13 Ways to Tell if You’re Checking Out of Your Marriage (and How To Fix it Before Your Spouse Leaves)

Kevin wrote to tell me he’s been working his ass off to provide food and shelter for his family. He works long hours, and when he gets home, he’s too exhausted to connect. His wife’s resentful as hell, and he doesn’t feel great about their marriage, either. But someone has to pay the bills, right? Shouldn’t that be enough?

Sorry, my friend, but it’s not. If you don’t believe me, read this post by Justice Schanfarber that went viral this week: women leave men they love, even though it breaks their hearts.

Photo courtesy of Rene Reichelt at Unsplash

Photo courtesy of Rene Reichelt at Unsplash

So why are they doing it?

Because their partner is no longer present. They’ve lost their connection, and he’s not doing anything to fix it. Worse yet, he’s shut down emotionally—checked out.

According to Schanfarber (a marital therapist), it’s only a matter of time before the wife gives up and leaves the marriage. Why?

Because she can’t live in a marriage without meaning and connection. No one can.

According to Brene Brown, we’re hardwired to connect. This need for connection—in addition to food, clothing and shelter—is one of our most basic needs.

Of course, it’s not always the husband who checks out—sometimes, it’s the wife. It doesn’t matter what sex you are, just that you see where you (and your spouse) fall on this scale.

So how can you tell if you’re checking out?

Here are 13 clues:

  1. You work too much,
  2. You’re always checking email,
  3. You’re constantly texting (or checking your cell phone),
  4. You watch too much TV,
  5. You drink too much alcohol,
  6. You eat too much,
  7. You don’t listen to your spouse when he/she is talking,
  8. You walk away instead of staying put and solving the problem,
  9. You don’t make eye contact with your spouse,
  10. You spend all of your free time with your friends (at the expense of your spouse),
  11. You shop too much,
  12. You’re constantly gaming,
  13. You’re constantly overextended and overscheduled.

Some of you will recognize these numbing behaviors from my book, 9 Steps to Heal Your Resentment and Reboot Your Marriage. We engage in them when we’re scared or frustrated or hurt and are unwilling to deal with our feelings.

Numbing helps us take the edge off.

But here’s the problem with that:

We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” (Brene Brown, Daring Greatly)

Whoa. Think about that one for a minute. What it means is that if you’re spending every night drinking in front of the TV, you’re probably not feeling good about anything in your life.

That’s problem #1.

Problem #2 is that a marriage can only take that kind of pressure for so long. As Schanfarber’s article implies, it’s only a matter of time before the shit hits the fan.

And hit the fan, it will.

Because you can only suppress your feelings for so long before something gives. (Just like you can’t hold a beach ball under water indefinitely–it’ll eventually pop up.)

This is the point at which people run away, have an affair or file for divorce.

So what can you do?

If you recognize yourself anywhere in this article, show it to your spouse and use it to start talking.

If you’re married to the person who’s been checking out, use this article to drive home the severity of your situation.

If you’re the one who’s been checking out, tell your spouse that you’re sorry.

You’re scared.

You don’t know how things got this screwed up.

But you’re ready to fix it.

And then get busy.

Hug her (or him). Talk to her with your heart—your heart, friend, not your mind. Not your excuses. Not your rationalizations. Not your defenses.

And then forgive yourself.

We’re human. We all make mistakes. We’re all busy as hell.

That’s OK. But now’s the time to do something about it.

It’s time to reorient.

It’s time to reassess your values and priorities.

You can do this by figuring out what’s important to you.

Is it your job? Sure, I get that your job’s important, but can it keep you warm at night? Will it love you back?

If you’re having difficulty figuring out your priorities, let me share what palliative nurse Bronnie Ware learned in her work with the dying.

Here are The Top Five Regrets of the Dying:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  3. I wished I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish I’d let myself be happier.

Think about those for a while. Apply them to your life.

Then leave a comment below telling me what small step you can take today to get your life (and your marriage) back on track.

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22 Responses to 13 Ways to Tell if You’re Checking Out of Your Marriage (and How To Fix it Before Your Spouse Leaves)

  1. Sky March 4, 2015 at 10:51 pm #

    this is great. Awesome articles…I have read them all. now what? how do we put this to action and who in our area would be good to have as our coach as we go through this?

