Healthier Ever After: Rules to Live by if You're in a Dead-End Marriage and Divorce Is Not an Option

04/11/2013 11:54 am ET | Updated Jun 11, 2013

Some people are happily married. Others are blissfully single. Then there are those who fall somewhere in between. I'm not talking here about singles who are looking for love or married people who have hit a bump in the road. I'm talking about unhappily married people who for whatever reason do not get divorced.

Generally, I take a dim view of people who have miserable marriages yet refuse to either fix it or end it. When pressed, many people in this category say they are staying together for the sake of their children -- as if they are making a noble sacrifice. I agree that the parents' choice involves a sacrifice; but it's the kid's home life rather than the parents' personal lives that's being forfeited.

Sentencing your kids to spend their childhood under the reign of your bad marriage doesn't earn you any praise. Not only do they get an unhappy home, you throw in a bad model of what marriage should look like as a not-so-complimentary consolation prize.

Kids aren't the only reason some miserably married people refuse to part company. Some stay married because they are not willing to experience the drop in household income. If your concern is that your more modest-by-comparison post-divorce income would jeopardize your country club membership, clothes budget and tennis schedule, you are putting your attachment to your lifestyle above your obligation to provide a healthy home for your kids. And that's a choice I cannot respect.

But if getting a divorce would threaten your ability to feed, clothe and take your family to the doctor, I understand your reluctance. The recent recession has left many adults un- or under-employed and/or upside down on their mortgages. For these families, divorce really is a luxury they cannot afford. There are other non-selfish reasons that compel couples to stay together after the love is gone, like health problems, insurance issues and career obligations.

If you are in a marriage that is not fixable yet you are not planning to get divorced anytime soon, here are some rules to follow to keep the atmosphere at home as healthy as possible for all concerned. The best part about these suggestions is that they are things you can do by yourself -- without your spouse's agreement, approval, or even cooperation.

No cheating
Dating is for people who are not already in a relationship -- and that's not you. If you date while you're in a relationship, it's called cheating. Your marriage may be broken or dead or any number of things, but no matter how you characterize it, as long as you are still married and living in the same house, the one thing it isn't is over.

And the fact that your spouse cheated first is not an excuse. Remember, you can only control your own behavior, not his. After all, if you could influence how he acted, your marriage likely would have met with a different outcome.

Getting involved with someone else significantly ups the chance of conflict with your spouse. And inviting this sort of conflict into your house is incompatible with any effort to create a healthy home. Plus, an extramarital relationship takes time and energy and you're going to need those resources for the next item on the list.

If you find yourself tempted, think about it from your kids' standpoint: Having a parent who is a cheater infects your house with dishonesty and insincerity. But having two parents who are cheaters raises the toxicity to Super Fund-site levels -- and there's nothing super fun about that.

Be the best "you" possible
After your marriage hit the rocks, but before you accepted the fact that it was over, I'll bet you tried at least once to rededicate yourself to being the best spouse possible. Your effort to pump some life back into your relationship didn't work in the long run and that probably made you feel like even more of a failure.

But it wasn't your fault that your efforts weren't a success. The problem wasn't that you didn't try hard enough; it was that you were trying the wrong thing. Rather than dedicating yourself to being the best spouse you can be -- an endeavor that depends on the subjective approval of someone else in order for you to succeed -- you should have instead focused on being the best "you"-- an endeavor that puts you in the driver's seat.

The good news is you get a second shot at this. The time has come for you to shift gears and pour your energy into yourself rather than your failing marriage. In order to be the best version of you it is necessary to stop living in marital limbo and make the most of each day. Figure out a way to get to the gym or yoga class. Make time to cook meals for yourself and your kids. Sign up for a class. Take your kids on a weekend road trips. Schedule get-togethers with friends -- with and without the kids.

All of your efforts should be within the boundaries of how much free time and discretionary income you have, as well as comporting with standards of decency. So, announcing on Monday that you're planning to take the kids on a road trip From Austin to San Antonio next weekend? No problem. But absconding with the kids to San Salvador without giving your spouse any notice? No bueno.

Don't take the bait
You and your spouse may have grown accustomed to arguing -- and old habits are hard to break. When your spouse sees you making positive personal changes and moving forward with your life, don't be surprised if this stirs up strife rather than summoning support. But just as it takes two to tango, it also takes two to argue. Whatever you do, don't engage. Just as you can't get a beach body by eating ice cream every day, you won't get the best version of you on a daily diet of disagreement.

In order to be in the clear on this, the decisions and changes you are making must be part of an effort to be the best you, not part of a campaign to say "f you." If your spouse is allergic to cats, it's not okay to get a cat not just in spite of his allergy, but actually because of it. It's fine, however, to hire a house cleaner to free up some time and energy to invest in more important things even if your spouse balks at the expense.

Once you make a decision don't let your spouse badger you about it. You are an adult. You are in a position to evaluate whether a decision makes sense, and you have every right to authorize reasonable expenses. If you wait for agreement and approval from someone with a track record of disagreement and disapproval, you will continue to live in limbo.

Don't trick your kids
Do not deceive your kids about the quality of your relationship with your spouse. Kids generally have highly accurate bullshit detectors, and if you are pretending like everything is hunky dory when it's not, they will most likely see through the ruse no matter how great an actor you think you are. Attempting to con them could cost you both their trust and respect. And if you do manage to pull the wool over their eyes, you will only ensure that it will be more jarring when the truth eventually comes out -- and the truth always comes out.

I'm not saying you should confide in your kids -- because you definitely should not. But while you don't need to tell your kids that you really want a divorce but simply can't afford one; you also don't need to fake like you're head over heels in love with your spouse when you're not. If you live your life in an honest and constructive manner, your actions will speak for themselves. Seeing you and your spouse living separate yet positive lives while living under the same roof will send your kids a clear enough message.

Figure out your end game (and also have a back-up plan)
Living together under the same roof after your marriage has flat-lined can work for a while, but odds are against it lasting forever. In light of this reality, it makes sense to think through your situation and plan accordingly.

Maybe you have an elderly parent who is suffering from a terminal illness and you are holding off on a divorce until your parent passes away. Or perhaps you want to stay together until your youngest kid graduates from high school. Whatever your circumstances, having a clear understanding of your end game and being aboveboard about it is a must.

Every member of your household will be better able to make the most of less than ideal conditions if they how long the conditions will last and can pace themselves accordingly. And everyone will be better able to deal with change when it comes if they have an idea of what to expect and when to expect it.

If your kid never knew you were only staying together until she shipped off for college, she'll have much more to worry about than passing her classes when she learns that her parents' marriage has failed and the family home is being sold.

But just in case your spouse leases an apartment and files for divorce before you make it to the finish line, you should also have a contingency plan in place. This plan needs to include financial reserves you can access in the event that your income or expenses change without warning or you need to hire a lawyer sooner than you expected. Hopefully, you won't have to execute it, but it's better to have a back-up plan and not need it than the other way around.

You may not be able to deliver on "happily ever after" for your kids, but you can vow provide a home that is healthier from this point forward. Use the rules above as a roadmap and you'll be on your way.