When you married a decade ago, it seemed to be for all the right reasons. Both ski enthusiasts, you spent all your weekends in Aspen. When in the city, you both loved the theater, opera, and museums. Since you were both in advertising, industry news often formed the subtext of your speech. Over the years, however, your styles have changed. You have become an increasingly ambitious account executive; the heady feeling of power in each new deal and acquisition keeps you primed. Your husband, meanwhile, has opted for the quieter life of a high school biology teacher. He loves nothing more than hiking in the mountains or helping his students protect the ecosystem of a local lake. There's no animosity–you still like each other–but you've grown apart. Your relationship has changed.
At first you thought it was exciting, that fiery temper that flared up whenever she sensed a universal injustice or personal slight. On campus, protesting the Viet Nam War, she was first to join the march. Her boss fired a friend, and she quit, too. Yet now that passion has turned to venom–and it has turned on you. Whenever you leave your coat in the living room or whenever you disagree with her politics or her taste in film, her eyes widen in anger, and before you know it, a book or shoe has flown across the room. You would like to work it out, but she wants a divorce. What, if anything, can you do?
You thought you would be faithful forever, but suddenly, at the cusp of middle age, you have fallen in love. The new object of your affections is irreverent, exciting, forever into something exotic or new. An insatiable world traveler, he's spent years abroad, with extended periods in Sao Paulo, Jerusalem, Osaka, and Madrid. A jack-of-all trades, he's worked as a photographer, gardener, stock broker and now --in his latest incarnation–masseur. Oh, those massages! It's wonderful now, of course, but will you really abandon your reliable, loving husband, the father of your children, for this?
At the Crossroads
The decision to divorce is never easy and, as anyone who has been through it will tell you, this wrenching, painful experience can leave scars on adults as well as children for years. Therefore, before you and your spouse decide to call it quits, consider whether your marriage can be saved.
Colorado Psychologist Mitchell Baris, who works specifically with the divorced and the divorcing, has some definite guidelines for those wrestling with this difficult issue. When is it possible, through diligent hard work in counseling, to save a marriage? And when is it generally impossible? When, despite the kids, are you doing the right thing to throw in the towel?
There are, of course, many reasons for divorce, including sexual infidelity, a lack of interest, a difference in values, and even abuse. When are these chasms just too wide to bridge? When can bridges be mended and relationships restored?
"The decision to divorce is personal," states Dr. Baris. "But I think the point of no return comes with the loss of respect and trust. Those two feelings are particularly difficult to rekindle. Trust can be built back, but it takes years. Often if trust and respect are gone, rebuilding the marriage is hopeless."
Dr. Baris also feels it may be difficult to rebuild a marriage when the animosity between two people builds to the breaking point.
"I find couples are most likely to split when the intensity of negativity between them escalates." One couple, for instance, fought relentlessly about their son's bedtime, his eating habits, the duties of the cleaning service they had hired, and even the cable TV bill–she wanted the Sci Fi Channel, and he wanted no extras on the tab except for ESPN and HBO.
Indeed, for such couples discussion on any topic from the children to the brand of dog food may erupt into a negative and angry emotion. "These people will continually make destructive remarks about each other, or just bring up the past," states Dr. Baris. "In therapy with them, you see this intense negativity and anger just pouring out."
What If Children Are Involved?
"The studies show that whether or not parents stay married is less important than whether they engage in fighting or conflict–and whether or not they drag the children in. The critical factor in the ultimate psychological health of a child is the degree of conflict in the environment," Dr. Baris explains. In other words: Don't keep your marriage together for the children, especially if that entails exposing them to constant conflict and wrath. It's better for your children if you divorce amicably than if you stay together and at war.
Divorce often means relinquishing the creature comforts that have defined your life in the past. Families who lived in the 'burbs as a unit now must sell the house, leave the neighborhood, and disperse out to harsher, economically sparer realms. Divorce means divesting the accoutrements of a life shared together and starting out again–diminished in strength and number, and alone. The death of a marriage inspires, among other emotions, anger, grief, and fear.
