What do the Coronavirus, a heart attack, a parent dying, a natural disaster, turning 50 or 60 or 70, a job loss, and a major car accident have in common?
They are all "pivotal events." Although often life-altering in their own right, these events sometimes have a domino effect in that they can lead people to question other aspects of their life.
When someone makes a life-changing decision—especially one that seems to happen suddenly—it can almost always be traced back to a pivotal event that shook up the status quo.
It’s not uncommon for dissatisfying marriages to end up on the chopping block. In over half of the “couples-on-the-brink” cases that I see, it is these kinds of pivotal occurrences that my clients cite as what led to the marriage ending (or even just the questioning of whether to stay in the marriage).
There are three clear reasons why this is so.
1. The Past
Pivotal events often cause people to reflect on the past because the future is no longer a given. Faced with their demise, people begin to examine where they may have gone off the path in their lives.
If their marriage is not great, they may:
1) wonder if their reasons to get married were pure: (i.e. did they get married just to please their family or because they truly wanted to?)
2) wonder why they have stayed married (out of love or fear?)
3) question whether they ever really loved their spouse
4) feel doubt that they took the right path and may find themselves wishing they had stayed single, married someone else or divorced years earlier.
2. The Present
Pivotal events also cause people to reflect on the present: These people scrutinize themselves, their current job, spouse, home, and friends.
Because pivotal events often jolt people out of unconsciousness, dissatisfied people who’ve been plodding along in their lives often tend to become more honest about what's working and what's not working in the marriage. As a result of seeing things more clearly, continuing to stay in a troubled or unfulfilling relationship (especially when they have tried counseling, gone to workshops and read all the self-help books they could find) is what often leads people to file for dissolution.
One couple whose pivotal event occurred when their last child went off to college realized that, without their daughters to raise, they virtually had nothing in common. There was a faint memory of love for each other but they had grown so far apart that there was no glue holding them together any longer.
3. The Future
Pivotal events also cause people to focus more on the future: Turning a particular age or having someone close to you die puts you face to face with your own mortality.
Questions arise such as, "If I only had one year to live, what would I do differently starting today?" and, "Is this the person I want to grow old and spend the rest of my life with?"
Recently, a man contacted me distraught after his wife of 22 years told him she no longer wanted to stay married to him. She had just received her last dose of chemotherapy for breast cancer and suspected that her cancer was probably a result of a backlog of toxins in her system from years of squelching her truth.
She realized she had been unconsciously going along with societal norms of becoming a wife and mother. If she had chosen a life of her own free will, her life would have looked quite different.
She did not regret having her kids but now that they were grown, she felt she could make decisions based on what she truly desired.
Another woman told me that the green light to leave her husband came after her father died and she received an inheritance. Having her own financial resources freed her from having to stay in her loveless marriage another day.
The husband in a couple I work with lost his job, which meant he no longer had to be "tied down" to the big house payment, live in an area of the country he hated and stay in his flagging marriage. If he had not been laid off, the choice to leave would never have occurred to him.
Proceed with Caution
The downside of pivotal events is that they can create avalanches if too much change occurs at once.
Jumping onto another life track may take care of your need in the short term to find your authentic life, but it can make life harder on you and on everyone around you in the long term if not well thought out. Picture a bomb going off spewing debris all over the place. If you make decisions before the dust has settled, you risk creating having still more circumstances that you’ll want to alter later.
Here are some things to consider before making big changes to your life:
1) Make no major decisions for 90 days after the pivotal event: Ideally, there should be no urgency in divorce (unless there is some type of abuse or danger of harm).
If the decision is truly the right decision now, it will be the right decision in three months. It's best to assess your choices from a more grounded place than in reaction to a major event.
2) Understand the impact on others: In addition to those around you being impacted by the pivotal event, they will likely be affected by your decision to leave the marriage as well. When making this serious decision, take this into account and do what you can to mitigate any damage the split may cause.
3) Seek outside guidance before acting: Whether it's a trusted friend or a paid professional, invariably, better decisions are made when you have a sounding board or support, guide. The more objective the guidance, the better.
We all have places in our past we look back on and wish we had done things differently. We would hardly be human if we didn’t. To live with regrets is to be on par with most other adults. Pivotal events can spur positive changes, but they can also create or perpetuate chaos.
There’s nothing wrong with taking big leaps in your life after a brush with death, surviving a natural disaster, or having a big birthday. When it comes to making changes to your marriage and family, however, handle it with care. The ripples will be around for a long, long time.
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