The question of divorce is essentially the same as the question of marriage. If getting out of a marriage seems much more serious than getting into one, then you did not fully considered the gravity of the initial commitment. This juncture is as good as any to clarify your expectations of marriage and your and your partner’s roles in it.
When divorce enters the realm of possibility, there are a few specific questions you can ask to better sort out where you stand:
1) Would you stay if your partner changed?
If you woke up tomorrow and your partner was magically different, would you still want to be with him or her? If the answer is yes, your marriage still has a fighting chance. If the answer is no, then you are no longer in a place where you can cherish your partner. If you have truly decided that you will have no interest regardless of what your partner says or does, it is selfish not to let go.
Sometimes, the wounds of marriage are so numerous and deep that the “scar tissue” covering them makes it impossible to answer this question. A trained professional can help you sort through through the anger and resentment in order to get some clarity.
2) How accountable is your partner?
I fully believe that if both partners come to the table, even a bad marriage can be made good and possibly great. What can’t be helped is getting partners to the table. This does not mean you can’t exert some pressure. Addiction and other psychiatric conditions can be treated, and if you are at your bottom line then there is nothing wrong with issuing a “treatment or else” ultimatum. But if your partner repeatedly refuses to seek or respond to help, it may be time to move on.
The takeaway is this: If your partner is unaccountable, what you see is very likely what you get — and what you will keep getting. Ask yourself: “Am I willing to live like this indefinitely?”
3) What are the other options? (And which ones can you stomach?)
There are really only three options besides divorce:
Stay (really) married – Both partners do the work to build or rebuild a healthy relationship
Stay married in name only – If you’ve decided that you simply don’t need much from your relationship, this is an option.
Separate – I recommend this for volatile couples with children in the home. Sometimes taking space can reduce the tension enough to work on what’s really going on or get a clear head to move forward with divorce.
In this case, simple doesn’t mean easy, but narrowing down your choices can give you something to move towards if you are feeling stuck.
4) When would you tell your partner?
In the ideal situation — and rarely is anything about divorce ideal — you would be up front with your spouse about the decision to file for divorce. This can be possible in couples who have been able to maintain an open line of communication despite their marital troubles. If, however, you suspect your partner will be reactionary, violent, or inappropriately involve children (e.g., threaten to take them out of state), then safety takes precedence. A legal professional is in the best position to advise you of your options.
5) Under which circumstances is it definitely best to divorce?
Sometimes a couple will come to therapy with this exact question, hoping to somehow sidestep the burden of making the decision themselves. Therapy can be tremendously helpful in sorting through the pain and confusion, but at the end of the day each individual partner is solely responsible for the decision to initiate a divorce. The decision to divorce is both private and personal. If you find yourself “shopping around” for people who will make that decision for you — and there is no shortage of them! — you are only compounding your problem.
While there is no magic checklist, there are several things that warrant heavy consideration. At the top of that list is a persistent threat to personal safety. Others include forcing your partner to love you, or forcing yourself to have feelings for your partner.
6) Which situations can be worked out in couples counseling?
Couples therapy can help partners build or rebuild fulfilling lives together, but a relationship is ultimately held together by something we cannot provide (and I would be suspicious of anyone who claims they do.) That thing is love, and although we do not fully understand it, we know a few things: You can’t force it. You can’t manufacture it. And it can be killed off.
Beyond that, there is very little correlation between the “severity” of a presenting problem and a couple’s chance of successfully surviving it. Instead, it depends on the willingness to do the work of becoming intimate. I have seen couples survive multiple infidelities. I have also seen some split at the first lay off. It’s tempting to think that the relationship will improve when all the issues around money, sex, and parenting are solved; in actuality, these issues are made easier to deal with when the couple has a healthy dynamic.
You have the right to insist on health for your family. If your spouse will not join you as a partner-in-health, your back is against the wall. Get help!
Regardless of what you ultimately decide, if you have gotten to the point of considering divorce, you will need some help healing, grieving, and moving forward. I encourage anyone to use mental health, community, or spiritual/religious resources.
It is extremely important to know that you have much to gain even if the marriage is lost. My goal is never to “save” the relationship; no counselor can promise that. My goal is to increase each partner’s capacity for intimacy. If you are able to take what you learn and apply it to the present relationship, that is my best wish. But if you and your partner go your separate ways, all is not lost. The healing and growth are yours to take with you whether or not the marriage works out.