The question of when to divorce is a big one for troubled couples. Partners in pain ask when they should throw in the towel. What is the right amount of time to work on the relationship, and how do you know it is really done?
It feels good to think about an escape. The fantasy is that divorce will make the problems go away.
The sad truth is that most people find similar troubles in their next relationship. Not to mention the challenges that come from divorce that most people underestimate.
Conflict doesn’t always end with divorce–it just crosses two households. And children involved have no say in this decision that so profoundly affects them.
The good news is that–barring any deal breakers –most problems are solvable.
To be clear, I personally am not against divorce. I don’t think it’s wrong and in many cases it’s best for everyone.
But most of the time, unhappy marriages CAN be changed. So before asking the question about when to divorce, it is worthwhile to try to make it work.
What’s needed is HOPE to offset the overwhelming pessimism that comes with relationship troubles.
It helps to remember that a crisis can be a real opportunity for deep and radical change. It truly is possible to come through the other side, look back and say: Thank goodness we made it!
Try these techniques first before planning to divorce:
Marriage Saving Techniques
Michele Weiner-Davis, in her book Divorce Busting, reminds us that we only change our relationships by changing ourselves.
These techniques reflect a commitment to changing yourself first, and are proven to help save troubled marriages.
1) Keep in mind that “growing apart” is an illusion. Most people are essentially still the same–just perceptions of each other have changed. What we project onto our partner from our past comes into play. The truth is that couples go in and out of love, and there is no magic in magic (see step 2).
2) Figure out what works. What are the exceptions to your problems? What is different when things are good? What is different about the times your problems arise but they just don’t bother you? Once you figure it out, do it! Was it that you created a nice evening and treated your partner like you were on a date? Was it that you were exercising regularly and felt better then? There are real actions, behaviors, and circumstances that create loving feelings, so find out what they are. It’s not magic.
3) Just do it, you don’t have to like it. Within reason of course. But don’t say “Why should I have to do that?” If it works, that’s why you should do it. In the beginning of a relationship, we act out of inspired feelings. But over time, we need to step up our behaviors to improve our perceptions. Inspiration comes from the connection that comes from our actions.
4) Build on strengths. This always works better than dissecting weaknesses. Remember the 5:1 ratio? As long as you have enough positive in relation to the negative (and there will always be some negative) you’ll be fine. What is good about your relationship? How can you expand that?
5) Break destructive patterns. When faced with a problem situation, do anything differently than you usually have. Or “act as if” you felt differently. Remember, actions change perceptions and feelings as well.
6) Close your exits. This expression comes from Dr. Harville Hendrix, who recommends making sure that you have both feet in while working on the relationship. You can always step out later, but not now! Exits can range from affairs to simply not being present, spending too much time on the internet, etc.
When to Divorce
Sometimes giving it your best shot isn’t enough and your efforts fall flat.
Here is when to consider divorce:
1) If you have tried the above 5 steps for a reasonable amount of time and nothing has changed. I recommend at least three months of honest effort, because at that point it is unlikely that you will fail. But if your efforts fall flat, remember life is short and don’t stay stuck.
2) Your partner has a personality disorder. If this is the case, they need the old dynamics to feed off of. You will feel your efforts blocked because your partner’s ego cannot remain intact in the face of change. With personality disorders, in particular narcissism, there is not much you can do.
3) You still have completely different and mutually exclusive life dreams. In this case, even if you get along better, you cannot live your calling or be true to your higher purpose AND be with this person at the same time.
4) You are dealing with a deal breaker. Are you up against a non-negotiable bottom line? If you are unsure, see my blog on deal breakers here.
At a certain point, it really is best to cut your losses.
In the words of Dr. Bethany Marhsall: “Loss can be negotiated, and reputations can be repaired. But a life can never be relived. So make sure you are living it with the right person.”