Thinking about divorce? Often a client will seek therapy when beginning to have thoughts of divorce. Those thoughts can be terrifying, right? Clients have often asked me, “How will I know if I should divorce? How will I know that divorce is the right option for me?”
The confusion is normal. It is normal to feel deeply ambivalent about divorcing. This is one of the biggest and most difficult decisions you will ever have to make. It is not a decision that should be made impulsively or without a lot of thought and work.
I cannot tell you what the right answer is, and there is no clear cut or easy answer. But as a clinician, I can ask a lot of questions to help you find clarity and a roadmap once you have made your decision.
Getting clear about what is troubling you and your relationship is one step toward understanding the choices and decisions that you face. No one anticipates a divorce on their wedding day. When I ask clients about their marriage and where these thoughts are coming from, I hear many explanations and complaints, such as the ones listed below. If you are considering divorce, do any of these resonate for you?
- Maybe you have begun to imagine life without your spouse—and the idea feels good. You imagine a new, happier life and perhaps a lover. At the same time, this fantasy is upsetting to you because you know that your marriage is in serious trouble. Or you may have met someone new, someone who seems to meet your needs in a way that your spouse is not.
- You might feel so hopeless and discouraged about the marriage that you can’t see any alternative to giving up.
- Often there has been a betrayal of some kind. Perhaps an affair that is either ongoing or unresolved. You feel completely unloved or worse, you feel neglected and demeaned.
- Your spouse has let you down in some important way. Perhaps your spouse has not contributed financially to your marriage and is completely dependent on your financial support. Maybe you feel your spouse cannot be trusted. You feel that you are doing all the work in the relationship.
- Perhaps there have been abusive or coercive control problems. In this situation, you will need to establish a safety plan, particularly important if you have children. If there has been violence, a decision to divorce could trigger a violent episode when your spouse feels he or she has nothing left to lose.
- Clients tell me of escalating arguments that are never resolved. You are arguing about the same things and the arguments have gotten nastier. You may be enraged at your spouse, or even at yourself.
- Intimacy has dried up and you feel lonely. You may find yourself attracted to someone else—and you recognize that as an alarming warning sign.
- You feel you have tried everything to reignite the embers of your dying marriage. Perhaps you have sought counseling in the past and “it didn’t work.” When I hear this, I often hear that my clients have gone to only a few sessions before abandoning therapy.
- You feel you have simply grown apart. You have nothing to talk about, no interests or activities to share, and you’d rather be with friends than with your spouse. You no longer talk to each other about anything other than logistics: who will shop for dinner, who will pick up the children.
- Once you used to support each other, and it was important to each of you that you give and receive that support. Now you feel unsupported and you recognize that you don’t particularly support your spouse either.
- A mountain of resentments has been swept under the rug. You have not talked about them, nor have they been resolved. You have no desire to talk about them. Not only do you feel hopeless, but you also just don’t care anymore.
- You find that you no longer agree on important things: how to raise your children, how money should be spent, what your long-term vision of your life looks like. Many of your goals are completely irreconcilable.
- Perhaps your spouse has an addiction that he or she won’t address. Addictions can include the obvious, alcohol and drugs. But compulsive behavior related to shopping, gambling, sex, porn, video games, and the internet can also contribute to the breakdown of a relationship.
- Perhaps one or both of you is dealing with untreated anxiety or depression. It can be miserable to live with an unhappy person who refuses to help him or herself or to seek professional help.
Most often I hear about the breakdown or complete lack of communication. You or your spouse isn’t talking, you are afraid to bring up difficult conversations, or one or both of you are triggered and defensive when you do try to talk. You feel like you are carrying the entire load in the relationship and you are simply tired of carrying the burden alone.
If you are worried about your marriage, don’t wait to seek counseling. If your spouse does not want to go with you, you can go on your own. Often clients wait for a crisis, and then it may be too late to save the marriage.
