Ah, marriage! Anyone who has been on this roller coaster of high and lows would agree that marriage can be the most fulfilling yet the most challenging relationship of your life. However, when highs are few and far between and lows so persistent that you feel like you’re constantly plummeting toward rock bottom, you could be dealing with signs a marriage cannot be saved.
Given that every marriage goes through its share of rough patches and trouble in paradise, the question is: how do you know when a marriage can’t be saved? Well, several tell-tale signs can tell you when it’s time to stop trying to figure out how to save a broken marriage and when to call it quits.
We’re here to help you identify those red flags in consultation with psychologist Pragati Sureka (MA in Clinical Psychology, professional credits from Harvard Medical School), who specializes in addressing issues like anger management, parenting issues, abusive and loveless marriage through emotional ability resources, so that you can stop trying to resuscitate a dead relationship and focus on your healing.
17 Signs A Marriage Cannot Be Saved
Accepting that your marriage is not working out can be one of the hardest things to do. Research on the role of love and happiness in divorce decision-making indicates that even if two spouses remain in love with each other, their feelings may not be enough to prevent a marriage from falling apart, especially if the happiness quotient is lacking.
According to another study, lack of commitment, infidelity, excessive conflict, domestic violence and abuse, and substance abuse were among the common reasons why people chose to walk out of their marriages. Several other research papers – this 2003 study and this 2012 study, for instance – have also listed incompatibility, growing apart, infidelity, and substance abuse among the common factors behind divorce.
If you’re struggling with any of these issues, you have a first-hand experience of what signs your marriage will end in divorce look like. However, these are not the only factors that can cause a marriage to crumble and fall apart. Together, let’s take a closer look at the different possible risk factors to help you decide whether you’re, in fact, dealing with signs a marriage cannot be saved or if is there hope for your future as a couple:
Related Reading: 7 Things To Do When You Fall Out Of Love With Your Husband
1. Blockage in communication
“Should I save my marriage or move on?” If you’re struggling with this question, the answer can be found in how well you and your partner communicate with each other. Pragati says, “When spouses stop talking to each other and stop reaching out, that often is one of the first signs a marriage cannot be saved.”
Whether it is your individual trials and tribulations or something irksome about the quality of the relationship, you no longer open up and share your concerns with your spouse because there is a voice in your head saying, “What’s the point?” If that sounds relatable, you’re already in the early stages of a dying marriage.
Here is what blockage in communication looks like:
- Your communication is purely functional – you talk about everyday essentials but nothing more
- You don’t share your feelings about the relationship with your partner
- You don’t share your happiness and sorrows with one another
- You don’t really know what’s going on in your partner’s life and mind, and vice versa
2. Distant body language
The role of body language in a healthy relationship is often underrated. Our state of mind is reflected not just in our words and actions but also in the way we conduct ourselves around someone. That’s why the answer to how do you know when a marriage can’t be saved can be hidden in your body language around each other.
Pragati says, “You can tell a lot about the quality of a couple’s connection from their body language around each other. If seeing your partner doesn’t instinctively bring a smile to your face, if your body is turned away from them when you stand together, or if that innocuous head tilt is missing in your pictures, these could be subtle signs that you have drifted too far apart.”
Former US President Donald Trump and his wife Melania Trump are a fitting example of this. Their distant body language in the public eye – right from the time of Trump’s inauguration when he walked up the White House stairs to greet the Obamas, leaving his wife behind to Melania slapping his hand away as he tried to hold hers – triggered much conjecture about their strained relationship.
3. Lack of intimacy is among the signs a marriage cannot be saved
How to save a broken marriage and when to call it quits? The answer to your conundrum can be found in how intimately you and your spouse are wound together. And when we say intimacy, we don’t mean your sex life (although that too could be an indicator, more on that later). We’re talking about your emotional connection and how in sync you’re with one another.
“Intimacy means “into me you see”. When a marriage is in troubled water, the focus invariably shifts from the “we” to “I”, and as a result, both partners can start feeling unseen and unheard in the relationship. This renewed focus on the “I” is not an outcome of being centered in the self, which tends to make people more loving and generous. This is an act of selfishness, where your shared interests as a couple are deprioritized for the sake of individual interests of either both spouse or one,” explains Pragati.
