Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel Anna Karenina begins with this often quoted sentence: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This sad observation rings true with millions of couples living in what sociologists and psychologists call “empty shell marriages.”
An empty shell marriage is a marriage in name only, one where the spouses continue to live under the same roof but live as separate individuals. When divorce is difficult for legal, religious or financial reasons, or when a couple decides to stay together for the sake of the children, their failed marriage can desiccate to a shell.
Although they may share a home and may have been married for years, the spouses are not emotionally connected and often are lonely and emotionally distant. On the surface, an empty-shell marriage often appears happy and healthy, successful and serene. The relationship is stable and often little conflict is visible. Outsiders get the impression the marriage has no problems but are often very surprised when the marriage finally caves and ends in divorce.
Empty-shell marriages have lost or never had the passion needed to make the marriage vital because the relationship may never have had depth and often may have been formed for superficial reasons, says Charles Lee Cole in the Cultural Sociology of Divorce: An Encyclopedia by Robert E. Emery.
Generally, in empty marriages the spouses either 1) never had emotional and sexual passion or 2) they once had a strong attraction and lost it.
Empty shell marriages have no vitality - only the outside shell remains. Shells can appear pretty - even when they are empty. Sadly, too many marriages end up in this state after a few years.
John F. Guber and Peggy B. Hanroff have identified three types empty-shell marriages.
> In a devitalized relationship husband and wife lack excitement or any real interest in the other spouse or their marriage. Boredom and apathy have drained the marriage but serious arguments are rare. Arguing takes energy and the spouses do not think it is worth the effort.
> In a conflict-habituated relationship husband and wife frequently quarrel in private. They may also quarrel in public or put up a facade of being compatible. The relationship is characterized by considerable conflict, tension, and bitterness. The couple cannot live together – or apart.
> In a passive congenial relationship both partners are not happy but are content with their lives and gradually feel adequate. The partners may have some interests in common, but these interests are generally insignificant. The spouses contribute little to each other’s real satisfaction. The couple exists in a state of détente.
Marriages that become empty shells often drift through a progression. A loss of respect segues to a failure to communicate that reinforces withdrawal and apathy. Each spouse turns to his or her own separate interests, hobbies, careers, and friends. Personal advancement triumphs over the well-being of the other spouse.
In empty-shell marriage the spouses feel no strong attachment to each other, but outside pressures keep the marriage together, writes Angelia Davis. These include the desire to convey a stable family image, the need to maintain a place in the community, and the desire to avoid the financial consequences of divorce. Sometimes a couple may believe that ending the marriage harms the children or that getting a divorce would be morally wrong.
Only the spouses in a marriage genuinely know the marriage, so for obvious reasons, the number of empty-shell marriage is unknown. It may be as the number of happily married couples.
In an empty shell marriage, the spouses find many ways to be unhappy. Home life is without fun or laughter. The spouses do not share and discuss their problems or experiences with each other. Communication is at a minimum as is any spontaneous expression of affection or sharing of a personal experience. Children are usually starved for love and reluctant to have friends over because they are embarrassed about having their friends see their parents interacting. The couples in these marriages engage in few activities together and display no pleasure in being in one another’s company. Sexual relations between the partners, as might be expected, are rare and generally unsatisfying.
William J. Goode compares empty-shell marriages to marriages that end in divorce. In most families that divorce, the husband and wife pass through a state where each feels unbound of the other. They cease to cooperate or share with each other and look on one another as almost strangers. The empty-shell family is in such a state. Its members no longer feel any strong commitment to many of the mutual role obligations, but for various reasons the husband and wife do not separate or divorce. The number of empty-shell marriages ending in divorce is unknown. It is likely that a fair number eventually do. Both spouses have to put considerable effort into making a marriage work in order to prevent an empty-shell marriage from gradually developing.
In his book, The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck defines love as: “The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” Love as an investment of myself in order to promote the spiritual health of others. In an empty shell marriage, such generosity does not bloom.