Here are ways that counseling can help you achieve clarity about your decision.
- The idea of divorce might shock you into calling a therapist. You may seek counseling because you want to come to a decision about divorce.
- if you have already decided to divorce, you need support to break the news to your spouse.
- You may come to counseling because your spouse has told you (or threatened you) that they want a divorce. Perhaps your spouse has already emotionally disconnected from the marriage or perhaps is leaning toward divorce, with no interest in actually saving the marriage. If one person, you or your spouse, has already “left the marriage” emotionally, there will likely be a divorce.
- A therapist can help you accept your spouse’s (or your own) decision to end the marriage if there is no interest in resuscitating it. If you have decided to divorce, therapy can help your spouse accept your decision.
- It is also a healthy step to use counseling to help you both make a plan as to how to move toward divorce. If you have children, the therapist can help you find ways to protect your children from the damage of a high-conflict divorce.
- On the other hand, coming to counseling might offer the possibility of putting the marriage back together, improving your relationship. Sometimes one spouse can do the work in therapy to change the marriage, but generally, both of you would need to commit to doing the work to repair your relationship.
- Individual therapy can give you tools and insights to bring to your marriage if your spouse does not attend therapy. When one of you makes changes, the other may respond in positive ways. For example, if your marriage is destabilized due to a trigger, therapy can help you learn to manage your anger, as well as understand the underlying causes.
So, when clients ask “How will I know that I should divorce? How will I know that divorce is the right answer?” I do two things. I ask questions, and I talk about a “sparkling moment of clarity” that may answer their questions.
- I ask many questions to help my client describe the history of the relationship, the hopes, and dreams that they feel have been lost, and I search for signs that there may be a way to restore the marriage. I explore the complaints, such as those above.
- I usually ask whether you feel you have “left no stone unturned.” That is, have you explored every possible option to save your relationship? If not, pause and consider what more you could do, if you wanted to do it. Most people feel better when they know that they have tried everything to save their relationship. Later, you may grieve and feel sad about the divorce, but you won’t regret your decisions.
- Marital counseling might help, but are you willing to commit to many weekly counseling sessions before you could know whether your relationship is making progress? Your marriage didn’t get to this dark place overnight, and it won’t be repaired overnight either.
- Sometimes the marital counseling becomes “discernment counseling,” helping you consider the options of divorce or further commitment to saving the relationship. You may be able to find a therapist who specializes in discernment counseling. The counseling might help you and your spouse divorce more amicably if you explore all of your options and then move toward divorce. Another benefit is that should you decide to pursue a divorce, your counselor can help you with resources, support, and advice.
- How do you think your life will look if you do divorce? People are almost always unprepared for the unexpected changes and challenges that come with divorce. A therapist can help you develop a realistic picture of your future if you do divorce.
- And how do you think your children will do when there is a divorce? Many times people have said to me “My kids are resilient, I am not worried about them.” I would want to have a much longer and realistic conversation with my clients about the effect of divorce on children, and how to protect them from the potential damage of divorce.
- Conversely, I ask what keeps you in the marriage? Is it about the fear of leaving, or are you still in love with your spouse? Are you wanting to work things out with your partner or are you paralyzed by your indecision to leave or stay?
- “How long do you think you can go on living this way if nothing changes?” This is sometimes a jolting question, as you realize the dread of living another six months, or a year, or more with your unhappiness. At this point, you may know that you need to take some action, to seek marital counseling, to speak with your spouse, or to begin to prepare yourself for a divorce.
I tell my clients that there are no easy answers to these difficult questions about how to know when divorce is the right solution. However, for most people, there is a moment of clarity when they know that divorce is the direction they feel they must go (or must not). That moment of clarity is often a physical feeling of relief as well as a knot in your stomach as you understand the decision you have just made. At that point, you can start to develop a plan to either renew your commitment to your marriage or to move toward separation and divorce.
© Ann Buscho, Ph.D. 2019