How to Predict Whether You Should Stay or Go

What's behind your decision: fear or faith?

Posted Feb 27, 2011

While there are no quick, easy answers and no "one size fits all" reasons to offer, I will give you parameters within which to gauge whether or not you should remain married to your spouse or leave. I can't give you your answer. I can only guide you to find your truth for this moment. Your part will be to follow along and read with honest introspection so you can identify your answer.

When I meet for the first time with a client who is considering divorce, I can often get a sense of whether the scales are tipped toward staying or leaving from the reason he or she gives for wanting to stay married.

If the desire to stay married is based on moving toward a goal, the person is more likely to stay married; for example, "I want to raise my children in one house with two parents" or "I want to work on my anger issues and get on the other side of them."

On the other hand, when people explain that they are staying in the marriage to avoid pain or fear, this indicates that the marriage hasn't much glue, and such marriages aren't as likely to endure; for instance, "I'm staying because I'm afraid of not seeing my children every day," "I don't know how I'd make ends meet without my spouse," or "No one will ever love me like this again."

Once I hear the reasoning for staying in the marriage, I ask why the client might want to get a divorce. The same rule applies: those who are contemplating leaving to move toward a goal are more likely to actually leave than those who are averting pain or potential consequences. Examples of going toward a goal or away from a fear are, "I want more out of life than staying in an unhappy marriage" or "I need to get away from this abuse."

Even though all of these reasons have merit and sound powerful, you may wonder how I know that the person who is moving toward a goal will more likely take action than the one who is running away from or trying to avoid pain. The answer is simple: fear.

Those who are motivated primarily by avoiding pain are usually fear-based people. These people see the world through the eyes of whatever problems and negative repercussions might arise from their actions. They are often imprisoned by their fears, not only as they pertain to deciding whether to stay in or leave their marriages, but in all areas of their lives. These people will more likely stay small, unhappy, and unfulfilled with the thought that they will remain safe.

Action-based people have the opposite view of the world. When they set their sights on a goal, they see what opportunities and benefits might come from moving forward. These people are more willing to take risks and go for what they want. They will also be less likely to settle for less than what they believe they deserve.

Of course, you can be partially both fear- and action-based, but whichever mode is dominant will usually win the arguments in your mind about whether to stay or go. The good news is that these aspects are not necessarily set in stone. If you are primarily a fear-based person but would rather be action-based, you can push through your fears and accomplish your goals. Most people need some training or support to make these changes, but it is an alteration that anyone can make.

In addition to examining fear-avoidant versus goal-oriented behaviors in the decision-making process, I look at whose needs are driving the decision. In a decision as big as whether or not to stay married, it is imperative that you consider the possible ramifications your leaving may have on others, but you must also balance that with your own needs. Where I see people go wrong in such a decision is when they forgo their own needs and focus primarily on meeting the needs of their spouses or children, or, on the contrary, they consider only their own needs and ignore the potential impact on their children and spouses.

I've had countless clients tell me that they don't want to divorce because they are afraid of losing the co-parenting relationship or their spouse's income, only eventually to realize that they alone already carry the load of responsibilities. The spouse doesn't contribute to the marriage but, rather, takes from it.

On awakening to this fact and confirming that they had done everything possible to improve their relationships, most of these clients immediately filed the divorce paperwork. And for almost all of these folks, letting go of the unhealthy relationship was the best decision they'd ever made. Rather than becoming harder, life actually got much easier, because they no longer had the added burden of taking care of the people who were supposed to be their partners or dealing with the many negative emotions their spouses elicited from them. What they had feared prior to taking action never manifested. They realized that they had postponed their own fulfillment and happiness for months, sometimes years.

This article has been excerpted from Contemplating Divorce, A Step-by-Step Guide to Deciding Whether to Stay or Go (2008 New Harbinger Publications, Inc.).

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