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When You Think Your Marriage is Over, There’s No Easy Path

7 Tips for navigating this painful decision

It starts with a gnawing in your gut that your marriage is not what it was, what you thought it would be or hoped it could be.

At first, it’s easy to ignore. You can busy yourself, partake in some mood-altering substances, or simply distract yourself in some way. The still small voice telling you “something isn’t right” gets swept down stream. Maybe you go to counseling. Maybe you don’t. Either way, life goes on.

Just when you thought you were in the clear, another fight, breach of trust, or crisis occurs making it harder to ignore the pull to leave.

You think about the kids first and foremost. What will happen to them if you leave or if your spouse moves out? Then you think about how other people will react—your next-door neighbor, your parents, your mother- or father-in-law, the kids’ teachers and coaches, other kids’ parents, and on and on.

You try desperately to make yourself wrong for doubting the relationship but the pull to end things just gets stronger.

Then, one day, you come to terms with the truth: It’s not working. No matter what you do.

What I’ve just described is what I call the Marital Indecision Cycle and it can be torturous. I’ve seen people stay in that space for years but I’ve never seen it be positive.

Every relationship has highs and lows, but when you are continually questioning the relationship, these ups and downs are more profound. Staying in indecision—regardless of what the indecision is about—is draining. But leaving is hard.

We can’t avoid some of the things that life throws at us but divorce is one of those passages that people look at and know there will be pain and loss so who in their right mind would willingly go there?

The Case of Lydia & Steve

Lydia joined one of my divorce support groups when she was still in the contemplation stage. Knowing that at some point she’d be moving out, she wanted the support in place well before-hand.

She and Steve had been married for nine years and had two sons this was his first marriage and her second. Given that she had been through divorce before, she wasn't looking forward to enduring the process again. She was also worried about what her friends, family and the other parents would think and how they would treat her (and her kids).

Lydia shared that she was thinking about divorcing Steve because he was pulling some stunts that she didn't particularly like, such as staying out late, spending quite a lot of time with the mother of their son's best friend, and taking joint funds and funneling them into a property he had bought against her wishes.

She felt that he was pushing her away, which made her angry. Yet her anger made him distance himself even further. Although tension levels were high at home, Lydia was grateful that Steve had not reverted to his past drug use. She let the group know that that was her bottom line. She had been through an immensely difficult time with Steve when he was using drugs five years earlier, and she was not up for that again.

One evening, Lydia came in and announced to the group that she had evidence that, not only was Steve using drugs again, but that he had driven under the influence with their two kids in the car. She was irate yet not once did she mention the “D” word.

When one of the group members gently reminded her that she had previously set Steve's using drugs as her bottom line, Lydia broke down in tears. She acknowledged having said that, but even as upset as she was now, she still didn't know if she could go through with it. She said she wished Steve would make the first move so that she wouldn't have to, since it was obvious that he wanted out of the marriage as well. That way, she wouldn't have to be the “bad guy.”

But Lydia’s saga continued. Week after week she came to group and vented about the latest happenings. She received unconditional support from the group, and slowly but surely, worked up the strength to file for divorce. By the time she reached the tipping point, it was months later and she had been through the wringer. She was beyond tired.

Looking back, Lydia saw that she had been beating a dead horse and that by trying to force their marriage to work, she and Steve had actually added layers of damage both to themselves and to the children. The only benefit that seemed to come as a result of prolonging the agony was that Lydia was 100% sure that they had done all they could to keep the marriage together.

The late author, Debbie Ford, articulates Lydia and Steve's process well. She writes, “Discontent occurs when our outer experiences aren't matching our inner desires…. In its early stages, discontent is fairly easy to overlook or conceal from ourselves. But like a glowing ember, the heat of discontent builds slowly over time until it becomes a blazing fire that can no longer be ignored. By then, our discontent captures our full attention, and hopefully we are motivated into action" (Ford 2005).

Perhaps you are at the earlier stages of your decision-making process or ready to take action to leave or you are resolved to stay for now.

Either way, here are seven tips to help you get the strength you need to make the decision that's best for you:

1. Surround yourself with people who understand that leaving is hard. They won’t push you into “leaving the jerk,” but they will also gently (without judgment) call you on denial or breaking your own rules like Lydia did.

2. Get professional guidance from a therapist, coach, or clergy person, who understands the process of divorce and who has no agenda as to whether you stay or leave.

3. Do everything you can to work on the marriage so that, if you do have to end it, you can feel good about having done all that you could do to preserve it.

4. Journal. There is brain science that shows the benefit of writing when stressed. It literally moves the intense emotions through your brain (from your amygdala to your prefrontal cortex). It also helps to get your thoughts out onto paper so you can see them in a different way.

5. Be honest with your partner. Not talking about what’s going on and then springing it on them one day that you want out is nothing short of cruel.

6. Part ways with people who are critical or judgmental of you and your choice to stay or go. You won’t have much bandwidth to deal with them and you’ll need to preserve your inner resources for your difficult decision.

7. Be gentle with yourself.

Books to read:

Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay, Mira Kirschenabum

Contemplating Divorce, Susan Pease Gadoua

How to Know When It’s Time to Go, Lawrence Birnbach, Beverly Hyman

Telesummit Series:

Love ‘Em or Leave ‘Em, KP Smith

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