Marriage is difficult when one spouse is incarcerated. Can a marriage survive prson? Here are tips to help you stay connected and healthy.
Two years after Nelson Mandela was released from prison, he and his wife, Madikizela-Mandela, divorced. After surviving 27 years of his incarceration, their marriage ended.
This is part of our series titled, ‘Can A Marriage Survive.’ Each article addresses one of the most challenging issues couples face. We offer practical tips and advice on how to navigate these challenge events.
It is estimated that there are currently around 2.7 million children in the United States who have a parent in prison. That means that for every 28 children, one has a parent in jail. While having a parent in prison can be difficult for a child, it can also be difficult for the spouse of the incarcerated parent. Can a marriage survive prison?
It is certainly possible for a marriage to survive prison, but it is not easy. The spouse of the incarcerated parent is left to shoulder the burden of raising the family and keeping the household running. The spouse also has to deal with the stress of worrying about their partner and whether they are safe.
There are some couples who are able to maintain their relationship despite the challenges of prison, but it is not easy. It takes a lot of work and communication. If you are in a relationship with someone who is in prison, it is important to be patient and understand that the situation is not easy for either of you.
Can a marriage survive a spouse being in prison? What the Statistics Say.
According to Vox.com, every year of a prison term makes a couple 32 percent more likely to divorce. They also found that the odds of divorce increase over the first ten years after incarceration.
One study found that many spouses claim their marriage is less loving and more violent after incarceration.
One former prison chaplain had this to say: (paraphrased for clarity)
Over the past twenty plus year period, I’ve explored this issue with numerous inmates. Understand, I’m usually an old fashioned, “no divorce except for adultery” kind of guy. I think we need to view some lengthy prison terms as akin to dying.
Seven seems to be an arbitrary threshold for marriage longevity. I’ve rarely seen long-term relationships last longer than seven. It’s tough on the free partner to stay loyal in any case, but seven seems to be a breaking line.
It seems that most divorces happen within the first and last years of incarceration.
The Psychological Effects of Incarceration
Even the strongest marriages can be negatively impacted by incarceration. Many spouses who are on the outside are also feeling angry, ashamed, and betrayed by their partners. The actions leading up to prison have lasting consequences for both partners. (Source)
5 Negative Effects Of Incarceration on Families
There are numerous negative affects prison life has on families. There are five that are mentioned often.
- Feelings of isolation
- Feel like they are carrying the burden of the prisoner’s incarceration.
- Living in limbo, not knowing when the prisoner will be released.
- A sense of being punished along with the prisoner.
- They have lost a part of their life.
It’s easy to see how difficult it is to adapt to prison life for all parties involved.
5 Tips For Incarcerated Spouses
This section is for spouses who are incarcerated. It is important to understand there are things you can do to make sure your release from prison will lead to a positive homecoming.
According to Prison Fellowship:
Prisoners spend too much time just lying around. Do that in prison long enough, and you will develop a bad habit that will carry over to your life after prison. The human body needs exercise. “Use it or lose it,” some say. Our bodies are strongest and healthiest when we force them, through exercise, to work harder than at rest.Source: Ron Humphrey and Prison Fellowship
Physical exercise is not only good for your body, it releases endorphins (feel good chemicals) in the brain that promote a positive attitude.
2. Cut Out TV and Read
Your brain functions like a physical body: The more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes. However, if you don’t use it for a while, it starts to lose its strength. It is very important for prisoners to stay mentally active during their incarceration.
Cornerstone University says there are five benefits of reading:
- Reduces stress
- Increases empathy
- Grows your vocabulary and increases communication skills
- Improves your mood
- Strengthens your brain
Reading has many benefits, including expanding your intellect and capacity to learn.
Prison work comes in different varieties so you can usually find something you enjoy.
One former prisoner was interviewed about prison life. He indicated there were several things that helped him endure and make the most of his time. One was work.
I had done some computer work in the prison factory, packed orders in the commissary, and umpired softball games. I just kept busy, and I told the magazine that I would have gone crazy without something to do.
Work is good for the soul. It not only keeps you busy, it helps you stay mentally fit and productive.
4. Keep Up Contacts With Friends And Family
Life in prison can be lonely. Use the time to reconnect with your family and close friends.
There are many things you can do to keep communication lines open. Write letters, make phone calls (when available), send postcards; do something to keep relationships in tact.
For many, this is an opportunity to own their mistakes and make things right (as much as possible).
Often, the crime committed did not just violate a stranger. It had a negative impact on the entire family. Understanding this is the first step in getting your life on the right track.
This often means coming clean and taking responsibility for your actions.
5. Be Sensitive To Your Family Needs
It’s easy to get a victim mentality when in prison. It often feels like everybody is out to get you.
The pain of separation is real. To combat this, focus on your family and their needs.
Prison Fellowship recommends the following:
Learn to communicate with honesty.
Rebuilding trust means total honesty. It takes time and work, but it can be done IF you are honest.
Be empathetic and sensitive to your spouses needs (where they are)
It’s easy to only think about yourself while incarcerated. To make best use of your time in prison, practice empathy – put yourself in your spouses shoes. Imagine what they must be going through.
Your spouse has new responsibilities. They are forced to manage the family on their own. This is not easy, so be sensitive and show appreciation.
Encourage your family (especially your spouse).
This is where writing letters comes into play. You will be amazed at how a letter of encouragement and appreciation will help your spouse.
We’ve already implied and stated this earlier, but it is worth saying again. To build trust and make things right, you must ask for forgiveness to start the journey of making things right.
Let them know you are sorry for what you did. Be open and honest. Don’t make excuses.
