Picture this: you have been married for say five, seven or even more than 10 years. It was blissful at first, but it has not been for a long time now.
You feel miserable. And yet, you somehow wake up every day and get through your daily routine; despite wanting to leave and even having the means to, you do not.
Instead, you just “hang in there.” While it may sound obvious to jump ship when a marriage fails, there are multitudes of women out there who (despite being capable of leaving) will choose to stay, and with good reason.
According to Dana Adam Shapiro’s research for his book, You Can Be Right (or You Can Be Married), only about 17 per cent of married people are happy. That is just one in six couples. One poll found that about six in 10 are unhappily coupled, four out of 10 say they have considered leaving their partner, and one in 10 do not trust their ‘life’ partner anymore.
Some statistics say women are more likely to initiate a divorce - 70 per cent of the time it is them who do, and yet, when they stay, they are also the most likely to be unhappy about certain aspects of their marriages, or entirely so.
So, why do they choose to stay? The most common reason is children. A lot of women who choose not to leave cite children as their main reason. This comes in two main dimensions.
The first is the emotional well-being of their children. Many people believe that children are likely to be mentally affected by separations or divorce and that such children are likely to underdevelop or underperform as compared perhaps, to those who grew up with both parents.
Faith Kawira, 31, is a mother of a five-year-old boy. Until October last year, she had been married and was living with her husband of eight years.
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“We met when I was 22. I moved in with him in January 2014 immediately after he had come home to see my parents (over the Christmas week), and about four months after we had met. The first few years were great, even after we had our boy in 2017. Then I noticed he started changing,” she says.
“He drank a lot and I felt he was distracted most of the time. He also started getting attracted to other women. When we were out together - which was not a lot, especially after the child - he would flirt with younger girls who somehow seemed drawn to his charm. Sometimes he would go out on business trips for days, and his phone would be unreachable most of those times.”
Faith says she did everything she could to save her marriage. At some point, she even suggested couples’ therapy but they never got to start.
“There was nothing else I could do. I could have left, but Neo (her son, named after the hero of The Matrix which her husband loves) was young. Plus, they were close with his father, and I did not want him to grow up without a dad. I tried to make it work for him. It is hard to do some things when you are a mother. You have to always think of them first.”
Faith says the marriage is dead, as far as their relationship is concerned. They live like college roommates, and all their conversations revolve around Neo.
“How can a man be both such a great father, but a lousy dad?” she poses.
The irony is that he has vaguely mentioned a second child, maybe a girl this time, as the panacea to their marital problems, but Faith has lost interest in even mechanical intimacy with the man.
“As far as I am concerned,” she says, “I think he just wants to make sure I am tied down with two children because he can tell I am keeping my body, if not soul, well.”
The second aspect is custody. Such women may not be sure if they will get custody of the children should they divorce, or how it will work in their case if they do.
They may also be afraid of losing their relationship with the children post-separation. While Faith did not have this fear (she was sure the husband would have let her keep their son, because he was still young), Georgina could not take a chance.
“He is a lawyer, a big fish. Often, while boasting, he will say, he knows the law, in-and-out. Apart from that, he has prominent friends with big names. I would never win that case if I took him to court,” she says.
The 39-year-old landscape designer lives with her husband and their two daughters, six and nine in Kileleshwa and although she describes her marriage life as bland, she says she is settled.
“I tried leaving once. He sent me a text saying if I did not want to come back, I should send him back his children. I did not want it to escalate, so I let him come for us. Once in a while when we quarrel and I threaten to leave, he tells me to go - but not to dare think I can take his girls.”
Other than children, some women will stay because of happy memories. For these women, every once in a while, something good may happen that will make them happy and remind them of the good days, or why they fell in love with the person. It could be a good day out, a happy hangout with the family or any happy event.
According to Dr R. Nyaboke, a psychologist, it is called an “intermittent schedule of reinforcement”, the randomness of something good happening in your relationship.
“A person may decide to persevere in an unhappy relationship because they believe things will get better or will be different soon. Although such good days are rare and the happiness or relief they bring does not last long, such people will often cling to them for as long as they can. They will convince themselves that it (their situation) is not as bad.”
This is common because such happy events offer them a glimpse of the happy world or life that they had envisioned living with their person, and reignites their hope for that life.
However, some other times, a woman may stay because of fear. Commonly, the fear could be a result of a threat of physical harm to her or her family if she leaves.
If the partner has psychotic tendencies especially triggered by abandonment, a woman may be forced to stick it out in an attempt to protect herself from physical harm, or even that of her children or relatives.
But fear can also be of change or of losing comfort and familiarity. Often, a lot of people are afraid of change and they would rather hide behind familiar things, even when they are harmful. Similarly, women may fear the unknown, that is, a future without a spouse.
They may fear losing what they are familiar with. There is also the fear of being alone or lonely if they leave. Such women will stay especially because of the ‘what if I never get anybody else’ factor.
For them, they would rather tolerate their empty marriages, which they have convinced themselves are not so bad than leave and end up with a cat for company as they grow old.
Another common reason for staying is because of pressure from their families. These could be their parents or other relatives (on both sides) who would be offended or disappointed if they left, or even fellow church members for those with strong Christian bonds and connections.
For instance, when Georgina left her husband for the first time, she went back to her parents. Her mother was not so pleased to see her back.
“Immediately, she wanted me to call him (her husband) and apologise for leaving, even though he (husband) was verbally abusive to me and demeaned me as being stupid and ungrateful. I refused at first, but she wore me out eventually. I know she loves me, but I think she felt ashamed that I could not keep a marriage over ‘small’ disagreements. Besides, he was always over-generous to my parents, right from the day of dowry payment, and had made a big show of our marriage. I had no choice; she would never have let me stay.”
Other than pressure from family or relatives, a woman may want to stay to maintain relationships or friendships with her in-laws. This is especially true if she had been warmly accepted into her husband’s family and had bonded with them. In such situations, one may be hesitant because they would not want to sever such good relations by leaving.
Many other women will not leave for financial reasons, especially where the man is the breadwinner. “If I left him,” says *Dora, “where would I go? Back to the village? Get a bad bedsitter in an unsafe and unhygienic neighbourhood in Nairobi?” So she stays, unhappily so.
Other reasons are age, where certain age groups of women, and especially those who have been married for a long time will not leave even when they feel unhappy, simply because they feel old and too late to start over again.
Then there is also wanting to keep the promise of marriage, that is, remaining married because you took a vow to stay “for better or worse until death does you part”. This is especially common with religious women or couples who had a church wedding.
Cost of divorce, the shame of being a divorcee in society, and wanting to keep up appearances are some other reasons some women stay, as some see being ‘Mrs’ as an honourable title.
While most of these are good reasons, no one should stay where they are not comfortable. If all attempts to save the marriage are unsuccessful, they should not be afraid or ashamed of leaving.
It is never too late to start over, and there is no honour in and no rewards for dying from an unhappy or dysfunctional marriage, especially when you can make the difficult decision to leave.