Are You in a Zombie Marriage?
Some ideas to stop the drift towards divorce.
On the outside, everything seems OK. You have great family days out. The children are doing well at school. Beyond occasionally snapping at each other, you don't argue and would probably describe each other as 'best friends'.
On the inside, though, your relationship looks very different. When you're alone, you don't really have much to say - beyond swapping lists of jobs to be done. You can't remember the last time you had sex together and it probably felt more like another thing to tick off your 'to-list' than something passionate and truly connected.
If you stopped and thought about it, you'd probably agree that something was wrong, but you're too busy – the kids need picking up from a party – or you're hoping that some future event, like the children reaching secondary school, is going to magically make everything better.
Sound familiar? Welcome to the Zombie Marriage. It looks alive and well but for one, or maybe both partners, something has died. Just like zombies in the movies, these marriages can stagger on for surprisingly long, but they are also incredibly vulnerable.
Sandy, forty-five, and Peter, forty-six were childhood sweethearts and, beyond briefly splitting up with each other in their late teens, have always been together. They have three children aged twenty, seventeen and fifteen.
Everything should be great. We have a nice house, three beautiful children and we've reached the point where they don't need us so much and we should have more time for each other.
Except, Peter is always working – he had a period of being unemployed and he's terrified of it happening again – so I sort of understand. He has also been acting out of character, on our youngest daughter's case about normal teenage stuff like being disrespectful, but I put it down to stress.
Sandy had to reassess, however, when Peter left his phone on the kitchen worktop and their daughter noticed a flirty text coming in.
Peter got all defensive. It was all “she’s just a friend” and “can't I have friends?” Of course he can, but why has he never mentioned her? Do friends call each other sweetheart? When I try and raise this stuff with Peter, he fobs me off: “it's just banter”, apparently.
Interestingly, it was not Peter’s new “friend” that led to the couple seeking help. This happened when Sandy had a training day – for her job as a teaching assistant – and felt such a strong attraction to one of the tutors that it was completely overwhelming.
He suggested going for a coffee and initially I said yes. Except, I'm a very moral person and it was against everything that I stood for. So I cancelled and told Peter.
Peter was stunned:
I was in complete shock at how close both of us had come to having an affair. We talked more that night than we have done in years.
Fortunately, Sandy and Peter decided to seek help rather than brush things under the carpet. If you don’t find help and support at this point, you can be sure that the fissures in your marriage will deepen and things will eventually fall apart.
Thirteen signs of a Zombie Marriage
Look through the list and see how many apply to you and then read through the list again and imagine answering as your partner. Afterwards, look at my guide to interpreting your responses.
1. We never do anything special just the two of us
There's plenty of family time but you almost never go out together without other couple friends. You might watch TV together or have a Valentine's Day meal somewhere nice, but it feels more like going through the motions than being truly romantic.
2. I'm bored a lot of the time
Being bored is a sure sign that you're not putting enough energy into that part of your life. If you're bored with your husband, it is probably that you've stopped being interested and imagine that you know everything about him.
3. We probably have sex about three times a year
When you do have sex it's OK but it is more likely to be functional, brief and not particularly satisfying. Sometimes one or other of you will refuse sex to punish your partner or get your own way.
4. We often talk about the state of our friends' marriages
It is always easier to see what's wrong with someone else's relationship than your own. When you become pre-occupied with your friends' marriage cracks, it's a sure sign that you're avoiding looking at something closer to home.
5. We snap at each other and get defensive but never have an argument that solves anything
You think it’s nicer to avoid arguments, but swallowing your differences means nothing comes up to the surface – where it can be solved.
From time to time, the tension leaks out with snide comments or being short with each other but you can never get to the bottom of a problem – because one or both of you deny there's anything wrong or even that you're upset.
6. Sometimes I think it would be easier if I was a single parent
You have your system for doing things; your partner gets in the way, messes things up or causes arguments. Surely, life on your own would be less stressful?
7. There is something that one of us has forgiven but cannot forget
It might have been a past affair, a large gambling debt or an argument where horrible things were said, but despite trying hard to move on, something is stopping you.
8. I bite my tongue because there are so many topics we'll never agree about
It might something relatively trivial (like what time your daughter has to get home) or longstanding deep issues (for example he doesn't like your mother) but you've stopped bringing them up because there's no point. You just side-step each other and more and more go your own ways.
9. I find it hard to get through the weekend without thinking of a special friend
It could be a male work colleague with whom you can have a laugh or compare notes about your hopeless partners, or an old boyfriend that you message on Facebook who 'really' understands you. Instead of talking to your partner, you're forging an ever closer bond with someone else.
