If you are considering divorce, this means, of course, that your marriage isn’t working.
And that raises all sorts of questions about you and your marriage that are emotionally difficult — you may be filled with self-doubt, shame, guilt, anger, or fear. This can make it very hard to be fair to yourself, your spouse, your marriage, your loved ones, and your future.
Let’s think this through.
An assessment of your marriage — its history, current reality and future possibilities — is usually not a rational calculation of pros and cons. It emerges from feelings like “I feel trapped,” “I just can’t take it anymore,” “I feel like I am dying emotionally.” Or you feel it through your children — “this marriage is not good for them” — which means that it is not good for you.
Beyond feelings of disappointment and hurt, you may notice that you are shutting down emotionally, or that you have been emotionally shut down for a long time.
These emotional realities need to be honored. Try doing something based on your feelings before the emotional shutdown process locks in. Shutdowns are very hard to reverse.
First, try to determine whether change is possible within your marriage. Is there flexibility in the marriage patterns? Is there still enough emotional openness and caring to try to change?
You have options. Most options involve doing something new. What are the obstacles?
Fear is a big obstacle. Change usually happens when people decide to no longer act solely on basis of their fears. What are your fears? Try imagining acting without fear.
The possibility of conflict is another obstacle. Confronting the marital problem can result in hurt feelings, panic, and arguments. This is the “sound of change.” The key is to keep the change going, to stick with it. Be firm rather than “reactive.” Firmness will communicate that you are serious. “Reactivity” (responding to anger with anger, giving in, etc.) will keep you stuck.
Uncertainty can be a big obstacle. Change always involves leaving behind the certainty of the rut, the predictability of stalemate, the safety of the familiar. Be ready to face the uncertainty of not knowing whether your marriage will survive. Real change usually won’t happen until both partners experience the stark reality of being uncertain about whether the marriage will survive.
Being caught in a repetitive “script” is a serious obstacle. Marriages usually succumb to patterns and emotional issues that overwhelm them and reduce them to repetitive interactions that go nowhere. Try to identify these patterns and issues — your spouse’s and your own — and to confront them. They are usually rooted in your lives prior to marriage. Counseling can be very helpful in this regard.
Being “stuck” in complementary roles is another obstacle. Most marital problems involve people being stuck in roles in which personal growth has been curtailed and in which they function as only half of a full person: “I am the parent, he is the child;” “I am creative, she is boring;” “I do the bills, he spends money foolishly,” etc.
Try being more separate and complete — reclaim for yourself the “other half” which has been your spouse’s role. Separation is the best chance to become a full person; the “irresponsible spouse” has to become more responsible, the “soft spouse” will have to become “hard,” etc. Personal growth can begin again. “Separation” can involve going back to school, reviving friendships, or getting a new job. For some, separation may involve returning home to parents or trying out a “fantasy relationship.” Because these steps can highlight the difficulties that undermined the marriage in the first place, such separations provide an opportunity for the original problem to be worked through and for each partner to become more realistic about the marriage.
Not being able to express your loving feelings is an obstacle. Try taking the initiative in expressing love, but do it on your own terms. Notice how “being loving” has become defined in certain ways (“if you loved me, you would…”) and caught up in the repetitive patterns of “if only…” or “you first….” Try breaking out of these constraints and surprising your spouse with some unexpected loving. You can be unpredictably caring and delightfully confusing. You can suspend the demands you have been making as preconditions to loving. There is a chance that, once you suspend the demands, your spouse will “spontaneously” begin to do what you have been demanding. It’s worth a try.
In any case, before the emotional shutdown, you have the opportunity to “assess” your marriage — its limitations and its possibilities, if any. Who knows what might happen?