Questions to Ask Before Deciding to Divorce
By Hayden Lindsey, LPC-Intern
The question of divorce is essentially the same as the question of marriage...in reverse. If getting out of a marriage seems much more serious than getting into one, then it’s possible you and your partner 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:
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 answering this question difficult.
A trained professional can help you sort through through the anger and resentment in order to get some clarity.
How accountable is my 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?”
What are my other options? (And which ones can I stomach?)
There are really only three options besides divorce:
Stay (really) married - Both partners commit to do the work to build or rebuild a healthy relationship. A trained couples therapist is in the best position to guide this process.
Stay married in name only - Some couples opt for a relationship that is based on function rather than intimacy. Some options include opening up the relationship, creating separate bedrooms or living spaces, co-parenting without emotional connection, remaining financially inter-twined, and/or fostering companionship and support. In these instances, therapy can be helpful in creating an arrangement that works for both individuals as well as defining how partners will be accountable to one another.
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 to get a clear head to move forward with divorce. It is recommended that separation be done in conjunction with a trained therapist. Separation alone does not solve any issues and can have negative consequences on a couples’ emotional connection. If you’re going to separate, ensure that you are doing so with intention.
Depending on where you are in the process, you may not know exactly where you stand, and you may even have a very different agenda than your partner. That is ok. You don’t need to be clear about whether you want to work on your relationship to benefit from therapy. Many couples therapists are trained in discernment counseling which can help you and your partner decide what your next steps are.
Narrowing down your options makes choices simpler, although not necessarily easier. Still, doing so can give you something to move towards if you are feeling stuck.
When would I tell my 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. An attorney is in the best position to advise you of your legal options in conjunction with the support and guidance of a mental health professional.
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.
Couples who are continuously mired in tension and conflict often rewrite the “history” of the relationship. This can lead to thoughts like “I never really loved you” that serve as basis for the desire to divorce. A couples therapist can help you determine whether you are in a situation in which divorce is the best option, or if there is work to be done to save the marriage you have.
While there is no magic checklist, there are several things that warrant heavy consideration.
At the top of that list of reasons to seek divorce is a persistent threat to your or your children's Safety.
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.
But we also know that love can be cultivated and nurtured through specific, actionable steps.
In short, if you and your partner once had loving feelings towards one another, it is worth seeing if those feelings can be reclaimed. 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.
To learn more about Hayden's approach with couples, and to book an appointment with him, please visit his About Me page.
If you are in the position of wondering whether divorce is the right option for you, please know that there is help! In addition to asking yourself the questions in this article, divorce is an important life decision that impacts multiple factors. It is very healthy to seek a second, neutral opinion as you consider whether it is the right option for you. A trained therapist can be a valuable guide through this decision-making process for you as an individual, and source of support for your couple, whatever road you choose to take. You can see our team members here and book a free phone consultation here.