Trust Your Spouse
Don’t allow anyone else to plant suspicions in your mind. Many prisoners imagine the worst about their partner. This is a dead end road. It only leads to fear, resentment, and doubt.
Choose to believe the best about your spouse. Trust them. Trust builds bridges, so use it to keep your marriage healthy.
Your prison experience can be positive. I realize that is a strange word to apply to prison life. But if you use the time wisely, you can get help and change your life.
7 Tips To Help Spouses With Incarcerated Partners
What about the spouses of those in prison? Life can be hard. It can feel like a prison of it’s own.
Here are x things you can do to make sure you are getting the help you need and your marriage can stay intact. Remember, the statistics are working against you, but these practical tips will help you beat the odds.
1. Don’t Let Jail Ruin Your Marriage
Prison life is tough for both spouses. Here are 5 things you can do to stay connected and keep your marriage strong
The best way to stay connected with your incarcerated spouse is by making sure you visit them in prison as much as possible. If you have a job, try to take an unpaid leave of absence so that you can visit them more often. If this isn’t possible, try taking on extra work at home or even volunteering somewhere in your community.
If possible, send letters and care packages to your spouse every week. These will help them feel loved while they are away from you and serve as a reminder of why they should stick with their sentence instead of becoming bitter or giving up hope on the future.
If you have children together, make sure they know how much their father loves them and how proud he is of them regardless of his actions in the past or present time frame; this will help them feel confident about their own future even though he might not come back home right away because of his sentence length being longer than usual due to previous charges/convictions prior before last one occurred (if any).
You also need to make sure that there aren’t any problems with communication between yourself and your spouse; talk about what each other expects from each other
2. Be Honest With Each Other About What Happened
It’s important to be honest with your spouse about what happened that caused you to be incarcerated. If you’re not honest, it can create a wedge in your relationship and make it difficult to rebuild trust.
Being honest also shows that you’re taking responsibility for your actions and are willing to work on making things right. Taking responsibility is an important part of rebuilding trust and moving forward.
If you’re not sure how to start the conversation, try saying something like, “I’m sorry for what I did and I want to be honest with you about what happened.” This can help open the door to a productive conversation. So be honest about everything.
3. Talk Through Issues Before They Become Problems
Don’t wait until you’re back home to talk about issues that arose during your separation. Talking about them now will prevent arguments later on.
It’s always better to talk through issues before they become problems. If you wait until something is a problem, it’s usually too late to fix it. By talking through issues, you can figure out what the root of the problem is and how to fix it before it becomes a bigger issue.
Having healthy conversations about difficult topics can be hard, but it’s worth it to avoid problems down the road. It can be helpful to set some ground rules before you start talking. For example, you can agree to be respectful and to listen to each other. You can also agree to disagree and to take breaks if you need them.
If you’re not sure how to start a tough conversation, you can try saying something like, “I’m not sure how to say this, but I’m feeling _____ about _____.” Fill in the blank with how you’re feeling and what the issue is. Then, just start talking. The most important thing is to communicate openly and honestly with each other.
4. Give Yourself Time To Adjust
It can be difficult to readjust to life when your spouse is incarcerated. It is common to feel isolated, alone, and overwhelmed. It is important to give yourself time to grieve and to process what has happened.
You may find it helpful to talk to a therapist or counselor to help you deal with your feelings. You may also want to join a support group for people who are going through similar experiences.
It is important to take care of yourself during this difficult time. Make sure to eat healthy, exercise, and get enough sleep. Taking care of yourself will help you to be better able to deal with the stress of having a spouse who is incarcerated.
The main thing to realize is it takes time to readjust. There is no set timeline for how long it will take to feel better. Just know that it is normal to feel overwhelmed and alone after your spouse is incarcerated. Give yourself time and space to deal with your feelings, and reach out for help if you need it.
5. Stay Positive
Keep your attitude upbeat. Even though you may miss your loved one, try to focus on all the positives in your life instead of dwelling on the negative. Plus, it’s important to keep yourself busy with other things so that you don’t have time to dwell on your loss.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you’re having a hard time coping with your grief, talk to someone about how you feel and what you need. You can also seek out support groups or counseling if you think this would benefit you.
6. Avoid Arguments
Avoid arguing over petty things. Instead, discuss big topics like money, kids, and future plans.
Focusing on the future is a way to shift perspective to a more positive framework. It’s easy to think about how things feel now. It may be necessary to discuss this briefly, but it can be a trap. It keeps you in a negative loop.
Instead, talk about the future. Revisit your dreams and desires.
As you focus on a better future, you help your brain change gears and it gives you both something healthy to look forward to.
Also Read: Is Marriage Supposed To Be This Hard?
7. Remember Why You Got Married
Remember why you got married in the first place. Think about why you fell in love with your spouse. Use that to motivate yourself to continue to build a strong relationship.
Resources for Families
These resources will help you navigate this difficult time.
Family Arrested: How to Survive the Incarceration of Loved Ones by Ann Edenfield (Check Amazon)
Forgive and Forget by Lewis Smeades (Check Amazon)
The Peacemaker by Ken Sande (Check Amazon)
Choosing Forgiveness: Your Journey to Freedom by Nancy Leigh DeMoss (Check Amazon)
It may seem like a long shot to think that your relationship will survive being apart due to incarceration. But if you learn to manage your emotions and find ways to keep yourself healthy, you could end up having a much better chance of maintaining a strong connection with your loved one.
- Can a marriage survive a spouse being in prison? What the Statistics Say.
- The Psychological Effects of Incarceration
- 5 Tips For Incarcerated Spouses
- 7 Tips To Help Spouses With Incarcerated Partners