My friend Felicity’s marriage was on the rocks. Over the years she and her husband had been to three separate marriage counselors, but their problems were only getting worse. Still, she wasn’t sure if divorce was the answer for her.
“If I get a divorce, will I still be able to afford to buy organic produce for my kids?” she asked me one day when we were sitting on my front porch after a run.
“Probably,” I answered. “But if you’re worried about that, you’re not ready to get a divorce,” I added. “When you’re to the point where you feel like it would be healthier to take a job at 7-11, live under a bridge and feed your kids a steady diet of Slim Jims and Mountain Dew rather than stay another day, that’s when you know you’re ready.”
Because of my line of work — I am a behavior coach for people going through divorce — I get that question a lot. Well, not the question about organic produce exactly, but the bigger question behind that one: “Should I get a divorce?”
Divorce is not for the faint of heart. It is a grueling experience that takes guts, strength, patience, endurance and tenacity.
The short answer is this: If you have to ask someone else, you are not to the point where you are ready.
That’s not to say that there are not marriages that are so unhealthy and dysfunctional that they are objectively unsalvageable. (And yes, Felicity, I’m looking really hard in your direction.) But divorce is not for the faint of heart. It is a grueling experience that takes guts, strength, patience, endurance and tenacity. To be able to weather the ordeal, you have to be one hundred percent sure that it’s the right choice. And even then you’ll still have days when you’ll wrestle with doubts. That’s why you can’t take someone else’s word for it.
Sometimes it’s hard to assess a situation when you’re smack dab in the middle of it. We’ve all heard about the phenomenon with frogs: A frog that jumps into a pot of boiling water knows to jump back out; but a frog in a pot of water that heats up gradually doesn’t have the good sense to jump out when the temperature reaches a life-threatening level. And that unlucky frog ends up on a plate for dinner.
Because divorce is a major life decision with a huge ripple effect, it’s critical to determine whether your marriage is temporarily in hot water or if you and your kids are really at risk of getting served up for supper at a hillbilly hoe down.
There are two questions that go a long way to helping you figure out this answer. Both are equally important; but one of them is obvious, and the other is less so. Many people base their decision on the answer to the first question only and never get to the second question at all. A decision based on an incomplete analysis has a good chance of either being wrong or at least leaving you with a lifetime of lingering doubts. And patching things up once you’ve started the divorce process is easier said than done. After all, whatever bad feelings existed before you filed for divorce, you are guaranteed to have more after you’ve filed. So working through the entire analysis is essential.
The first question to ask yourself is why you want a divorce. The second question to answer — the one that often gets skipped — is how being divorced will remedy that problem. The reason the second question is important is that once the process of getting divorced is over, you graduate to the state of being divorced. And unless you’re Frank and Jamie McCourt or Elizabeth Taylor, the time you spend being divorced will last a lot longer than the time it takes you to get a divorce. So it makes sense to think about what will happen to your problems in this second and longer phase.
The reasons why marriages fail are as numerous as they are personal. But for the sake of illustrating how this analysis works, below is a work-up of some garden-variety problems that lead people to get divorced.
I want a divorce because:
…I’m not in love anymore.
At first blush, this sounds like a fatal flaw. After all, marriage is for people who are in love. So, if you’re not in love, you have no business being married.
But when you get to the second question — how being divorced will remedy the problem — the answer is less clear cut. On the one hand, divorce would seem to fix the problem since at least you won’t be married to someone you don’t love anymore.
People tend to fall in and out of love over the course of their lives.
But on the other hand, people tend to fall in and out of love over the course of their lives. Even folks in long, successful marriages will tell you there were times when they weren’t in love with each other — but they stayed together because they understood these things were cyclical.
If you accept the possibility that you will eventually fall in love again after your divorce is final, it’s worth considering whether there’s a chance you could fall in love again with your current spouse. If the answer is maybe, rather than just waiting it out, start acting like the kind of spouse you would like to be married to and see if you can’t actually help the process along.
…my spouse had an affair.
This also sounds like a no-brainer. Cheating is one of the most understandable reasons for getting a divorce. And divorce is widely accepted as the price cheaters pay for their betrayal. But how will being divorced remedy the problem? Sure, once you’re divorced you won’t be married to a cheater anymore. And if cheating is something you can never forgive then divorce is the only solution.
For some couples, infidelity, though serious, is a problem that can be sorted through with a lot of hard work and honest effort.
But not everyone falls into this category. Sometimes couples can identify the problems that led up to the affair — maybe one of you traveled too much or career demands pulled you apart. And for some couples, infidelity, though serious, is a problem that can be sorted through with a lot of hard work and honest effort.
The bottom line is if you think you might find yourself longing for the happier days of your relationship — the years you had together before things got off track and the affair happened — it might be worth trying to work through it before pulling the trigger on the divorce.
…I’m bored out of my gourd.
Life is full of routines. Sometimes there’s comfort in them, and sometimes they can put you in a coma. If you want a divorce because you’re looking for excitement, you may be headed down the wrong road. Going through a divorce is anything but boring — but it’s not the kind of adventure that anyone in her right mind goes looking for. There’s no thrill of victory — there’s only the agony of…well, there’s just plain agony.
Once divorced, your life will still be full of routines. They will be new at first, but eventually they will get just as stale. After all, emptying a dishwasher at your new house is no less mundane than it was when you lived with your ex — same chore; different dishwasher. So, before you get divorced out of boredom, spare yourself and your family the agony and put some effort and energy into making your life more exciting while you’re still married.
…I want a blank slate.
Human beings make mistakes. If enough mistakes pile up, you can find yourself wanting to wipe the slate clean and get a fresh start. And to many, divorce seems like an easy way to accomplish that. While divorce is one way to start over, there is nothing easy about it. Plus, depending how you look at things, getting a divorce can create one more “mistake” that you have to reconcile yourself with.
And once you’re divorced, you may have unloaded your spouse, but you’re still stuck with you. Unless you plan to totally change your ways instead of simply changing your crowd, you will find yourself in the exact same situation all over again a few years down the road. If it’s a fresh start you’re looking for, before upsetting the family apple cart, try turning over a new leaf instead.
Going through a divorce can (and should) cause you to do some serious soul-searching. The process will be less painful and more productive if you are sure you did everything you could before you packed it in. Working through both steps of the analysis (why you want a divorce and how things will be different after you are divorced) will help you to be sure of your decision.
Then, if you are certain your marriage is over, proceed with your divorce with a cool head and a clear conscience. Better to get the divorce behind you and be able to provide yourself and your kids with at least one healthy home, than to drag it out indefinitely.
Take it from me: While life after divorce may not be perfect, compared to being in a bad marriage it’s practically a bowl of cherries. (And yes, Felicity, I’m talking about the certified organic kind.)