It’s one of the most difficult decisions in life. As a psychotherapist who specializes in relationships and marriage counseling, I’ve worked with countless people who struggle with this aching question – “Do I leave this marriage, or should I try to make it work?” The daunting prospect of separation and divorce is confusing, scary, and deeply troubling to thousands of men and women.
The great American songwriter Paul Simon once said there’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” (…”Just get out the back Jack; make a new plan Stan…”). If it were only that easy for married people who contemplate separation and divorce. I’ve grouped together several major areas of struggle – questions, concerns, and conflicts – common to many people who want to know if they should stay or go.
o Conflicted and Confused – Almost everyone who’s contemplated separation or divorce can relate to one or more of these statements:
“I love him/her, but I’m not happy.”
“Maybe it’s supposed to be this way after so many years of marriage –maybe I should just accept it.”
“I made a commitment to this marriage – but should I stay when things are so bad?”
“I can’t leave – I can’t do that to our children. (But I can’t live this way anymore.)”
“I keep thinking he/she will change – am I just fooling myself?”
“My needs aren’t met in this marriage – is there any hope things will change?”
There are no simple answers to these questions. And they are very important concerns, deserving of thoughtful contemplation and discussion. Over time, with full awareness, deep personal honesty, and without judgment (mindfulness), the answers tend to become clear.
o Morality vs Freedom of Choice (and sanity) – Is the question of separation and divorce fundamentally a moral issue? Translation: Is there a basic question of right or wrong – good or bad? And who’s to say – your minister, priest or rabbi? And what about each individual’s right to choose? Ultimately, right or wrong can only be decided by each individual. And to what extent should we consider the needs, rights and feelings of others? I believe we should take our commitments very seriously – and we should do everything possible to care for and protect our most important relationships. But what if we know we’ve tried everything, and the situation is truly intolerable? When I was much younger, my therapist once told me that I need to be able to live with my own decisions. That was a wise and insightful statement by a valued guide and mentor. I often use his advice when I’m faced with difficult moral dilemmas.
o What About the Kids? – This is one of the most serious concerns for people who consider separation or divorce. When it comes to the welfare of our children, we know more than ever before about what is in their best interest. Separation and divorce is almost always emotionally difficult, if not damaging for kids. Many children have adjustment problems as a result of separation and divorce (school, emotional, and behavioral problems). Some of these problems can become quite serious and have life-long consequences, if they are not promptly addressed with care and concern. The good news is that children can and do recover when there is friendly and cooperative co-parenting after the divorce – and counseling or therapy for children and families is often very effective. Also, when the marital situation at home is highly contentious – fighting, verbal and/or physical abuse for example – separation and divorce may be the better choice to protect the children.
o “I’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling” – I’ve heard comments like the following from many people over the years:
* I’m no longer in love with him/her
* There’s no passion in our marriage
* I’m not attracted to her/him anymore
* I don’t know if I ever loved him/her
In therapy, when we unpack comments like this we find important reasons why people’s feelings change. The reasons generally include years of marital conflict, unmet needs, hurt feelings, anger, and distance (emotionally and physically). Couples therapy is often effective in helping couples to reconnect, work through conflicts, and rekindle loving feelings and passion.
o Is It Incompatibility – Or Rigidity? – Married couples often divorce due to incompatibility. However, I can think of only 3 marital problems I’d consider as indications of incompatibility:
1. Active addiction (and the addict is unwilling or unable to stop the addictive behavior)
2. Abusive behavior (emotional, verbal and/or physical)
3. Active affair(s) or sexual acting out
Other complaints of incompatibility include beliefs such as “We just don’t get along together”, “We have nothing in common”, “We argue all the time”, or “We’re not sexually compatible.” I’ve come to understand these are points of rigidity in a relationship rather than incompatibility. We tend to get dug into our respective positions and believe there is nothing to be done. When people put a little effort, caring – and risk – into changing behavior patterns, it’s amazing how compatible we become!
o Anger and Fear – A long history of anger, conflict, fighting, complaining and criticism can certainly undermine any marriage. However, separation and divorce may not be necessary. Anger can best be seen as a protest – due to unmet needs and hurt feelings. Once these feelings are discussed openly in a supportive environment (like a therapist’s office), they can easily be addressed in a caring and productive manner. Of course, anger that is unchecked and resistant to change can lead to a breakdown of the basic emotional connection necessary to a healthy relationship.
On the other hand, the fear of separation and divorce is not a good reason to stay married. If it becomes clear that the marriage is destructive and that things cannot change for the better, the best answer is to face those fears and to find personal empowerment to create a better life (often with the help of a supportive and understanding therapist).
o Can I Make it Work – Or Is It Too Late? – This is actually one of the most difficult questions to answer. And the answer is highly individualized and different for each person and each relationship. I’ve found that each one of us, individually, can often change our relationships. When we can “be the relationship we want” – that is, when we are loving, understanding, available, considerate, and supportive, we create amazing results! At other times, we need the full cooperation of our partners. I’d like to say that it’s never too late, but I’ve seen too many marriages with too much damage over too many years. But even then, people will sometimes surprise me, and they will find a new path toward reconciliation and a new love between them can grow.
I hope this sheds some light on a difficult and complicated topic. Please know that you’re not alone in this. Many others have faced these terribly upsetting experiences – and talking to an experienced counselor or therapist can help a great deal. Please don’t hesitate to contact us today if you have any questions, or if you want to set up a time to meet with one of us.