Is it Selfish to Leave an Unhappy Marriage?

Is it Selfish to Leave an Unhappy Marriage?

When you exchanged vows, you likely meant every word—to have and to hold this person dear to your heart, for better or worse, until death do you both part.

You didn’t enter your marriage expecting to one day question whether to walk away. Yet here you are.

The raw reality is that relationships evolve and sometimes come to heart-wrenching dead ends. But that doesn’t make the guilt and grief sting any less.

You ask yourself – Have I sacrificed enough of me attempting to salvage us? Where does dedication end and losing myself to dysfunction begin?

And when children are involved, the stakes are even higher.

As experienced family lawyers, we field these questions all the time. And we can sincerely say that wanting out of an unhappy marriage is not selfish. It is one of the single bravest acts a person can take, but unfortunately, it is often riddled with shame.

We’ll walk you through the most common reasons people stay, how to know when it’s time to leave, and how to divorce without losing yourself in the process.

Why Do People Stay in Unhappy Marriages?

There are many reasons why people choose to remain in marriages they find unfulfilling. Some stay because they still feel an obligation to the commitment they made and can’t let go of that loyalty or sense of failure if the relationship ends.

Especially when married for many years, starting over seems impossible, so it feels easier to settle into discontentment versus embracing major life changes a split would bring.

Others stay for financial reasons – lacking confidence they can support themselves on their own or fearful of the impact of asset division through divorce proceedings.

Some remain because they worry about judgment and stigma from family, friends, or community if they leave marriages others envy from the outside looking in.

And for many, especially women, the number one barrier to exiting unhappy unions is concern for the potential impact on any children involved. The willingness to self-sacrifice “for the kids” by providing stability of two parents together is admirable.

However, tension-filled homes with constant arguing have detrimental effects, too.

At the end of the day, each journey is unique. But in our experience guiding couples through these crossroads, many simply lack self-confidence in their right to seek joy or feel deserving of better after years of emotional erosion.

How to Know When It’s Time to Divorce

How can you know when it’s truly time to let go of an unhappy marriage? We’ve found there are a few key signs:

You’ve Fallen Out of Love

Love fading over time is painful but normal. However, when you no longer feel joy, affection, or passion for your partner regularly, it becomes difficult to reconnect. If your interactions feel devoid of care or laughs, divorce allows you both to seek fulfilled love elsewhere.

Your Needs Aren’t Being Met

Partnerships require compromise, yes, but core needs shouldn’t be neglected long-term. Whether it’s lack of physical intimacy, emotional support when times get tough, or intellectual connection to feel understood — unmet needs strain bonds to the breaking point.

Your Values and Visions No Longer Align

People evolve. And when partners outgrow each other to the point of diverging values and visions for the kind of life you want to build, reconciliation gets tricky. Respectfully acknowledging divorce lets you follow newly realized dreams that light you up.

The Relationship Feels Toxic

We all have our ‘stuff,’ but you deserve to feel safe, respected, and at peace in a marriage. If frequent destructive fights, criticism, controlling behavior, or emotional volatility leave you drained, throw in the towel for your well-being.

You’ve Tried Everything to Make It Work

If you’ve actively worked through differences via counseling, heart-to-hearts, or getaways together yet still don’t feel fulfilled, you can rest easy knowing divorce wasn’t the easy way out. Some relationships sadly just run their course.

Your Health and Self-Esteem are Suffering

Being in a marriage characterized by constant criticism, belittling, lack of intimacy, and dismissal of your needs damages your self-worth and emotional health. You deserve an environment where you can thrive, not merely survive. Remaining where you are unsafe, unhappy, and unfulfilled will only hurt you further.

You No Longer Want to Be Married

At the end of the day, you don’t need hard proof or a laundry list of reasons if every part of you knows in your soul you want out. Growing apart or falling out of love are valid enough on their own, even without explosive fights or volatile situations present. Follow what your gut knows will bring peace.

How to Leave an Unhappy Marriage Without Losing Yourself

Ending any marriage with care and integrity intact takes courage and strategy. Here are the steps we guide clients through to split respectfully:

  1. Look inward first. Reflect on your truths, values, and vision to ground confidence this next chapter aligns best for you.
  2. Speak your heart with compassion. Share your decision with your spouse alone, emphasizing this is the healthiest path forward for you both without blame.
  3. Prioritize mediation. Even amidst hurt, agree to negotiate cooperatively by resolving central concerns like asset division fairly outside court.
  4. Explore filing options. For marriages ending respectfully, an uncontested, no-fault divorce smoothly finalizes split terms you both align on.
  5. Address logistics calmly. Hard talks on financial splits, property transfers, retirement accounts, child arrangements, etc., allow closure.
  6. Embrace your rebirth. Grieve, yes, but focus forward on pouring into passions, relationships, and adventures aligning with your fullest spirit.

The key is ensuring conflict stays minimal through an amicable, uncontested divorce process so you both can move forward with integrity. At Netsquire, we help make that possible through compassionate mediation and counsel.

Choosing Yourself is an Act of Courage

Listening to your inner wisdom and leaving a marriage that is damaging to your spirit takes great courage and vulnerability. Although difficult, many find it necessary to cut their losses and walk away when attempts to revive the relationship have failed.

Rather than agonizing over what is “selfish,” shift your perspective – is staying aligned with your highest good? Can you envision a new life that honors your worth and cultivates your happiness?

You deserve nothing less.

If contemplating this complex but common transition, contact our New Jersey divorce attorneys, who are experienced in mindfully guiding clients through legal separations.
Our team can ensure your rights are protected while you take this first step towards reclaiming your joy. Call now.

About the Author


John Nachlinger is a co-founder and managing attorney of Netsquire, a family law firm focused on streamlining divorces through effective mediation, settlement drafting, and court filing assistance. As a New Jersey Supreme Court Certified Matrimonial Law Attorney and Qualified Mediator, John guides couples toward equitable agreements without the cost and stress of litigation.

Recognized as a New Jersey Super Lawyer for over a decade, John’s client-focused approach aims to foster understanding during challenging transitions. With a background spanning top law journals, judicial clerkships, and boutique family law firms, John now applies his analytical skills to create workable solutions for all parties. His mediation services reshape the divorce journey by prioritizing compassion and compromise.

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