Are you regularly asking yourself “Should I get a divorce?” and feeling conflicted about it? Do you receive wildly different relationship advice from friends and family? Your uncertainty is a healthy indicator that you are not making a knee-jerk reaction during a period of heightened hurt or anger. There are few things in life as agonizing as the decision to divorce; what distinguishes it from other major life crisis is the degree of choice that at least one person has in the circumstance and timing.
Given the complexity of functional and emotional needs a marriage might fulfill. Your uncertainty may also be a healthy result of your awareness of the many losses that can accumulate as a consequence of divorce, including a single cohesive family and home for your children, partnership, companionship, financial stability, in-law or friend relationships, your plans for the future, and your overall identify. Except for situations involving abuse, it is essential to make such a hefty decision only after careful, non-reactionary soul-searching and deliberation.
The Fence: An Uncomfortable Place to Sit
What can become unhealthy is a stagnant indecision; “straddling the fence” for many months or years is potentially more damaging to your health and vitality than making a tough decision to either salvage the marriage or begin the separation process. The inability to plan or take steps towards achieving life goals and dreams, and unsure of whether to invest yourself in your marriage can have a profound effect on your spirit. Ironically, remaining in this limbo is a decision unto itself, for many people it results in depression, addiction to chemicals or other distractions, and ultimately a divorce, many years down the line.
The Four Core Options
If you have been struggling with the question of “should I get a divorce” for some time, then the best relationship advice is to commit to one of these four options:
1. Work on Repairing the Marriage
Commit for a reasonable amount of time (4-8 months) to work on repairing the intimacy, love, connection and friendship in the relationship, during which a divorce (or even mentioning a separation) is off the table. Find a couple’s counselor to work with you, and be prepared to focus on your own growth in the process. If you are more of a DIY person, there are many excellent books, classes, and relationship advice resources available, including the Relationship Help Toolkit. If you do not observe any movement in the relationship, you will be more at peace knowing you earnestly put in the effort.
2. Begin the Work of Separation and Divorce
Educate yourself about the different options for how to get a divorce, select a professional family mediator to support you both, and/or a family law attorney to support solely you in the process, and begin the arduous process of restructuring your finances, home, and life.
3. Actively Work on Making the Decision
Do some soul-searching and inventory your needs and values that are both met and unmet in the marriage, and your contribution to the problems. Predict what you will regret down the line about either remaining married or getting a divorce. Notice how and with whom you talk about the marriage; this narrative often directs your feelings and indicates your investment. When friends and family members are offering you relationship advice, be aware of how that advice relates to their own agenda. Obtain short-term mediation or counseling to help you make the decision together. “Discernment Counseling” is designed for this purpose. Ultimately, having a shared process of deciding or at least understanding of what led to the divorce will greatly reduce the emotional and financial struggles that can often cause divorces to become adversarial and ruthless.
4. Develop Acceptance
If you have been sitting in extended indecision and you are not going to take action in one of these previous three ways, then stop complaining. In more polite terms, work on relaxing yourself into acceptance of your marital life and focus on things to appreciate, versus generating distress and bleeding energy from the marriage with a question about divorce which you may never answer. There is even a form of therapy called “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy”, or ACT, which can be of service.
Not So Simple? Additional Options
While this article implies there are only four paths out of divorce uncertainty, there are more nuanced options to consider. For example, you may choose to put energy towards more than one of the above options at the same time: As a family mediator, I offer some couples the option of spending ½ of each appointment either working on the decision or relationship repair and the other half of the appointment working on the details of a separation, should it go that direction.
Another option that doesn’t fit neatly into these categories is the “trial separation.” This concept, which is commonly suggested by marriage counselors, is more useful when its function is spelled out, so that it doesn’t default into another form of stagnancy. Some questions to consider include: Will you be working on the marriage during that time, directly with help or separately, with your own counselors? What will help you get clear about your next steps? How long is the “trial” and what happens at the end of it?
When the End is Inevitable
If either one of you is resolved to end the marriage, and unwilling to explore working on it (reconciliation), the most responsible and caring action is to promptly and clearly communicate that to the other person. At the point that one person is completely done, it is not “compassionate or kind” to fake that everything is OK give the other person false hope. Instead, it stalls the other person from going through the necessary stages of anger and grief that are essential to their healing process, and robs them of the opportunity to begin making choices for their life based on having all the information. Ideally, there is some thought and consideration around how to best tell your spouse you want a divorce.