    • Tanja March 5, 2015 at 12:24 pm #

      Thanks, Sky. Not sure who’d be a good relationship coach in Boulder, honestly. You could try asking around or shopping different therapists (or coaches) to see who’s a good fit. Other than that, go with your gut. Recognizing the problem is huge, and a giant first step. Then you can take it in bits and pieces by reading books or blog posts that resonate with you, etc. I’m planning on teaching an online class on this at some point down the road, but it’ll prob be a few more months before it’s up and running. You can also take a look at my book to see if it resonates with you–just click the link at the top of the page and it’ll take you to Amazon, where you can download an e-copy(paperback version coming in April).

      As far as concrete tips you can implement immediately, try challenging yourself (or your spouse) to find new ways to reconnect every day. Over coffee. With a quick hug. A longer hug. Look into his/her eyes when you speak. Put down your phone. Remind yourself of those bigger questions every day (Top 5 Regrets of the Dying). Try taking it bit by bit and you’ll get there. And if that seems too hard, shop around for some professional help. If I hear of any local recs, I’ll post names on this thread.

      Good luck, sister!

      • Alan Watts Fan July 18, 2016 at 10:14 am #

        I’ve tried Life Coaches before. They appear to be all clueless. There seems to be this expectation of counsellors and life coaches that the problem is largely your mindset or how you think about things that is holding you back. I know from my own experience counselling others that this is the case frequently but not always. In some highly intelligent (rational and emotional) and aware people this is not the case. They really need help. They are trying to solve complex problems and coming up short. Complex problems that are the result of combination of uninformed choices and the complexity of society and its frameworks. These problems are not easy and many counselors and life coaches come across as having no real world experience in dealing with problems or fail to deal with them successfully in their own lives. They seem to offer you text book help like a customer service agent in a foreign country trying to help customers by choosing pre-defined options from a screen prompter. Where does one get REAL help?

        I get offered to join a religious support group or it will get better with time if you keep trying. That’s not real help. That’s not concrete. Where do you get concrete help? Where do you get help leveling up skills or even identify skills the need leveling and then be pointed to resources to help with your self improvement? Isn’t that what coaching really is?

  2. Josh March 29, 2015 at 7:28 pm #

    Hi Tanja,

    I really like this post, but unfortunately didn’t find it years ago.

    My mistake was to: “work too much”, I was always trying to earn more money doing something else, but that did not work in my relationship, it got worst.

    My two daughters were little babies two and three years, I did not enjoy those years with them as I wanted to, all because of work.

    Actually I’m working very hard in my marriage trying to fix things and I hope it would gave good results.
    Josh recently posted..Como Superar un DivorcioMy Profile

    • Tanja March 30, 2015 at 10:31 am #

      Hi Josh, good luck to you now! Even if you’re not able to save your marriage, I’m betting your new attitude will help your relationship with your daughters immensely. We’re pulling for you!

  3. Josh March 30, 2015 at 11:45 am #

    Thanks Tanja.

    Keep up the good job you’re doing.

    regards,
    Josh recently posted..7 Consejos Prácticos de Como Enamorar a Tu ParejaMy Profile

    • Tanja April 4, 2015 at 7:41 am #

      Thanks, Josh!

  4. Tulito April 3, 2015 at 9:09 am #

    Hello Tanja, I would like to know how to send you an email. I have sensitive information I’d like to share but I didn’t see a link so that I know I”m actually sending it to you. I stumbled across your site (as I was browsing many) and your articles seem to touch base. Thanks.
    Tulito recently posted..How to Reconnect with Your Spouse in 6 SecondsMy Profile

    • Tanja April 4, 2015 at 7:48 am #

      Hi Tulito,

      It’s on my contact page, which you can access here.
      You can also email me at tanja [at] tanjapajevic [dot] com.