As painful as it may be to admit that your marriage is at an end, sometimes ending a painful or difficult marriage is the only way you can empower yourself to move forward toward a state of emotional health and growth. We know that leaving a familiar relationship for the isolation and stress of single life (and possibly single parenthood) is a rough road to travel. But once you have made the transition, you will find that you are open to new experiences and new relationships never before possible. If your marriage has been demeaning, damaging to your self-esteem, painful, or even boring, take comfort in the knowledge that divorce may signify the beginning of something, not just the end.
Saving Your Marriage: What Does It Take?
Your marriage is at the brink of dissolution. You and your spouse have lost trust and faith in each other; your mutual anger is so palpable that you can no longer go out as a couple without breaking into a verbal sparring match or an out-and-out fight. Past hurts and wrongs haunt both of you, coloring your interpretation of the present; and perhaps most damaging, one or both of you have engaged in an extramarital affair.
Despite such problems, couples can and do put their marriages back together, though only through extremely hard work. That work must be done by both members of the couple, or it will be doomed from the start. Generally, the best approach is finding a marriage counselor to help you through. You would have to be living on Pluto not to grasp one basic truth about therapists: They come in as many styles as this year's wall calendar. The question is, what should you look for in a marriage counselor? What kind of therapist is right for you?
Some of the best advice we've heard comes from Dr. Mitchell Baris, who works with the divorced and the divorcing every day. Couples should look for someone who can help them restructure their communication and react to their partner in terms of the real situation, not ghosts of the past, Baris advises. "Some counselors look into the couples' deep past–they help them go over their own childhood experiences, their early family dynamic. Couples might explore the impact their past had on their marital choice, and on the negative (and positive) patterns they carry into their marriage through the present day." Although different marriage counselors emphasize different strategies, we have seen the highest levels of success among those who focus on conflict resolution.
"When one spouse gets excited or angry," explains one therapist, "the ideal strategy for the other is to try to defuse the anger by soothing his or her partner." Picking up the cudgel and doing battle–or worse yet, dredging up the past–will only fuel the fires of conflict and weaken the relationship already on its last legs.
Other therapists, meanwhile, teach clients the art of "fair fighting," in which each partner listens to the other without being vicious or defensive–or striking back with hurtful insults, references to the past, or other means of hitting below the belt. One well-known doctor, who pioneered the technique of "restructuring" couples so that they can fight fairly, has this amusing approach: He literally keeps a piece of linoleum in his office and hands it to one member of the couple at a time. "Here, you hold the floor," he says to the person holding the linoleum. The other person cannot speak until the linoleum, in turn, is handed over. The lesson for couples here: Learn how to hear the other one through, and do not interrupt, especially to escalate the conflict. How can you find an appropriate therapist? The best way, our experts tell us, is to get referrals from satisfied friends. Do make sure, of course, that the individual you select specializes in couples and relationships work, and that he or she is well-regarded by other professionals. Make sure that whoever you choose simply feels right. Is there a rapport among all three of you? Can you communicate easily with the therapist?
Once you've found a therapist who meets these criteria, do give therapy a chance. Be open to the possibility that your marriage can be saved–and ready to do the work that entails. Remember, therapy is not always easy, especially if you are carrying excessive and painful emotional baggage from your childhood. But if you and your partner truly love each other, and are willing to alter some basic patterns, therapy can succeed.
When All the King's Horses and All the King's Men Can't Put Your Marriage Together Again Sometimes the best laid plans are laid to waste. Despite all your hopes and dreams in the beginning, and all your good intentions now, it seems impossible to continue your marriage. For many of us in the latter part of the twentieth century, the notion of "till death do us part" is an anachronism: When life becomes too painful, replete with too many battles and battle scars, few of us question the notion, at least intellectually, of moving on.