4. How do you know when a marriage can’t be saved? Shifting priorities
Speaking of the “I” becoming more important than the “we”, shifting priorities can also become the undoing of a marriage. When your ideas of happiness, your goals, and your vision for life become diametrically opposite, an eternity together can seem unthinkable. April, a nurse practitioner, shares, “My ex-husband and I parted ways because we realized we had become very different people over the years and had nothing in common.
“I had learned to live with our differences but the news of an unexpected, unplanned pregnancy made me realize that not all differences can be overlooked. He wanted me to terminate the pregnancy but having been raised Catholic, it was unthinkable for me. When he asked me to choose between him and our unborn baby was the day I gave up on my marriage.”
Shifting priorities in a marriage can spell doom because:
- The shared vision that brought you together begins to change
- You and your partner evolve into very different versions of the people you once were
- You can feel out of sync with each other
- You slip down your partner’s list of priorities and vice versa
5. Betrayal of trust indicates a marriage cannot be saved
As we’ve mentioned before, several research studies have listed infidelity as one of the leading factors for divorce. However, betrayal of trust isn’t limited to cheating on a partner alone. It can manifest in different forms, each of which can be counted among the signs a marriage cannot be saved.
Pragati says, “While a one-off incident of infidelity may not necessarily be a harbinger of divorce, repeated betrayal of trust can very well be. This betrayal can be sexual, emotional, or even financial. Often, infidelity itself can be a symptom of a relationship being riddled with issues. And if one partner cannot uphold their promise of honesty and transparency in the relationship, it’s a sign that the rot runs deep and a couple’s future together may be in jeopardy.”
Related Reading: 11 Things That Happen In Relationships Without Trust
6. You and your spouse have stopped arguing
Wait, what, a lack of arguments can be one of the signs a marriage cannot be saved? This may come as a surprise to many but fighting in a relationship can help sustain it. Pragati explains, “Arguments may be unpleasant but they indicate a will to hash out the differences and make a relationship work.
“On the other hand, when partners stop arguing and airing their differences, it suggests that they have given up on the relationship. This can well be a sign that either one or both partners have checked out emotionally and the relationship is in troubled waters.”
7. How do you know when a marriage can’t be saved? Constant criticism
Renowned psychologist Dr. John Gottman lists criticism as one of the four horsemen of apocalypse in a marriage. While it is perfectly okay to offer constructive criticism to a partner or voice your complaints in a relationship, constant criticism is a tool to dent a person’s self-esteem and can be extremely damaging to a relationship.
Pragati explains, “Criticism is often aimed at attacking a person’s character through sweeping generalizations like “You are so selfish”, “You are so needy”, and “You can’t ever do anything right”. This sort of belittling can lead to a lot of negativity, which can render a relationship unsalvageable.”
8. Contempt is among the signs a marriage cannot be saved
Speaking of the four horsemen, contempt is another trait that indicates that a marriage is on its tenterhooks and headed toward an inevitable end. Pragati says, “Contempt in a relationship is a reflection of a sense of superiority and is doled out with an intent of putting the other person down. This can manifest in the form of cynicism, sarcasm, eye-rolling, mockery, name-calling, and hostile humor.”
If you have been wondering, “Should I save my marriage or move on?”, paying attention to whether your partner treats you with contempt may help you reach a decision. After all, if they’re always dismissing you and your opinions, needs, wants, and desires as worthless, is it even worth investing your energies in salvaging a relationship where you don’t get basic respect?
Related Reading: 7 Predictors Of Divorce You Should Be Aware Of
9. A failing marriage is fraught with defensiveness
If one or two of the four horsemen are present in a dynamic, there is a slim chance that others won’t follow in their wake. If you are being treated with contempt and met with constant criticism in your marriage, chances are you will resort to defensiveness as a form of self-protection. It can become your go-to mechanism to ward off your partner’s attacks.
However, the problem with defensiveness is that it makes you play the victim and resort to blame-shifting to wash your hands of any accountability for your actions. As a result, you don’t work toward resolving your issues because you’re so focused on driving home the “the problem is you, not me” point. With no resolution in sight, your issues may keep piling up and ultimately cost you your marriage.
10. Stonewalling is a sign of a failing marriage
And finally, the fourth horseman – stonewalling. As Pragati mentioned, communication blockages are one of the signs a marriage cannot be saved. Stonewalling takes this breakdown in communication to a whole different level. It refers to a person completely withdrawing themselves from a conversation, making it impossible to get through to them – almost like breaching a wall of stones.
