As the New Year approaches, you may hope to make a Beginning-of-the-Year Resolution: to stay in, or to leave, your relationship. This Decision is like wrestling with an alligator. The Decision can wrestle you to the ground as you try to grab hold of it. Just the process of deciding can leave you panting and exhausted on the ground. And, the Decision has sharp teeth (consequences) too. That can be scary. While books have been written about this Deciding process, I’m offering a 1-2-3 framework to help guide you in your Deciding process.
Here are 3 questions to ask yourself before deciding to leave your marriage:
1. Do you know yourself? Know your partner? Do you really want to leave?
I get it that you may feel exhausted with the power struggles, the criticisms, the disagreements, or even screams, about every little thing. That you feel lonely in bed at night, with no reach out, no snuggle, no warmth, and thus no intimacy, let alone sex. These are good reasons to feel sad, disappointed, lonely, anguished… but not good enough reasons to separate or divorce. The above issues are all fixable if you both are willing to work at it. SO…
Ask yourself: Am I reacting to my partner? Do I notice the sunlight catching a wave in his/her hair? Remember that small smile? Do I still appreciate his/her sense of humor or practical groundedness? Does my heart still skip a wee beat at the sound of his/her voice or steps at the front door? Or no, that’s all gone (or never was there). Be honest: do you answer Yes to any of these questions?
2. Have you had a true partnership? Were you a “we,” an “us,” or just two individuals co-habiting?
Did you have a secure, functioning relationship, but fell off that wagon into distrust? Did you make agreements and keep your word? Secure attachment in a couple’s relationship is the hallmark of what we PACT (Psychobiologic Approach to Couples Therapy (1)) therapists consider our most important goal. Having a true partnership, a “couple bubble,” is being able to awaken your partner at 3 a.m. to be comforted after a nightmare. You have each other’s backs. Your relationship highlights sensitivity, mutuality, and safety (above all else).
Are you saying that description is unfamiliar? That you protect and take care of only yourself, with little trust that the other will take care of you? You’ve likely been more critical, judgmental toward the other, more negative than positive. You’ve been protecting Self and attacking the Other, basically in defensive mode. John Gottman’s (2) research outlines four toxic behaviors that flag a sinking relationship: criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and worst of all, contempt. Bottom line: How “partnered up” do you feel?
3. Have you tried everything?
Have you worked for several months – not two or three sessions – with an experienced couples therapist to find out why you are in defensive mode, how you got to the place of Protect Me First/Attack the Other, and what is your part in that co-created space? No blame, no shame. But do you own your part in the relationship troubles?
So, if you’ve honestly answered these questions, then you can genuinely say your reason for wanting to separate or divorce is for the only one real reason – that is, to end the relationship. The decision to end is not a threat, a strategy to get him/her to change, a punishment (e.g. for that affair, for being mean…), to prove you are right about…whatever, to draw attention to your pain, or to react to this or that issue. Deciding to end is not said in the heat of an argument or because you are exhausted and don’t know what else to do.
OK. You are calm and rational. You’re ready to decide. You can now consider how to approach your partner: Do you wish to discuss a) taking a temporary break, b) separating, or c) divorcing. Because each is a more escalated, final step.
(1) Tatkin, Stan, PsyD. Wired for Love (2010)
(2) Gottman, John M, PhlDl The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (2nd Ed. 2015)
Dr. Joy Dryer, Ph.D. is a psychologist/psychoanalyst, divorce mediator, and divorce coach in New York City and Poughkeepsie, NY.