      But please remember that I’m unable to respond to each individual email any longer. What I’m now doing instead is posting problems to the site (not using the writer’s name) so that we can solve the issues together instead of replying to each individual comment. I believe this will be more beneficial than me attempting to reply to each individual email or comment, especially since there are probably several other folks out there dealing with the same problem. As other readers chime in, the writer will also get a wider range of advice.

      thanks!
      Tanja

  5. T June 29, 2015 at 1:39 am #

    Funny. My wife is out of state for work. Our daughter is home from college. She works in the summer to earn money for school. My wife oversees state and federal compliance issues for her company in four states. During the rare times that I do see her, her e-mails, her lap tops, her cell phone are going 24/7 non stop. She is very good at what she does. In the past, I have kept busy with volunteer work and raising the kids. They’re grown. I let my last volunteer coaching gig go. Loved those kids. Parents too. House is not paid off yet. Daughter needs money for college. Need money for retirement. And now, I have fallen victim to what you talk about …. the need for a connection. My wife denies there’s an issue. She laughs at me when I bring up counseling. I have done a lot of coaching in the last two decades. I have taken the time to listen to people. It’s powerful. I have listened to people’s problems and as you know, women don’t want you to solve their issues. They just want you to listen.
    After watching several marriages fail, I have to ask…….
    Why don’t women listen to men?

    • Tanja June 29, 2015 at 12:29 pm #

      T, your comment is a powerful one. I think you hit the nail on the head in a lot of relationships, and I’ve certainly been guilty of not listening myself. When I do it, I’m usually overwhelmed and there’s a lot going on underneath that I’m not willing to slow down and feel in the moment.

      It seems to me that for someone to truly slow down and listen, they need to be grounded in themselves and who they are and what they’re feeling. I think this is something that gets more and more lost in today’s busy world, esp with all of our different electronic devices. None of which is an excuse.

      I wish things were different on your end. You sound like you’ve got your head on straight and your wife (and children) are lucky to have you.

      I’d love to hear from others on this one. What’s your experience/take on this whole listening issue?

      In the meantime, good luck friend! We’re pulling for you.

  6. John January 22, 2016 at 2:15 pm #

    My wife does all of the 13 above. We have been together for years and all of a sudden I’m too much, clingy, smothering, and controlling. She says she don’t know what to do. But she doesn’t want to make the wrong decision. We are going to counseling but I feel I’m the only one trying.
    Should I wake up and see it for what it is? I’m in misery, I can’t reach her..

    • Tanja January 22, 2016 at 3:53 pm #

      John,

      I should clarify that that list also describes checking out of life in general. Meaning she might not even be running from you. She might be running from herself, for example. Or the knowledge that it’s time to move on from her job. I don’t know, but I would definitely bring this up with your counselor. Since he/she is the one seeing you both, he/she should have some tips for you.

      I think a lot of us revert to these kinds of numbing tactics when we’ve got big shit going on and we’re too scared to deal with. Your counselor should be able to help you get to the root of what’s really going on.

      Good luck, friend.

  7. pete February 15, 2016 at 9:23 am #

    where do you draw the line with the first dying regret?

    I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

    I get independence and following your self. What if your partner has no ability to participate in some of the most basic expectations? never participates in living a life together, or never chips in. Instead just lives life in their own direction leaving you to literally pick up the pieces and fill in all the blanks behind them.

    thank you..

    left behind..

    • Tanja February 15, 2016 at 1:58 pm #

      Pete,

      That sounds like a tough one. And I don’t think anyone can draw that line except for you. I take it you’ve already tried to talk to your partner about all of this?

      I wish I had some magical answer for you, but I think you’re probably going to have to do some soul searching around this one and answer it for yourself. That said, therapy can often help you get clear on big stuff like this.

      Good luck, friend.

  8. Don February 20, 2016 at 12:18 am #

    My wife of 8 years just told me she has emotionally checked out, she wants to just be friends with me as well as other guys says she doesn’t want to be involved with anyone. That because we got married young and we were the first for eachother in a lot of ways that we never got to see what dating others was like. And on top of it all she wants us to still live together. What should I do? Is there still hope to save my marriage?

