Every year the news is filled with the statistics of high divorce rates. According to divorcerate.org, first marriages end 41% to 50% of the time. The percentages worsen for second and third marriages. Ending a marriage is hard to do, but even more so when there are kids.
The statistics tell only the cold, sterile facts of break-ups. Media reports shy away from the painfulness and heart-break of divorce-especially the angst of deciding to say "enough is enough." When a parent asks "How do I tell my spouse that the marriage is over?" others often struggle to know how to respond.
Are there reasons that justify divorce for parents? If so, how does a parent tell the other parent that the marriage is over? How do you try to protect the children while rejecting the other parent?
When Divorce Becomes an Option
1. The Love Account is Empty: We all keep a marital "bank" account that fills up when the other parent shows us fondness and admiration. Both parents fill up each other's account with acts of kindness-going the extra mile for the other parent. The account is spent when marriages have rough times. If spouses stop doing things for each other, then fondness and admiration turn to alienation and resentment, and the marriage starts to die. Eventually, one spouse decides to file for the family version of bankruptcy: divorce.
2. Ideas about Each Other Turn Negative: When parents are first married, they forgive little things, focusing instead on the best in each other. If the marriage falters, spouses become less forgiving, and reject the notion that problems are due to life's circumstances. Instead, husbands and wives begin to see each other as character-flawed. The conclusions turn from "Oh it's just a bad day" to "He/she is such a bad person"
3. Problems Look Permanent: As the marriage turns from love to indifference, spouses change their belief about the transient nature of marital problems. They shift from thinking that things can change to thinking things will never change. The "permanent-problems" belief produces hopelessness about the marriage. If marital happiness will never return, then the only option left is divorce.
4. Fights Become Gridlocked: Research on divorce shows never-ending arguments are a key predictor of divorce. A wife asks for affection and her husband rejects her. They fight for hours, in a gridlock of perpetual hostility. Finally, one will turn away, slam a door, and silently brood or cry. The constant pattern of unrepaired hostility keeps the couple from using fights to grow closer by making up. Instead, husbands and wives grow apart. They no longer rely on each other for healing after a fight.
5. Children Become Damaged: Children become hurt from the hostility, contempt, and defensiveness that characterize their parents' fights. Emotions of fear and sadness overwhelm children when their parents' fight incessantly-kids usually find themselves isolated and helpless to deal with such pain. Parents become disturbed after a harsh fight, finding themselves unable to meet the desperate needs of their shell-shocked kids. Often, in such homes, children's ability to handle painful emotions can be undermined for a lifetime.
How to Say It's Over
Be Certain: When a marriage is over, spouses often feel pressure to rapidly move out before giving their decision adequate (and rational) thought. An uncertain decision to divorce can cause more harm than good. A useful maxim is "Once you say the marriage is over, there is no going back." Even if people change their minds and want to stay married later, the lingering aftermath of rejecting the other spouse will haunt the marriage for years.
Another outcome of uncertainty can be increased efforts by the other spouse to save the marriage. Desperation to save the marriage leads to begging to work things out-a frantic spouse that senses uncertainty will plead even more. The spouse ending the marriage must have reached the decision without reservations in order to avoid months of pleas to "stay and work on things."
If there is doubt, take paper and draw a line down the center. On the right side, list the reasons to end the marriage, and on the left the reasons to stay together. Assign weight to each side, based on factors like importance or protection of the children. The exercise helps parents think through the decision to end a marriage-to have insight into how certain the decision seems.
When deciding to end a marriage, it is best to have no room for doubt. When the other spouse pushes back against the decision, be firm, but avoid anger. The other spouse sees the marriage from a different perspective, understandably. Calm, unwavering approaches to delivering the divorce message will help both spouses transition into healthier, post-divorce parenting.
Be Objective and Detached: When a parent ends a marriage, protecting the children from hostility is key-parental anger can harm children and place them in the middle of the divorce. Divorcing parents can safeguard their children by ensuring that the connectedness of marriage has ended.
When I treat couples, I remind them that love and hate exist at opposite ends of the "good/bad" spectrum, but both require lots of connection. The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference. When someone says the marriage is over, the other spouse, as well as the children, benefit if connection has ended, being replaced by detachment.
Be Focused: All marriages have a history. Spouses remember both the good and the bad. When parents end a marriage, they easily fall prey to the "regretful history" trap-focusing only on the painful past. Spouses do best when they avoid tainting their message about the end of the message with angry disappointment. Otherwise, regrets morph into critical attacks, defensiveness, counter-attacks, and hostility. Parents can avoid the "regretful history" trap by focusing on one, single message: "The marriage is over."
Be Consistent: People will waffle on a tough message to save others from being hurt. In reality, waffling is an attempt to avoid feeling guilty when hurting someone. Such efforts cause inconsistent messages-giving false hope to the other parent. To end a marriage gracefully, keep the message consistent each time to avoid creating confusion and wishful thinking.
Be Rehearsed: Blurting out "It's over!" is the worst way to tell the other parent you want a divorce-first rehearse the message over and over. Breakdowns in communication (which likely led to the divorce) can interfere with your message having its intended impact. You can better have the impact you want by writing out and rehearsing the message. Some tips on writing a clear message include:
- Blend kindness with consistency to improve the chances of being heard accurately.
- Stick to the message and avoid arguing over the meaning of words.
- Keep things simple-state that you want to end the marriage clearly.
- Remember you have the right to make this choice, so resist justifying yourself.
- Be understanding of any surprise about your decision.
A Final Word From an Older Dad
When parents divorce, children suffer no matter how well the process is handled. When parents try to protect children from normal pain, they can inadvertently undermine adjustment. Research tells us that children are resilient-they bounce back from divorce when parents don't place them in the middle of hostility. Children also do better if post-divorce parenting is authoritative (for a discussion of authoritative parenting see Tiger Mom and Science), rather than aggressive and controlling. Under the right conditions, children can do well after a divorce.
When the end is certain, parents protect their children by staying calm, being clear, and moving forward. Children of divorce benefit if parents reduce, or eliminate, hostility and conflict, and provide instead competent, non-aggressive post-divorce parenting. Handled properly, divorce ends not only the fighting between the parents, but also protects children from the harm caused by family hostility.
Resources: For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered or Marital Conflict and Children