They may feel relieved to be free of what had become a toxic relationship.

Сan you make a dying marriage one more chance?

5 Steps to Try to Revive a Dying Marriage or Relationship

Before reviving a dying relationship, people must first decide that they want to make the effort and put in the work to repair what has been broken. If you are in the earlier stages of a dying marriage, here are some steps you can take on your own. But note that in most cases, you will need to seek professional help.

1. Work on Communicating

Communication is one of the early stages of a dying marriage. When you realize this, take steps right away to work on talking to each other again.

Have your talks when both of you are calm, comfortable, and in a relatively good mood. Honesty is critical here. You have to openly tell your spouse or partner how you feel about the state of your marriage and about specific issues in your marriage.

Maybe your spouse has become emotionally distant and is not sharing their feelings. Maybe you or your spouse has been unwilling or afraid to talk about financial issues. Whatever it is, it’s time for each of you to voice your concerns and needs in this marriage.

2. Get Physical Again

You don’t have to hop in bed just because you decide you’re going to work on your marriage. But what you can do is to make a commitment that you will begin to have some physical touching again, and have it spontaneously.

When one spouse is cooking dinner, for example, the other can come over and put their hand on their shoulder. When they are out, one spouse can put their hand on their partner’s. A spontaneous hug or a short quick kiss goodbye can be such a positive thing. Each one of these physical touches or displays brings about more connection.

3. Get Positive

When was the last time you paid your spouse or your relationship partner a compliment? Each of you must look for moments to praise the other. It’s hard for a marriage to fall apart when both partners spend time genuinely praising each other.

4. Get Back to Date Nights

It’s time to get into the routine you had early in your relationship or marriage. You went out together, maybe with other couples, had a good time, shared food, drink, and conversation, or saw a new movie. Maybe you went camping or fishing.

Repeat the same favorite dates from those early marriage days. You might just muster up those same feelings again. And pretty soon you may be talking about what you want to do in the future.

5. Dump the Nit-Picking

Early in your marriage, your partner’s flaws were kinda adorable and cute. And you may have teased and laughed about them. Now, in the marriage, they are a source of criticism.

Time to stop this right now. If they never replace the toilet paper, just do it or make a joke about it. And practice forgiveness. That’s endearing.

Related reading: How to Reconnect After a Relationship Break: 16 Tips to Function as a Couple Again

This is Not a Wrap

If you are seeing the signs of a dying marriage in what you have read here, it’s time to make a decision. Will you get going and confront those issues, or will you sit back and just let the illness get worse, without any hope, until a divorce is almost inevitable? The choice is totally yours.

If your marriage or partnership does end, remember this: you are not a bad person. Not all marriages will survive because they were wrong and based on an unhealthy relationship to begin with. And a failed marriage does not make you a failure. You can still revive it – if you want to.

Marriage and divorce will forever be with us, whether we like it or not. And a marriage takes far more work than a divorce – because a divorce doesn’t die, but a marriage can. It’s not easy for anyone. But once you emerge from whatever process you have used to become the person you want to be, keep calm: the dating scene today has lots to offer. You’ll be happy again, no matter how hard it looks to you now.

Relationships Author
Geoffrey Williams
After taking a required Intro to Psychology course as an undergrad, I have never looked back. Since my doctoral program, I have specialized in adult relationship therapy. Through my studies and clinicals, I wrote several articles for professional journals and currently in the midst of writing a book.
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