5 Things Couples Do That Lead to Divorce

Dissecting the unraveling of a relationship can help you get back on track.

Posted Aug 30, 2020

My parents divorced when I was 19, but years before their marriage ended, I watched their decline. I didn’t understand what I witnessed with my parents then, but after years of working with couples, I see that there can be a similar downward spiral in partnerships. 

The seeds of divide often come following hurt feelings or dashed expectations. When they are not exposed or acknowledged, these problems fester and grow to lead to many relationships falling apart.

Here’s what my parents' path looked like. Of course, this isn’t the only path to destruction, but it’s common enough that you may see yourself on this trajectory.

1. They worked against each other. I believe my parents didn't like each other for the last 10 years of their marriage. When a partner demonizes the other or holds resentments for years, it creates a very unstable marriage.

There is also an unconscious polarization that happens when each spouse thinks the other needs to change to be more like them. Classic examples are the spender and the saver, or the emotional and the intellectual.

There are couples who can never find a comfortable middle ground. Most couples have one or two such issues, but with those who end up divorcing, there are usually too many differences that don’t get bridged.

You're doing this if:

  • a. You say things like, "he always..." or "she never..."  and demonize your partner seeing them as the opposition.
  • b. You have the same fight repeatedly without resolution or compromise, you are probably polarizing.
  • c. You loop on a story of how your partner is harming you.

Solution: If you are polarizing, work harder to understand your spouse’s perspective and meet them halfway. My aunt always said, "a good relationship is one where each person gives 150 percent." Expecting to only ever be comfortable in relationships means you’ve got some emotional work to do.

2. They didn't communicate with each other about their needs and feelings. My mother spoke to her friends and others about her marriage woes, but not directly to my father. My father didn't speak to anyone about his. My guess: They didn’t know what they needed or felt. 

Underneath every criticism of a partner are feelings and needs. “Why don’t you ever help around the house?” has feelings of being unappreciated or disrespected, and the need to have support and help.

If speaking to your spouse from your feelings and needs isn't a tool in your toolbox, it needs to be. Simply saying, “I need more support. Can you help with ____?” Or “I am feeling unsupported when you watch TV while I’m cooking dinner and the baby is crying.”

I've yet to meet a spouse who can read minds, but I've met many people who expect their partner to just know what they need. I’ve also seen many people push away their own needs as a way to feel invulnerable. Having needs (and yes, we all have them) isn’t the problem. How we handle having needs is usually where the challenges show up. 

Couples need to communicate about what they like and don't like as well as how they feel about things. Partners also need to ask a lot more questions of their mate and not assume they know more than they do. 

Finally, couples do best when they express their feelings and needs in a way that is more “hearable.” Starting a sentence with a criticism will undoubtedly create defensiveness in whomever you are speaking to. Likewise, leading with a request will have most people wanting to meet your need.

You're doing this if:

  • a. You often start sentences with: “You should…”, “Why can’t you…”, “I can’t believe you just said/did that.” (anything critical or attacking)
  • b. You feel resentful toward your spouse much of the time.
  • c. You often think, “S/he should know that bothers me.” Or, “Can’t s/he see what I need?”

Solution: Learn new phrases to say and start sentences with requests or invitations. “Can you help me ________?” Or,“How about if we _________?” Anytime you say “we” instead of “you,” it feels inclusive. 

Also, let your spouse know early, and in a kind way, that something they are doing isn’t working for you. If you keep your feelings to yourself and allow the emotion to build, you’re more likely to have a fight.

3. They stopped spending time together. I observed my parents' annual adult-only vacations cease. Conversations about golf and gardening dried up, and they stopped socializing.

When married couples become like the proverbial two ships passing in the night, or it becomes apparent that they don't like each other, the hill to climb toward reconnection becomes much steeper.

Often, as was the case with my mother and father, unresolved hurts and resentments cause the divide. Understandably, most people would rather avoid the pain that going back into unpleasant exchanges entails. Yet, I've seen miraculous changes when couples are brave enough to revisit and recover.

You're doing this if:

  • a. You don’t want to spend as much time with your spouse anymore.
  • b. You believe it’s easier to avoid a difficult discussion.
  • c. You'd agree that you're like two ships in the night.

Solution: When you feel the divide starting (or even after it has taken root) intervene. Let your spouse know that you want to reconnect and take steps to do that. This is where therapists and relationship coaches can be helpful. Remember that you don’t have to—and, in fact, may not be able to—figure this out on your own.

4. They began to see the solution to their problems outside of the marriage. This misstep naturally follows in the continuum of drifting apart.

For some, the solution to an unhappy marriage was to get out of it and move on with someone else.

Yet, people can also "leave without leaving" by checking out emotionally.

Some get focused on other things like their kids, going out more with friends, or building their career. I've even seen people have kids at this point in their relationship as a way to escape the problems.

Others turn to a substance or behavior to escape. Addictions to a substance (alcohol, drugs, food), or to activities (online porn, shopping, gambling) can develop.

You're doing this if:

  • a. You daydream about how great life would be if you were single or in a new/different relationship.
  • b. You get overly busy at work, you find a new hobby that takes you away from home more, or worse, you develop an addiction to food, alcohol, pain killers, spending money, TV, etc.
  • c. You start an emotional affair with someone and become what I call, "affair-ready."
123rf
Source: 123rf

Solution: Running from or avoiding your pain doesn’t make it go away. In fact, it can make things worse. Commit to dealing with your relationship head on. If there’s something that can be done to make things better, commit to doing that. If you need to move on from the partnership, be honest with yourself and your partner and take steps to move on. 

5. They do not seek help. My parents were good people. I have no idea if therapy would have kept them together, but it might have helped them air grievances, learn basic relationship and communication skills, and prevent some of the wreckage that ensued.

Many couples who end up divorcing either don't get professional guidance at all, or they don't seek it out soon enough. Letting time pass, hoping things will get better is not a good strategy.

Don't wait until there's a crisis or things are unbearable to get help. Therapy, relationship coaching, or meetings with clergy, if you are religious, can make a tremendous difference in healing relationships and helping couples have a deeper connection.

You're doing this if:

  • a. You’d rather divorce than go to therapy.
  • b. You tell yourself, “Things will get better when ___________ happens,” and you keep doing the same old same old.
  • c. Your relationship is in a crisis.

Solution: Get help and professional support as soon as you can. If finances are keeping you from reaching out, investigate the numerous 12-step or self-help resources that are out there. Many of these programs are held remotely so there’s no reason to not take advantage.

At the Crossroads

If you're at a crossroads with your marriage, ask yourself if your spouse is on your team, if you are honest with each other, if you spend quality time together, if you turn toward your marriage for solutions, and if you have asked for help.

Intervening on any one of these spots can make the difference between whether or not your marriage will survive.

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