Sometimes, Dr. Baris notes, so much hurt has been engendered over the years that it is simply impossible to get beyond it–at least in the context of your current relationship. When people harbor deep, abiding anger, and when, despite therapy, that anger cannot be resolved, it could be time to let go.
But even in the absence of anger, one or both partners may start to lose respect for the relationship and a spouse. That may signal the end as well. One couple we know, for instance, divorced after the husband made some poor investments and lost his business and the family home. The woman, who insisted she bore no anger, said she could no longer remain married to someone for whom she had "no respect."
In another instance, a man divorced his wife, whom he'd met in the fiction writing workshop at the University of Iowa, after she threw in her artistic career for a high-paying job in a public relations firm.
Sometimes people divorce because they grow apart. A couple from the Chicago area spent 20 years in a very traditional marriage–he went off to work, and she stayed home in the role of homemaker. They had it all, from the two kids to the house in the 'burbs to the cars. But when the youngest child left for college and the couple had untold hours to spend together focusing not on child- or family-oriented issues, but rather, on each other, they found they had little common ground. His involvement in the politics of advertising was simply boring to her; and her interests in gourmet cooking and international travel were not things to which he could relate. Their taste in movies and even friends had become widely divergent. There were no affairs, and no long-simmering anger or resentment. It's just that when both reached this new crossroad, marked by the departure of their children, his arrow pointed East and hers, West.
Younger people with relationships of much shorter duration often reach this juncture as well. When people get married too young, they may find they have gone through enormous changes during the relationship and have grown apart; they've simply gone through more personal development, have a stronger sense of identity, and in light of that, would not make the same marriage choice today. Frequently, in such cases, the decision to divorce is mutual. Often, these people can walk away from marriage without feeling particularly angry, especially if they don't have any children. They both just throw up their hands, shrug their shoulders, and say "This doesn't work."
Point of No Return
How do you know when you've finally reached the point of no return, when putting your relationship together again is simply too much of a stretch? In the end, of course, the answer is personal. But if your answers to the following questions are irrefutably yes, it may be time to let go:
- Does every situation, no matter how seemingly trivial, evolve into a fight?
- Do you or your spouse continually refer to hurtful events in the past?
- Is all the respect gone from your relationship? Do you feel it is impossible to build that respect back?
- Have your goals and directions changed while your partner's have stayed the same? (Or vice versa.)
- Is your partner no longer fostering your individual growth?
- Have you and/or your partner both changed so much that you no longer share moral, ethical, or lifestyle values?
- Have you and your spouse lost the art of compromise? When you disagree, are you unable to forge a path together that is acceptable to both?
- Do you and your spouse have a basic sexual incompatibility? Do you feel completely unattracted to each other? Despite help from professional therapists, have you stopped making love?
Be Sure You Want to Divorce Before You Set Your Decision in Stone
The decision to divorce should never be made in the aftermath of a fight. Divorce is final and should be considered carefully, not just for its impact on you, but also for its impact on your children. When you divorce, what ramifications will reverberate through your life and the life of your family? Will you have enough money to sustain your lifestyle, including such details as trips to the movies, piano lessons, or the weekly ritual of take-out Chinese food? Are you ready to leave the family house for a tiny apartment? Are you ready to divide the impressionist paintings you've collected over the last 20 years, or your mint collection of rock n' roll singles, or the living room set you bought from the furniture master in Milan?
The answers, for many, may be straightforward: The emotional relationship with their spouse is largely negative, for one or more of the reasons listed previously. Why, otherwise, would divorce be in the air?
Nonetheless, there are sometimes positives that couples in conflict can miss. For instance, if you have a child, have you considered how difficult it might be to have total responsibility, on the one hand, or restricted visitation on the other? Will you miss your in-laws? Friends who may have to choose your spouse over you? Or neighbors you may have to leave? Have you considered the stress of the singles scene? And perhaps most important, will you be relieved or paralyzed by the state of solitude you may be subject to, day in and day out, once you and your partner have split?
Do take some time to consider your losses–and generally, there are sure to be some–before you set your decision to divorce in stone.