How to reach clarity on an issue of life-changing importance: deciding whether to seek divorce.
I wear several hats in my professional life. One is that of "couples mediator," where I facilitate conflict and coach couples to clear away the blocks to affinity with each other. Another is that of attorney-mediator. Sometimes I end up switching hats from helping a couple forge an extraordinary partnership, to helping them disentangle as collaboratively as possible, simply because it becomes clear that dissolution, despite its pain and hardship, is a crucial step for one or both partners.
If you are in a marriage that is struggling, how are you to know whether you should try (or keep trying) to transform the marriage, versus pursuing divorce?
Relationships are not subject to any simple, formulaic analysis. For example, as long as basic affinity is present, there’s no such thing as compatibility or incompatibility; rather, I tend to celebrate differences between myself and my partner when I feel good about my relationship, and I tend to castigate differences as “incompatibility” when I feel bad about my relationship.
Your marriage is experiencing severe challenges, but you are torn—how can you determine whether there is any path forward together?
Check off the following as you explore whether your future should include your marriage.
Are there changes you should make on your own?
You may be feeling powerless and despondent, but transformation of a relationship can occur based on the efforts of just one of the partners. Chances are there are powerful actions you can take that can result in a quantum leap forward for the union.
As an example, one spouse can change the entire tenor of interactions by adopting a “relational” mentality toward communication. This means that the relationship itself (and how the individuals feel about relating to each other) is at all times elevated above the content (what is being discussed) of any conversation.
Another example of something one partner can do to transform the marriage is engaging in individual therapy or coaching. You or your partner may have a clinical issue that needs treatment. Being accountable for your own issues and resolving personal pathology might resolve major relationship issues, and even if not, you’ll grow as an individual.
Are there lessons within this marriage that would otherwise be learned in a future relationship?
It’s common for people to judge that “the other person” is the problem. They then become convinced that leaving the relationship will mean the problems go away. Most people find, however, that their next relationship is haunted by the same dynamics and patterns.
For example, perhaps your spouse abuses substances, and this seems like an insurmountable problem over which you have little control or responsibility. But looking closer, you may find that you are the Enabler. Leave this marriage and you are likely to play out Enabler in a future relationship. The good news is that you might have an opportunity to completely transform your marriage by stepping up, stopping the enabling behavior, and taking care of your partner in a way you never have before, for example, by staging an intervention or challenging him or her to seek rehabilitation.
The high emotional, energetic, and financial costs of divorce make it worth seriously exploring whether you (and your partner) can evolve within your marriage, instead of in its ruins.
Have you clarified a joint vision for your marriage?
Couples usually have an easy and natural affinity together, but never set forth a clear intention for the union. Wedding vows are barely considered at all, or the promises made are quickly lost in a hazy past obscured by the present-tense of children, careers, and life-building.
Sometimes a marriage can be transformed through the setting forth of clear commitments that each partner takes on, where the partners make clear promises to each other about who, and what, each person will be in the marriage. As a relationship mediator, I help couple couples create and set forth clear commitments in a written Relationship Agreement that can be reviewed and modified over time. Such a document can include a statement of values, and perhaps a mission for the marriage itself.
Couples who get clarity about the commitments in their marriage have a much better chance of enjoying a long and healthy partnership.
A couple that creates a joint vision may still choose to end the marriage at some point. In fact, the joint vision may be to part ways. But clarity is never negative.
Have you consulted a couples mediator or coach?
A trusted third party can provide the tools and expert insights concerning your issues and help you forge an exceptional marriage.
Couples counseling has a dismal track record helping couples forge better relationships and avoid divorce. Therapists aren't generally prepared to deal with two people together in one room, as this article discusses. In contrast, mediators are well-equipped to work with couples using clear, efficient processes designed to facilitate resolution of conflict between parties, coupled with coaching techniques. A couples mediator or coach can help you understand the particular design of your relationship, such as how your personality types tend to interact, and can suggest interventions to reduce negative dynamics.
A Relationship Agreement is a declaration of intentions used to handle problem areas and get them “off the table,” so that the toxic issues don’t poison every interaction and affinity can flourish again. In addition, sometimes couples can agree to a “post-nuptial” contract, setting forth commitments between the partners that may have extreme consequences, financial or otherwise.
Will your children be harmed more by the marriage or the divorce?
Kids are harmed both by divorce and by constant conflict at home. If you are considering divorce and have children, it is important to exhaust all possibilities before making the decision to split. Modeling to your kids how to heal differences and rekindle affinity is one of the greatest gifts you can give.
Are you or your spouse already past the point of no return?
If either partner is truly done with the marriage, it may be impossible to get the door back open to the marriage as it exists.
After reviewing and/or trying the ideas presented in this article, perhaps your response is simply exhaustion. You feel depleted and beyond rejuvenation, and can’t imagine working further to build a path forward with your spouse. Despite the fact that most separations end in divorce, all you can entertain is a vacation from the relationship. Unless your exhaustion is based on other circumstances in your life not directly tied to your marriage, you are probably past the point of no return.
If your spouse is past this point and you aren’t, there may be no other move but to empower the decision to end. A surprising number of couples re-marry after a divorce. Whether divorce actually occurs or not, the marriage as it currently exists must be let go, perhaps leaving a possibility that the individuals can discover a new marriage together, perhaps through ritual renewal or structuring a Relationship Agreement with entirely new terms.
Have you listened hard for your intuitive wisdom?
No one can tell you that you should continue working to transform your marriage or not. Not your mother. Not your relationship mediator or therapist. Not your spouse. This decision is up to you.
But consider how it feels to believe that you are part of a living Universe and a higher consciousness with far grander perspectives than your perspective on your life right now. Maybe it’s time to explore the ways in which you might tap into this higher wisdom, through prayer, meditation, astrology, muscle testing, or anything that can provide signals that may have a chance of resonating with the truth already known deep inside you. Trust in the deep knowing already present in your body. Your normal waking consciousness may not able to piece out this decision with rational analysis alone.
You either have a sacred contract with your spouse for the rest of your life, or you don’t. With enough reflection, and after exploring the issues in this article, you will know the answer.
John Hoelle is a family attorney and couples mediator. Learn more here.