Stonewalling typically happens in response to conflict discussion, where one partner refuses to engage in conversation. Once again, this kind of response to conflict in a relationship can leave a string of unresolved issues in its wake, which can take their toll on your bond sooner or later.
11. How do you know when a marriage can’t be saved? Domestic abuse
How to save a broken marriage and when to call it quits? There are few instances where the answer to this question can be as black and white as it is in the case of abuse in a relationship. Pragati says, “If you’re the victim of physical or sexual violence in a marriage, there is no point in agonizing over, “Should I save my marriage or move on?”
“In such situations, your safety and well-being should be your top concerns, and walking out of the marriage is the only way you can protect yourself.” Do not fall for the “it won’t happen again” trap, no matter how sincere and remorseful your partner sounds. If they’ve done it once, chances are they will do it again. Even if you want to entertain the possibility that it was a misstep, don’t give in until you see them doing some real work toward working through their issues.
Related Reading: Why Do People Stay In Abusive Relationships?
12. Emotional abuse threatens the future of a marriage
How do you know when a marriage can’t be saved? Emotional abuse can be a good indicator. While physical abuse or domestic violence can be a scarring experience, these are often less insidious than emotional abuse. Control, romantic manipulation, gaslighting, and social isolation are all tell-tale indicators of emotional abuse in a relationship, aimed at making a person doubt their agency and annihilate their sense of self to an extent that they’re reduced to a puppet in the hands of their partners.
If you’re asking, “Should I save my marriage or move on?”, it’s time to start noticing if there are any signs of emotional abuse in your relationship. If there are, it’s time to start planning your exit. Emotionally abusive partners rarely change, and that’s why prioritizing self-preservation over trying to save your marriage is the right thing to do.
It’s important to accept that a marriage cannot be saved if you’re being subjected to emotional abuse because it can have far-reaching consequences on your psyche, which include:
- Feelings of confusion
- Anxiety and depression
- Guilt and shame
- A tendency of over-compliance
- A sense of powerlessness
13. You are married to an addict
According to research, 35% of marriages break due to addiction. If you’re looking for signs a marriage cannot be saved, addiction is a big one. Being in love with an alcoholic or sharing your life with someone who has a drug problem can break you down and scar you on so many levels. Besides, a person who is battling addiction just does not have the wherewithal to nurture a relationship or build a harmonious connection with another person.
Pragati says, “Many people stay on in such marriages hoping that they can help their partners break free from their addictions. However, the “my love can change him/her” attitude doesn’t work. If anything, it can suck you deep into an unhealthy codependent relationship, which will drain you emotionally, physically, and possibly, even financially.”
14. Anti-social or criminal behavior spells doom for a marriage
How to save a broken marriage and when to call it quits? A partner displaying anti-social behavior or engaging in criminal activities should be a clear sign that it is time to draw a line in the sand and protect yourself otherwise you risk getting sucked into their nefarious ways and ruining your life.
Pragati shares the example of American serial killer Ted Bundy and his wife Carole Ann Boone, who remained in denial about her husband’s reality but ultimately divorced him a few years before his execution. “While not every circumstance may be as extreme, if a person engages in fraudulent practices or their ethics are questionable, it’s a huge red flag that indicates that their brain works differently and they’re incapable of change. Your best bet is to protect yourself by walking away,” she advises.
15. Not valuing quality time
Spending quality time together is an essential part of building and sustaining a healthy relationship with your significant other. If you have lost the will to carve out the time for your partner or vice versa, it’s one of the clear signs that the quality of your connection is consistently deteriorating. Perhaps, on some level, you’ve even begun wondering how to leave a marriage peacefully.
Pragati says, “Not being able to spend quality time together or not enjoying each other’s company is a serious sign of trouble in a marriage. This issue manifested acutely in a lot of marriages during the COVID lockdowns when couples were forced to spend months in close proximity without distractions of work, social commitments, and the like. Consequently, a lot of marriages had a tumultuous run during this time, many ending in divorce or separation.”
16. Feeling lonely in a marriage
For many people, it’s hard to say, “This was the day I gave up on my marriage”, however, if you have been consistently feeling lonely in your marriage, you may slowly but surely begin giving up on it. Counseling psychologist Kavita Panyam previously told Bonobology, “When partners stop making an effort to create new equations in an existing connection, they begin to drift apart and a sense of loneliness seeps in. Eventually, they may find themselves in a “married but single” situation, and that can expose a relationship to a host of risks like infidelity, resentment, manipulation – all of which can sound its death knell.”