    • Tanja February 20, 2016 at 12:12 pm #

      Don,
      That sounds rough. But I can’t answer that question for you — I don’t think anyone can. A therapist could help you both gain some clarity around this by helping get to the root of the larger issues underneath all this (and I’m guessing they’re pretty big). I’d definitely recommend getting yourself some support even if your wife’s not willing to go along. That would still help you gain the clarity you’re seeking as to what you’re willing to put up with, etc. Good luck, friend!

  9. Vicky January 1, 2017 at 1:09 pm #

    Hello
    So I going to start with…..I have the most amazing husband!!!! Kind, compassionate, loving, loyal and everything you could ask for!
    He can however be quite negative. He comes from a family that are quite passive aggressive, not in a abusive sense but they just WONT tackle emotions and situations head on. I call it physiological warfare!!!
    Often you can cut the atmosphere in his parents house with a knife never knowing what the problem is.
    He has these traits and has always displayed them however over the past two years it is more prevalent in the relationship. Gradually it has grown until now there is a “talk” once a month. During these talks I’ve been honest that his negativity and lack of open communication is tiring. I’ve suggested working with his annoying habits such as txt me if you not right, email if your stressed, don’t be on your phone when watching a film etc please touch me i.e. Stroke my arm, back but don’t always go in for the kill! Talk to me don’t hover near by (checking phone). It’s hard to write this!!!!!
    Anyway we are here again. Mood off for few days pre Christmas Eve to Boxing Day. If you ask he says nothing’s wrong often with a look of surprise although I can’t imagine it is, as he is not engaging or just had go at kids/dogs or huffing/puffing over very little!
    I try keep happy eventually we sit down with my brother and eldest daughter to play monopoly, I’m speaking with my brother when the repetitiveness of one word finally registers. It’s my husband, I said why do that? Clearly I hadn’t realised you were speaking to me nor understood the context of “money”!!!! So he snaps back. The atmosphere was horrible for everyone involved and eventually once it was down to us he dramatically declares he can’t continue to play as if he wins he will still lose and flounced around kitchen!
    I was angry as no one else had known he was “off” for days and so everyone thinks it’s now my fault!
    I woke up angry and then started thinking OMG is this the beginning of the end? Which was devastating however now (just a few short days after) I’m numb!!! It feels like someone else, I’m void of all emotional connection!
    When having our “talks” it always feels one sided like prizing information from a teenager!!!
    Help me please as I love him dearly but not sure I like him at min!!!!

    • Tanja January 1, 2017 at 4:08 pm #

      Vicky,

      I hear you on how tough those family patterns can be! Part of what makes this so challenging is that those old, inherited family patterns are your husband’s work to do, not yours. So try as much as you might want to change him, etc., he’s not going to change until he’s ready to. Which sucks, right?!

      That magic fix aside, have you considered counseling? I’d suggest marital counseling first, but if he doesn’t go, you might want to consider going for yourself. A good counselor can help you with your boundaries, so that you’re not so triggered by your husband’s passive-aggressive behavior when it does happen.

      Another option would be to check out Harriet Lerner’s book The Dance of Anger — that might help you start to shift the dynamic on your side. It’s a great book, super helpful around this dynamic.

      Good luck, sister. We’re pulling for you!

      • Vicky January 1, 2017 at 4:48 pm #

        Thank you for your time!
        We have been together for 12 years, married for almost 9. 3 wonderful children which he adores. He is an absolutely fantastic dad!!!
        I’m lucky as I get to stay ant home as he makes enough money for this to work for a couple more years!!! 4 out of the 7 days are just about bliss!!! It’s just so worrying that moods are becoming part of most weeks!!
        I’ve seen so many relationships fail.
        I’m sure we were made for each other and in fact we were smug in public because of our magical relationship!! People often commented on how “right” we were for each other!
        I just feel alone most of the time now. The spark isn’t there really! Sex somehow has shifted and I’m not sure it works for either of us. He says all the right things but the proof is in the pudding as they say! Actions and words just aren’t matching!

        Thank you so much for your time and allowing me to have a rant!! I will try the book.

        • Tanja January 2, 2017 at 3:48 pm #

          Sounds like you have a great connection, Vicky — I hope the book helps! I’m so glad you’re working on all this now — took many folks wait until it’s too late. Hope things work out!

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