This guest article from YourTango was written by Dr. Bruce Derman.
Should I stay or should I go?
If your marriage is on the line and you’re considering divorcing your spouse, you may have had some of the following thoughts:
I feel like I need to end this so-called marriage. Yet, how can I be sure? / Some days I feel more confident of my decision than others / A part of me still loves and/or cares for him. / I don’t think I am in love with him but what if I make a mistake? / Many people will be affected by my decision. / Maybe I’m being too hasty. / If only he would just change his behavior …
Or, maybe your spouse wants a divorce. In that case, you’ve probably had some of the following thoughts:
Divorce? Where did that come from? Two weeks ago, we were talking about going on a vacation! / I had no idea our marriage was this awful./ I am shocked and devastated./ I have to find a way to stop this. / Maybe this is all a dream and when I wake up things will be back to normal.
Many books and articles assume that once a couple says they want a divorce, they are truly ready for it. However, that’s often not the case. In fact, usually, when couples begin the divorce process, either one or both partners are not really ready at all.
Divorce professionals including therapists, mediators, and attorneys often take statements like, “I’ve had it with him,” or “My feelings for her have died,” as indications that the marriage is already over. Attorneys mistakenly equate being hired with an indication that the couple is ready to divorce. But most couples who begin divorce proceedings are unprepared, causing marriages to end prematurely and divorces to deteriorate into competitive contests.
Underlying these hasty decisions is the assumption that the sooner you get out of a stressful situation, the better. There is a natural tendency for people in difficult marriages to get the divorce over with as quickly as possible in order to move on with their lives. Family and friends often encourage this as well, subscribing to the myth that the quicker the divorce is over, the sooner everything will return to normal. Unfortunately, in most cases, just the opposite occurs.
Couples who rush to leave their marriages have not had enough time to evaluate their feelings, thoughts, or options. As a result, they are unprepared for the roller coaster of emotions, the complicated legal system, and the many life-changing decisions that they will need to make. Quite often, they make agreements which they cannot sustain and, instead of the situation improving,it stays the same or gets worse. They often get tangled up in lengthy court cases and the very thing they hoped for — a quick divorce — takes years.
A dilemma implies that being torn between two choices, each of which has some undesirable elements. This article outlines what couples need to do to face the numerous dilemmas associated with divorce. But first, they must identify their unique dilemma. Couples facing the possibility of a divorce face one of these three dilemmas:
- I want the divorce but I am not sure if it is the right decision. Since going through a divorce impacts the lives of your children as well as your lifestyle, economics, and marital investment, the pressure to make the “perfectly correct” decision is enormous. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees. The best case scenario is to make a decision that is not emotionally based or driven by your ego.
- I do not want the divorce but my spouse does. Being in this reactive place will leave you feeling out of control and helpless. You will experience intense emotional devastation as your life will be changing before your eyes without you having any say in the outcome. In addressing this dilemma, you need to ask yourself if you are clinging to familiar, safe ground and to a marriage based on illusions. It is not easy to acknowledge and confront the problems in a marriage, especially when you are feeling so hurt by your partner.
- I only want this divorce because my marriage is not working. If this is your dilemma, then you will want to avoid responsibility at all costs by blaming your partner for the demise of the marriage. There will be tremendous preoccupation and anger about how your partner caused you to make this decision. The amount of noise generated from this blaming will be in direct proportion to your unwillingness to risk expressing any of your own fears and sadness. If this doesn’t occur, the divorce proceedings to follow will be riddled with tension and conflict as well as a continuation of the blaming.
The common element in all three dilemmas is fear. Victims of the first dilemma fear making a mistake. Victims of the second dilemma fear their own attachment to the familiar. The third group of victims fear accountability and softness. All three result in divorces that are combative and drag on and on, sometimes for years on end.
The 7 Questions to Ask If You’re Ready for a Divorce
For divorce to be a collaborative and respectful process, the couple must be prepared to separate their lives on all levels — legally, practically, and emotionally. To do this, each person must face their own divorce dilemma by answering the following 7 questions:
- Were you ever really married? Many people who say they want a divorce still have strong feelings for their partner, but due to an ongoing power struggle in the relationship, there is a lack of intimacy. If this is you, it is best to work on your relationship before deciding to divorce, otherwise your feelings of loss will overwhelm you and you may be worse off after the divorce than you are now.To really be married, a couple must have created a relationship that included an “us.” Many people who are considering divorce never had a marriage that was anything more than two individuals meeting their own needs. They may have raised children and shared a home, but they participated in those activities from a competitive rather than a unified position. If you have not developed a genuine “we” in your relationship, this would be the time to either commit to learning how to do that, or to admit that you have never really had a marriage in the first place.
