The No.1 Fear keeping you stuck in an unhealthy marriage (and 5 steps to get unstuck)

The women I work with come to me feeling very unclear
about the future of theirfear marriages. They are confused and conflicted about how they feel and what they actually want now. They are torn between staying and leaving.

Helping women gain clarity on this important issue and how to move forward from it is the foundation of my work in Empowered Choices, Empowered Woman Programme. It’s a privilege for me to support my clients in this way and a responsibility I take extremely seriously.

During a recent coaching session with one of my brilliant women, we dug into her reasons for wanting to stay.

She was highly concerned for the welfare of her children and the impact that a break-up would have on them. That’s a given; I’ve never worked with a woman who didn’t have her children’s happiness and emotional wellbeing at the front and centre of her thinking.

The ‘Security’ of Marriage

But that aside, we uncovered that Mary’s (not her real name) other primary motivation for staying was for the security she believed being married afforded her.

Financial security, and the potential loss of it, is a big factor for any woman considering leaving her marriage. But that wasn’t the kind of security my client was referring to.

Essentially, the security Mary talked of was the feeling of ‘safety’ she felt within the familiarity of her marriage. Within her circle of family, friends and community, she has a status and an identity as a married woman. She knows how to ‘do’ married.

Mary’s list of reasons for leaving appeared to be longer and stronger than those for staying; the potential benefits, not just to her, but to her husband and children, became clear as we talked.

Of course she hadn’t reached this clarity lightly; Mary has tried really hard over the years to make her marriage work. Like every woman I know, she went into it for the right reasons and with the best of intentions.

But in her heart, Mary felt ‘done’ with the relationship now; she had accepted it would never be the partnership she’d once hoped. She simply had nothing else left to give to it.

The Devil You Know

And yet… and yet, it’s: ‘the devil she knows.’

It’s soooo tempting to convince ourselves we should just accept our lot in life and marriage. To tell ourselves we should settle, and be grateful, for what we have, even if we are aware we are doing just that – settling. We tell ourselves it’s not that bad, it’ll be better in a few years, and leaving would frankly be too risky.

This makes so much sense. Our brain’s job is to keep us alive – and that means keeping us safe.

Our brains equate safety with familiarity, i.e. if something is familiar, it obviously hasn’t killed us, therefore it must be ‘safe!’ So the ‘safety’ of a familiar, albeit unhealthy, relationship, seems more attractive than the fear of an unknown future as a single woman and parent approaching mid-life.

Of course it’s scary!

The No.1 reason that keeps us stuck in unhealthy relationships is… fear of the unknown.

The proposition of leaving a marriage and starting again at mid-life is a scary prospect. It’s completely normal and to be expected that we feel fear when facing an unknown future. We all love certainty; it gives us a sense of control over our lives.

Yet fear is not the basis on which to make any decision, let alone one as significant as the future of our marriages. A fear-based decision is never going to be in our long-term best interests.

Fear’s job is simple. It wants to keep us in the safety of our comfort zones. Even if we are completely miserable there. Even if, in our hearts, we know it’s not what we really want or where we want to be.

None of this matters to fear. All that’s important is that we maintain the status quo. The unknown? That’s a whole different ball-game and our fear will urge us to avoid it at all costs.

So, how do we move beyond fear so that we can make decisions aligned with our true desires and who we really are? How can we become more comfortable with fear of the unknown? 

Here are five steps that will help:

1) Acknowledge your fear and understand where it is coming from. The fear you are experiencing is normal; it’s supposed to be there. In it’s simplest form, fear is merely a vibration in your body created as a result of the THOUGHTS you have chosen to think. What this means: It’s not your situation causing your fear (I know that’s hard to believe), it’s your thoughts about it.

2) Examine your fear – put it under the microscope. What are you really afraid of? Make a list of everything that scares you about your situation. Take a blank sheet of paper and do a complete braindump; spend five minutes and get everything down on the page. When you’ve finished, read through your list and understand that what you have is a list of THOUGHTS.

3) Feel your fear. Read through your list again and allow the fear that your thoughts evoke to come to the surface. Experience the fear in your body and notice what it feels like. Get curious. Close your eyes and really tune into it – where do you feel your fear, does it feel fast or slow, does it have a colour or a texture? What is happening to your breathing and your posture? Imagine turning up the volume and really intensify the feeling.

As you do this, remind yourself where your fear is coming from: the thoughts you are choosing to think and believe.

When we allow our emotions to surface, they pass through our bodies quickly. Our negative emotions may not feel pleasant but they can’t harm us if we allow them to be present. It’s when we suppress and deny our feelings that they cause us problems and increase our stress and anxiety.

4) Question your thoughts. Your list of fear-based thoughts is optional; you have chosen to think them, albeit unconsciously. While some thoughts may have an element of truth to them, facts by themselves are neutral. They are neither good nor bad (nor scary) until are our thinking makes them so.

Read through each one of the thoughts on your list and ask yourself: a) Can I absolutely know that this is true? b) Is it helpful? c) Do I want to keep choosing and believing these thoughts?

5) Consciously choose your thoughts and turn them into actions. As you review your list of fearful thoughts, ask yourself: What else feels equally as true (and less scary?)

For the thoughts that have some basis of truth to them, for example: “I won’t be able to support myself financially if I leave” identify a new thought that includes an action step to make it more factually-based. For example: “I can create a spreadsheet of all my assets and work through the numbers; I can obtain advice from an independent financial advisor” etc.

Identifying tangible actions steps, things you can actually DO to challenge and overturn your fears, will allow you to reclaim your sense of control. Once you have completed each action step on your list, identify, and then take, the next step. And the next.

When you have worked through the five steps outlined above, notice how you feel about your fear now versus when you started.

What has shifted for you?

If you feel inclined to share, I’d love to know what you got from working through this exercise in the comments below.

Want More Support to Explore Your Fears?

If you’d like to take things one step further and explore where fear is keeping you stuck in your life and marriage, get in touch to request your confidential 30 minute complimentary Mini Clarity Session.

I’ll help you get clarity on your situation and we’ll identify the next step to move you forward. If appropriate, we’ll discuss how Empowered Choices, Empowered Woman Programme can help you achieve the changes you want in your life and marriage, however that looks for you.

To request your session, email me at and I’ll get straight back to you to get you scheduled.

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