The hardest question you may ever be faced with is “Should I stay or should I go?” With up to 45% of American marriages ending in divorce, this question has undoubtedly been the focus of millions of coaching and therapy sessions as unhappy individuals weigh the pros and cons.
Is Your Marriage Over?
While it is the most difficult decision one may face, what becomes even more toxic is the time spent in limbo. At a certain point, there are diminishing returns on the time and energy it takes to decide whether you are packing your bags or planning for retirement together.
At its root, indecisiveness is based on fear and when it comes to divorce, that fear is certainly for good reason. It’s between the devil you know and the devil you don’t know where that metaphorical devil reigns supreme and before you know it, years of your life have gone by.
There were countless times I found myself wishing I had a crystal ball, and while I never did get one, I have acquired some tools along the way to help clients find clarity around this very dilemma. The answers to the questions below may help you excavate what you already know or what is just below the veil of consciousness.
Do I see myself growing old with my spouse?
If you close your eyes and imagine your future self, the first vision that pops into your mind may be quite revealing. If the companionship that your spouse provides is consistent, enjoyable and healthy, then it would be difficult to imagine your life without it. If, however, this person drains your energy and the dynamic between the two of you is unhealthy and fraught with conflict, it is more than likely that he/she is not by your side in your vision.
In fact, their absence in your fantasies may be a welcome reprieve from reality. This question very much comes down to the connection and friendship you share. When the spark is gone after years of being together, is this the person you want by your side in your old age?
Are your goals and values aligned?
When inner values and/or goals are not aligned with your outer world, you will feel unsettled, unhappy, anxious, and possibly even depressed. For example, you may value partnership and equal roles while your spouse prefers a traditional split of responsibilities. Even if you did your due diligence prior to getting married and hashed this out before the vows, as life unfolds fundamental differences in values or what you want out of life may surface.
An incongruence between values may spell trouble for your marriage. If you have attempted to work through this in therapy but to no avail, you may have to ask yourself whether the marriage is worth it if it means living a life inauthentic to who you really are.
Can I really rely on them?
When it comes to being logistically, physically and emotionally available, there should be no question that your partner will be there for you. If you have any doubt it is likely that they have let you down in the past or only shown up begrudgingly. Whether it is waking to a sick child in the night or helping ailing parents, your relationship should be a source of unwavering support. It can feel isolating to be unpartnered during these moments, but it can be even more lonely when you have a partner that is unwilling to be the person you need.
Is your husband or wife the first person you turn to with happy and exciting news, but also the first person you turn to with sad and scary news? If the answer is no, this is an indication that on some level you do not rely on them which could shine some light on whether your marriage is over.
Is there at least a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative feelings/outcomes in our partnership?
In the 1970s Dr. John Gottmann studied hundreds of couples and was able to discern within 90% accuracy which ones would ultimately split. His formula boiled down to a “magic ratio” of five positive interactions for every one negative interaction between couples. Negative interactions include criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling all of which are destructive; however, repair is possible when these are balanced by more positive interactions.
Basically, too many negative interactions build up toxicity in your environment which prevents thriving and nobody wants, or deserves, to live like that. Is the overall vibe between the two of you harsh, competitive, and unhealthy or is it supportive, loving, and warm?
After communicating my concerns, did he/she really listen and make an effort to work on the relationship from his/her end?
Problems in relationships arise when there is a gap between expectations and reality. Has your spouse not only heard but actually listened to your concerns and demonstrated behavior to meet you in the middle? Have you likewise extended the same consideration for their needs?
While hashing out the problem is a great first step, it is important to take note of any action or lack thereof. If there has ever been a case of actions speaking louder than words, this will be it. Your spouse or partner may pay all the lip service in the world, but lackadaisical energy in your general direction indicates a lack of respect and disregard for your needs, especially if you have communicated them. Whether they are unwilling or unable to, at a certain point, you have to ask yourself whether you can accept a life with the partnership you have or whether your marriage is over.
When I think of being around my partner do I feel dread, or alternatively, when I know they will be gone, do I feel relieved?
This one may possibly be the most telling of all because it brings everything back to basics: how do you feel when you are around this person? Does the idea of being with them fill you with excitement, apathy or, God forbid, dread? We only have so much time on this planet and if being around your spouse is draining and stressful, you have to wonder what it is costing you. Situations such as these can cause individuals to lose themselves and turn into someone they do not even recognize.
There are too many people that stay in situations where they cannot be themselves and are on constant eggshells, none of which promote good physical or mental health. Do you count down the hours until you see your spouse after they have been on a work trip, or does the idea of them returning feel like a gut punch to the stomach? If it is the latter, it is likely that the two of you are bringing out the worst in each other and your marriage may be over.
None of this advice is meant to advocate for a divorce. As a divorce coach I believe in healthy relationships for you and your children whether that means staying married or peacefully parting ways. At the end of the day, coaching is about helping you tap into what you already know, and make intentional, values-based decisions.
An unhappy marriage is sad, but what is more tragic is the state of purgatory you put yourself in when you can’t decide whether to give your marriage another try or to leave it. If the three A’s are present in your marriage: adultery, abuse, or addiction, these questions will look a lot different and you must contact a mental health professional to help you safely navigate your situation. But if you are grappling with the garden variety, “Should I stay or should I go,” these will hopefully help you sort out conflicting feelings about whether or not to leave your marriage.
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