I sometimes hear from wives who have been telling their husband that they are considering leaving the home or the marriage. Some are sincere about this. They are unhappy and feel that taking a break by leaving may be the best thing at the time. Others are not exactly serious about leaving. They are threatening to leave in the hopes that their husband will ask them not to (or they will at least get a reaction out of him to show that he still cares.)
Unfortunately, sometimes this backfires. The wife will announce her intention to leave and hope that her husband will try to stop her (or at the very least ask her not to leave.) Instead, her husband will tell her that he really doesn’t care if she stays or goes. This leaves her unsure of how to proceed. Does she go when she really doesn’t want to in order to save face or make a point? Or does she cave and simply tell him that she changed her mind? And what does her husband’s indifference say about the state of her marriage or her ability to save it?
She might say, “my husband and I have been fighting pretty badly for almost four months. Things are definitely not happy at home. For a while, my husband was apartment hunting and was telling me that he was going to move out, but he never actually did. Still, he complained constantly. I got tired of hearing him complain all of the time, so I told him that I was going to leave so he wouldn’t have to be so unhappy. Now, I’m going to be honest. I really hoped that he would confess that he really doesn’t want for us to live apart, which is why he hadn’t actually signed a lease or moved out yet. Instead, his exact words to me were: ‘I really don’t care if you stay or go.’ He just sort of shrugged his shoulders and said that nothing really changes between us no matter what we do. Now, I am unsure about how to proceed. This hurts me. I had hoped that his not moving out meant that he was willing to save our marriage, but now he acts as if he is indifferent as to whether we live together or not. I don’t want to pack my stuff and leave, but what do I even say now? How do I avoid not having to leave my house? Do I just have to admit that I gambled and lost and that my marriage is over?”
I don’t think so. If everyone who ever threatened to leave their marriage ended up divorced, the divorce rate would be much higher than it actually is. Many couples make these sorts of threats in the heat of the moment and nothing actually comes of them. The threats are understandable. They are usually made because things are bad, but nothing is changing. So one of the spouses decides to shake things up by threatening to leave. The hope is the other spouse will beg them not to go and will have to craft a plan to make things better. Frankly, your husband might have done exactly the same thing when he threatened to leave previously. He did not make good on the threat and I don’t believe that you have to, either, especially if you really don’t want to go.
However, it goes without saying that in order for both of you to want to stay put, you’re going to need to dig in and really improve your marriage so that one or both of you do not get so frustrated that you just give up. I think it would be helpful if you could clear the air, if possible, so that you both know that no one is going anywhere immediately. Because if the living situation is up in the air, it becomes harder to commit to doing the work necessary to save your marriage. If you doubt that your spouse will stick around and work with you, there can be some uncertainty, which could hurt your progress. So you might try something like, “well, you may not care if I leave or stay, but I have decided that I care very much. I have calmed down and thought about it and, if I’m being honest, I really don’t want to leave. I said that I did because I was frustrated and didn’t know how to fix this. But I think of instead of us both getting angry and threatening to leave, we could turn our energy toward making things better between us so that no one has to go. I’d prefer not to leave and live alone. I am hopeful that if we work together, neither of us will need to live alone.”
Yes, saying this will make you feel vulnerable, may feel awkward, and requires that you are the bigger person. But it will hopefully buy you some time. After you have cleared the air, hopefully no one will need to threaten to leave in the hopes that the other will ask them not to go. Because in essence, you will have accomplished what you are both hoping for – the reassurance that with work, no one will have to leave, because no one really wants to separate.