None of us gets married thinking that five, ten, even twenty years down the line we'd be so frustrated or miserable that we'd be considering divorce. Most of us step into marriage with hope and enthusiasm, determined to have ours be a marriage that lasts.
But marriage is difficult in ways few of us are prepared for. And rarely do we have all the tools we need for success. Nor do we have a guidebook or a road map to make the journey easier.
Some couples manage to navigate the rough patches. Other couples get stuck and are unable to move forward. For some, their struggles constitute deal-breakers.
Clients often ask me, "How can I be sure?" hoping for a checklist or a set of clear guidelines that will help them decide whether or not to divorce. Many have asked me to tell them outright whether I think there's hope for their marriage or if it's time to get out.
My answer is this: Divorce is a personal decision and only you can know what's right for you.
Unless you are in physical danger and need to immediately leave your relationship in order to keep yourself safe, I suggest you press the pause button and consider the following questions:
1. Do I want a divorce or do I want a better marriage with the person I've picked?
There's a big difference between an unhappy marriage and an un-salvageable one. Couples often tell me they're contemplating divorce when what they're facing are ordinary -- though difficult -- relationship challenges that they have been unable to resolve. Divorce is a radical step to take when what you're seeking is change.
2. Have I sought good quality help? And have I given it my all?
Not all couples therapy is created equal. If you're seeing a couples therapist and you're not making progress, it's not necessarily a sign that it's time to divorce. If you think that your marriage is worth fighting for and therapy isn't helping, find another therapist to work with before calling it quits.
And never, ever, let a therapist tell you that your marriage is beyond help.
Remember, however, that even the most skilled marital therapist cannot step in and miraculously "fix" your marriage. Nor will he or she fix what you think is wrong with your spouse. Growth and change require effort and commitment on your part. I firmly believe that if two people want to work through their difficulties they can, but only if they're willing to put in the necessary effort.
3. Have we been under such severe stress that the relationship has been strained to the breaking point?
Every relationship will have its share of stressors. Sometimes those stressors are so overwhelming that everything else is completely overshadowed by them. When faced with stressors such as financial ruin, unemployment, and miscarriage and infertility, the rates of divorce increase dramatically.
Relationships are a lot like houses. When exposed to a small earthquake, the structure can weather the shaking with little or no damage. But in a 9.0 earthquake, even the best engineered structure will crack.
In a highly stressed system, there's little reserve and therefore little resilience. Even small difficulties can feel insurmountable.
Before choosing divorce, consider getting help with both the practical and emotional issues you're facing. Big problems are often too big to handle alone, particularly when grief and loss are involved.
4. Have I seriously looked at my role in our difficulties?
No one is perfect. No matter what the issues are, no matter how difficult a partner we've picked, we all contribute, in some way, to the problems we have. Perhaps we're provocative, or dismissive, or we don't keep our word. Perhaps we've been unwilling to speak up, or be honest, or tackle our marital difficulties head on. Maybe we're too quick to flare or to blame.
Taking responsibility for your part isn't the same thing as being fully at fault. No matter what's happened, you're not responsible for your partner's behaviors and responses. You are, however, responsible for yours.
Accurately assessing your contribution will help you identify behavior changes that might improve your marriage enough that you'll decide to stay put and work on them.
5. Was this whole thing a giant mistake or have we just run into trouble too challenging for our skill set?
Now and again I meet couples whose relationship wasn't good from the start. Some were arranged marriages and others were entered into so hastily that the partners barely knew what they were getting themselves into.
If this is your situation and you think you want to divorce, take note of what did and didn't work in your marriage and use what you've learned to help inform your future choices.
If your relationship started out on solid ground and you're now in trouble, it may be more a matter of poor relationship skills than poor partner choice.
6. If sex is in the forefront of my thoughts about divorce, have I been courageous in my attempts to deal with our sexual difficulties? Have I spoken up? Have I taken risks? Have I been willing to seek help?
Whether the problems are about the lack of sex or difficulties with the sex that you're having, many sexual problems can be remedied with the right kind of help.
No couple is so sexually "compatible" that they have all the same inclinations and interests, the same ideal frequency and a desire to say yes at the exact same time. And no couple has sex that's as seamless as it looks in the movies.
People too readily think that they're sexually incompatible, that it's hopeless, when the problem is more likely one of poor communication and a need for more resilience, flexibility and a capacity to be generous.
Try talking about what's good and what's problematic, what you like and what you wish for, even though the conversation may be uncomfortable. Be open to your partner's feedback and consider ways you might do something new. Offer suggestions and solutions instead of complaints.
Before leaving your marriage due to sexual difficulties, why not reach out for help?
7. Are my standards for marriage (and my spouse) impossibly high?
I'm not suggesting people "settle" for scraps or bad treatment but I do suggest questioning the expectation of having both shooting stars and stability, having a high-powered, driven, high wage earner who loves to vacuum, can fix the screen door and whip up a five course meal while holding the baby.
8. Is there someone else?
When dealing with an affair or flirtation, an online romance, or a serious "outside" relationship, it can be quite challenging to figure out how to proceed.
You might ask yourself if the affair is a way of sidestepping unresolved issues in your marriage. Not all affairs are about serious marital trouble, but many are.
Trying to compare courtship to marriage is like comparing apples to oranges (better yet, passion fruit to oranges). Marriage, with its repetitive struggles and its everyday tedium, can look tired and tarnished when held up against the sparkle and magic of a brand new relationship.
Note that 75 percent of affair relationships don't last. So before tossing your marriage aside, you might consider putting some fresh energy into your marriage and see where that goes.
9. Do I still love my spouse?
Love doesn't heal all but sometimes love is hard to find under the sludge pile of anger and resentment, overwork, parenting and everyday stresses and struggles.
If there's even a spark or ember left, it's worth asking yourself, "can I re-ignite it?"
Looking for more help? Download my free article 75 Ways To Improve Your Relationship Starting Today plus bonus material on dealing with conflict, at Speaking of Marriage.com.
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