Personally, I had a very difficult time admitting that my own marriage of fourteen years was in name only, despite years of matrimony. Every few months we would threaten to break up, fighting was a daily ritual, and agreements rarely lasted more than a week. Despite numerous counseling offices we attended, the pattern remained. I had to acknowledge the truth before any real change could occur.
- Are you truly ready for divorce or are you just threatening? Divorce is often threatened, especially in heated marital arguments. People who consistently threaten divorce lose credibility. If the person is not merely threatening, but is genuinely ready for a divorce, they can sustain the following thought in their own mind, “I wish to close a chapter of my life because I am at peace with the fact that there is no more that I can do or give to this relationship.” They will discuss this appropriately with their spouse without any blame.
- Is this a sincere decision based on self awareness or is it an emotionally reactive decision? To be ready to divorce your partner means being able to make a clear, unemotional decision that you can support over time. Divorce means being able to let go of all strong emotional attachments to the other person, the loving ones as well as the hostile and hurtful ones. Emotionally charged decisions do not last, and if acted on, do not resolve the underlying problem. People who divorce out of anger often stay angry even after the divorce is over.
- What is your reason for wanting a divorce? Any agenda other than ending the marriage is an indication that you are not ready to divorce. If you are hoping that through the divorce, the other person will change and start treating you better, or realize how much they have lost, or pay for how much they have hurt you, you are getting a divorce for the wrong reason. Divorce has no power to right wrongs nor change people’s hearts and minds. Divorce can only do one thing: end a marriage. Divorce frees each person to make new attachments to new people.
- Have you resolved your internal conflict over the divorce? Everyone who goes through a divorce is conflicted. People can feel guilty at the same time as they are sure that they want to end the relationship. Or, they can feel betrayed and at the same time recognize that their life will be better once they are out of the relationship. Recognizing the conflict and owning that different parts of you will be struggling with the impact of divorce, at different times, is part of the process of getting ready for divorce.
- Can you handle the unpleasant consequences of divorce? Divorce brings grief because it marks the loss of the “happy family” dream. Hurt, disappointments, loneliness, failure, rejection, and inadequacy can all take hold of the psyche when we are in this extremely vulnerable passage. To be ready for the ups and downs of divorce, it is necessary to have a support system of family and friends who will be there to help you emotionally and practically when needed.One of the hardest consequences of divorce is needing to face the pain of your family and friends. The reality is that divorce affects so many people’s lives. If you are the one choosing the divorce, you will have to hold on to your decision and the end of your marriage in the face of all these people and circumstances. If you are the one who does not want the divorce, but your spouse wants to proceed, you will still need to get ready to accept the consequences of a failed marriage.
Here are some rules of thumb: If you don’t want changes to your finances, lifestyle, or traditions, then you are not ready for divorce; if you cannot accept your children’s sadness and anger, then you are not ready for divorce; if you cannot accept times of insecurity, fear, and the unknown, then you are not ready for divorce; if you are not willing to let go of your spouse mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, then you are not ready for divorce.
- Are you willing to take control of your life in a responsible and mature way? Whether you are the one who wants the divorce, or the one who is having to respond to your spouse wanting the divorce, both situations have one thing in common: the marriage is ending. How people respond to this fact determines the type of divorce and future they will have. They can come from a position of bitterness, revenge, or helplessness, or they can negotiate for their future from a position of strength, understanding, and respect. The attitude you choose will determine the type of divorce you have.
People who prepare themselves by first addressing all eight of these questions are more likely to have a collaborative divorce. By starting the process in this way, they are able to make lasting agreements with each other, resolve their difficulties, and develop parenting plans that both support the children and respects each other’s rights.
Bruce Derman Ph.D. and Wendy Gregson LMFT have extensive experience in helping couples obtain a Better Divorce through preparation, collaboration, and effective negotiation.
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