Pragati adds, “A feeling of loneliness may take hold if two people got married too quickly or for the wrong reasons. For example, if it is a purely transactional relationship, the feeling of loneliness can be profound, and it can push you to walk away.”
Feelings of loneliness may not feature among the top reasons why marriages fail, however, it can render your connection hollow over time by:
- Making you feel isolated
- Making you feel unloved
- Chipping away at your self-esteem
- Instilling a sense of rejection
Related Reading: 9 Signs Of Complacency In A Relationship
17. Lack of sexual intimacy
When your marriage lands in rocky waters, sexual intimacy is one of the first casualties. The effects of a sexless relationship on a couple’s dynamic can further exacerbate their existing issues, thus setting into motion a vicious cycle that can be hard to break.
That said, Pragati says that a sexless marriage in itself isn’t necessarily among the signs a marriage cannot be saved. “Not every sexless relationship is doomed to fail. If the dwindling sexual intimacy is a result of factors like age or medical conditions and all other aspects of a couple’s life are functional, it can be a non-issue. However, if despite physical desires, a couple is unable to or not interested in engaging sexually, then it definitely warrants investigation.
“In such a scenario, your marriage is akin to a shaky bridge. You need to tread carefully to make sure it doesn’t fall apart and plunge you into the currents of despair in the process,” she adds.
When Should You Stop Trying To Save A Marriage?
Before you resign to fate and wait for your marriage to crash and burn, we’d like to point out that not all signs of a failing marriage are created equal. For instance, struggling with bad communication in a relationship isn’t the same as tolerating physical or emotional abuse.
If you came here looking for answers to how to save a broken marriage and when to call it quits, know that despite most of the signs of a troubled marriage, you may be able to turn things around provided both you and your spouse are willing to put in the work needed to rebuild your relationship from the ground up, as a healthier, more wholesome version of itself.
However, there are certain circumstances where it’s absolutely impossible to save a marriage nor should you try to. Out of the different signs a marriage cannot be saved, Paragti lists the following as indicators that it’s time to stop trying to save a marriage and move on:
- Abuse, be it physical, sexual, emotional, or financial
- Repeated breach of trust – through infidelity, lying, dishonesty in a relationship, or financial infidelity
- Constant belittling
- Criminal activities or antisocial behavior
If you don’t see any of the above-mentioned signs in your marriage but your relationship is in dire straits and you want to give it another shot at survival, seeking couple’s therapy can go a long way in helping you find your footing all over again. If you’re considering therapy, skilled and licensed counselors on Bonobology’s panel are here for you.
- A failing marriage is characterized by poor communication and a lack of intimacy
- The four horsemen of apocalypse – criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling – are accurate indicators of divorce
- Not all signs a marriage cannot be saved are created equal. Factors like abuse, addiction, infidelity, and criminal activities can have far serious repercussions and must not be taken lightly
- With therapy and consistent effort, you may be able to turn things around and save your marriage
- However, if your safety or your future is threatened by being in a relationship, prioritize self-preservation over saving your relationship
If you could relate to the signs a marriage cannot be saved we’ve listed out, we’re truly sorry for what you’re going through. Your marriage and your home are likely far from the happy, safe space you had hoped they’d be. On top of that, you now have to come to terms with the fact that your marriage may be beyond repair. Take a moment to gather your thoughts if you need to.
Remember, there may still be hope if the damage to your marriage isn’t too severe. However, if your spouse poses a threat to your safety or mental health and emotional well-being, walk away and don’t look back. You deserve better.
Yes, it can be too late to save a marriage in certain circumstances. For instance, if a marriage has turned abusive or one of the spouses has fallen prey to addiction, bouncing back from it and rebuilding a healthy connection can be near impossible
It is always better to walk away from relationships and people who bring you unhappiness and leave you emotionally drained. However, in life and relationships, things are hardly as clear-cut. So, the answer to whether you should stay in an unhappy marriage or get divorced depends on your circumstances. If you have the wherewithal to start afresh and your partner shows no inclination for changing things, by all means, walk away.
As long as both you and your partner are willing to put in the necessary efforts to revive your connection and make it healthier, you should work on fixing your marriage for as long as it takes for things to get better. However, if the intent to save the marriage is one-sided, it’s best to walk away.