10. I have told my partner 'I love you but I'm not in love with you'
Even if you haven't said it, you'd instinctively understand someone who has. Basically, you still 'like' your partner but the passion has drained away and that feeling of being connected has gone.
11. I'm particularly close to our child of the opposite sex
For women, when you're not getting positive male energy from your husband, you're more likely to gravitate to someone who will provide it – normally your eldest son.
For men, if you feel shut out by your wife, you could be looking for support and advice from one of your daughters.
If you don't think you are too close or tell one of your children too much, ask yourself: What would my other child or children say? Do they complain that I always take my son or daughter's side?
If you can recognise your partner as falling into this trap, it is likely you're doing the same (because it's always easier to see this in someone else).
12. If I won the lottery, I'd be tempted not to tell my partner
This is a sure sign that you're dreaming of starting a fresh life away from your husband or that you feel controlled by him and a bit of 'secret' money would make things easier – either way, answering yes means your relationship is in deep trouble.
13. I used to be angry with my partner but now I'm indifferent
At some point, you told yourself there is no point arguing any more and switched off completely. On the surface, everything seems better – especially to your husband, who is likely to breath a sigh of relief. However, it is only a matter of time before you either ask for a divorce or cross the line into infidelity (which can be an even more painful way to end your marriage).
How to assess your score
When answering for yourself… if you agreed with three of the signs, it is cause for concern but you are not in a Zombie Marriage. Four is on the cusp and five or more has you soundly in a Zombie Marriage (but you probably knew that already).
When answering for your husband… the threshold for a zombie marriage is much lower because you'll be less aware of his unhappiness than your own, so every yes is more dangerous. If you agree to two signs, it could be just a bad phase.
However, I would still be concerned if you are only having infrequent sex because men use this as main yardstick for measuring the health of their relationship. My alarm bells really start ringing when one partner is withholding sex, as this is the complete opposite of being loving. Saying yes to three statements is on the cusp and four plus is Zombie Marriage territory.
When answering for your wife:
I would be particularly concerned if your wife is complaining she would be better off as a single parent. In your logical mind, this will sound stupid - she would find it even harder without another pair of hands! In this way, you are cutting the problem down to size and therefore able to dismiss it.
However, in my experience, when a woman is openly saying something like this, her attachment to the marriage is hanging by a string. She feels alone. She cannot trust you to support and help her. These are frightening and devastating feelings and will influence her decision-making far more than a rational calculation of how much help you provide.
Next time, there is an argument about childcare (or picking up your son or daughter from somewhere) - don't defend yourself. Don't list all the times you helped out. This will just sink into an 'I'm right and you're wrong' fight and you won't convince your wife - ever!
Instead, ask curious questions. Try and see it from her point of view. For example: How does that make you feel? How much time and energy goes into trying to make these plans work? When do you ask me for help?
Note how these are open questions... not setting traps. When you truly understand, now you can discuss solutions - rather than have the same old fight.
Thirteen ways to cure a zombie marriage
1. Have weekends away just the two of you (without the children).
2. Adopt habits that promote more time together: eat together in the evening, find TV shows to watch together, go to bed at the same time etc.
3. Stop calling each other Mummy and Daddy and start flirting with each other.
4. Ask for what you want rather than expecting your partner to be a mind reader.
5. Learn that it’s OK to say 'no' or 'maybe' and to negotiate to find a solution acceptable to both of you.
6. Touch each other more: cuddle up on the sofa while watching TV, give each other a back rub, have a bath together and wash each other's hair.
7. Deal with the small issues – rather than letting them go – as this will create confidence for tackling the medium sized and later the bigger ones.
8. Put a lock on the bedroom door, so you have somewhere to be sexual without the fear of being interrupted.
9. Keep phones and other electronic devices out of the bedroom, so it feels like a private space – rather than somewhere anybody can digitally enter.
10. When there's a problem don't just label your husband as the cause, look at your own contribution to the stalemate.
11. When your partner is talking to you, put down what you're doing and give him your full attention.
12. Increase the number of compliments, thank yous and smiles. It takes FIVE of these positive interactions to wipe out ONE snide comment or frown.
13. Argue more. It brings problems up to the surface and shows that you care enough to engage with your husband rather than just physically or emotionally walk away.
In other news, I’ve been busy as usual recording The Meaningful Life podcast. Recent interview highlights include:
⭐️ Social worker and wellness expert Julie Wald on what self-care really means - spoiler, there’s no bubble-bath involved.
⭐️ Grief expert David Kessler on whether there is any meaning to be found in grief.
⭐️ Therapist Linda Hershman on the silver divorce.
And as always, if it feels like the right time to start marital therapy, send an email to Tricia (firstname.lastname@example.org) for a virtual or in-person appointment with one of my team of therapists in London, or with me here in Berlin.