It may be the most excruciating question you’ve ever had to ask yourself.
“Should I get divorced?”
If this is where you’re at, you have likely been through a lot already. For most people, divorce is not an option considered lightly. You may have said, “till death do us part.”
You may have planned to make it work through thick and thin. You may have hoped for the best and believed you could achieve it. Coming to terms with the possibility that it may not happen is an enormous undertaking.
The trouble you’ve experienced to date in your marriage may come in a variety of flavors. Are you a newlywed and discovering that your spouse is not who you thought they were? Or perhaps you’ve been married for decades and feel you’ve grown apart? Has there been too much marital conflict? Or maybe there’s no relationship at all anymore – beyond the practicals of day-to-day life, you hardly say a word to each other. What if there has been abuse – physical, emotional, or sexual? What if your spouse has an addiction problem or a mental illness?
Do any of these amount to a “good” reason to divorce?
There is no universal answer to this question. However, research and experience have a lot to tell us that may help with the decision-making process. Ultimately, your situation is unique and you will have to make the best decision for yourself and your family.
Here are a few important points to consider as you struggle with the question. Note that none of this is intended to either convince you to stick with a bad marriage or to leave a salvageable one; rather, the goal here is to enable to you make a well thought-out decision.
Can your marriage improve?
If you are considering divorce, you may feel hopeless about your marriage ever changing for the better. That is a completely understandable feeling; distress invites us to expect more distress. However, it is important to be aware that empirically speaking, the odds are actually quite favorable. Studies have shown that the majority of couples who report being in unhappy marriages report five years later being happily married. In other words, even if you’re miserable right now, there is good reason to hold out hope for better times.
It is also important to think about what you have done and what you can do to change things. Many people who feel stuck in their marriages feel like they’re “tried everything” when in fact there are many options they have not. (This is not meant to make you feel guilty for the state of your marriage; rather, the point is that there may be things you can still do that will have a positive impact.) There are books and websites, there are groups and retreats, and, perhaps most importantly, there is marriage counseling.
Marriage counseling is important to consider well, because even with the best of intentions, you and your spouse may simply not have the skills needed to make change in your relationship. Regrettably, relationship skills are not something most people are ever formally taught, despite being far more important to our well-being than, say, trigonometry. A good therapist can help you develop the skills most needed in your relationship.
(If you have already been to counseling and it didn’t help, I urge you to try it again – there are many reasons this is worthwhile, one of which is simply that therapists are human, and it’s likely that if the one you saw was not a good fit for you, someone else will be.)
Divorce may not solve the problem.
Divorce is rarely a panacea for one’s problems. If you are unhappy with your spouse and your marriage, the thought of getting away from both may seem very appealing and relieving. But it is worth considering whether what is actually bothering you will be solved by divorce.
Especially if you have children together, the fact is that you will never be completely out of each other’s lives. Even if your children are adults already, there will be weddings, births, and other life cycle events where you will both be in attendance. (Or, one of you will skip the event to avoid the other, which is another unpleasant possibility.)
If you’re trying to get away from angry arguments and frequent conflict, splitting up may not achieve that. Co-parenting means working together on some level to properly care for the children; this is no easy feat for people who get along well, let alone for people who can’t manage to be civil with each other.
Alternatively, perhaps you and your spouse don’t fight much at all – or communicate about anything. If you’re feeling lonely and disconnected, starting over might seem like an attractive option. Here too it’s important to avoid running towards a fantasy that may not be realized. Dating after divorce is hard.
Ask anyone who’s tried it. It’s harder to meet people as an adult than it was in your teenage or college years, and the dating pool is smaller. Dating after divorce with children is harder still – finding prospective mates is a challenge, no less than finding the time to devote to dating. The truth is that loneliness and disconnection are common among divorced people as well.
(Again, none of this is an attempt to dissuade you from divorce if that is the right thing for you; it is rather an attempt to give a fuller picture of what the other side looks like – a picture that sometimes is glossed over in one’s unhappiness over current circumstances – in order for you to make the best decision possible.)
There are probably no easy ways out.
Whether you want to stay married or split up, the road ahead is going to be challenging. Trying to save a dying marriage is far from impossible, but it will take a good deal of blood, sweat, and tears to make it happen. You are probably aware at this point that there is no magic wand that is going to transform your relationship overnight. There may be weeks, months, or years of effort needed, including difficult conversations, therapy, setbacks, and other realities we all hope we never have to face.
At the same time, leaving your spouse is no picnic either, as mentioned above. There is an entirely different set of challenges here no less formidable than what you have to face if you try to work it out. (As one client put it, “You think marriage is hard? Try being divorced.”) It behooves you to think long and hard about the various ways your life may be affected by a divorce, including:
- Less income
- Impact on the children
- Navigating a co-parenting relationship with your ex
- Loneliness and isolation
- Disapproval from family, friends, or community
The long and the short of it is, there’s no easy answer. Therefore, it is wise to spend a good deal of time thinking through the ramifications of whatever decision you make. Discussing your options with a therapist is also a good idea to get clarity on your situation. (However, be forewarned that going to a therapist on your own tends to create a bias towards leaving – an individual therapist will hear only your side of the story, which is inevitably slanted in your favor. Consider seeking discernment counseling to help you make this decision in a more objective way.)
Whether you ultimately work to save your marriage or decide to divorce, there are challenges ahead. But the tough times will be temporary. Both people who work at their unhappy marriages and people who divorce can ultimately find happiness again. I encourage you to make the best choice you can in order to get there.
Raffi Bilek, LCSW-C, is a couples counselor and director of the Baltimore Therapy Center. He works with couples in distress every day to help them make the choices that work for them and achieve their goals. www.baltimoretherapycenter.com