The following questions are designed to help you reflect upon your current situation, so that you can better ascertain the state of your marriage and decide whether divorce is the best option.
Are your expectations about marriage realistic?
Many marriages fail because they’re held to idealistic (and ultimately unrealistic) expectations. When something goes wrong, there’s little room for error. Many psychologists have dubbed this phenomenon with names like “the fairy princess syndrome,” and lament that our idealistic expectations about marriage are growing ever more unrealistic, which always leads to relationship problems.
Though unrealistic expectations can come in any number of varieties, here are the main themes:
- A) Expecting one partner to be the answer for your every desire, and to fulfill every need.
- B) Expecting to rely exclusively on each other or exist within your own self-contained universe. For example, the entire concept of “emotional infidelity” is built upon this premise; it presumes that emotional closeness or connection with anyone else is somehow “cheating.”
- C) Expecting marriage to be easy or effortless. It isn’t. Like parenting, marriage requires work and an effort to maintain a healthy relationship. You wouldn’t expect a healthy connection with your kids if you abandoned them or otherwise never put forth an effort to be their parent. Marriage is the same way.
- D) Expecting to never fight and always get along. Conflict is a part of marriage. It’s impossible to live together without occasionally stepping on each other’s toes. The important thing is that these conflicts get resolved in a certain way, not that you never fight. Couples who handle conflict in an unhealthy way like this may respond well to therapy.
- E) Comparing your own marriage to what is portrayed on TV or throughout the media, or by what you read in romance novels or even autobiographies, or otherwise ascertain through gossip with others. Remember that these idealistic portrayals are not real, or in the best of cases, extremely rare. And as for your friends’ marriages, do you really think they voluntarily air their dirty laundry? You’re getting only the positive impression they put on for others, yet they still struggle with many of the same things you do behind closed doors.
If any of these themes strike a cord with your own beliefs, you might want to rethink the divorce and give marital therapy a good try first. You can also visit LifePsychology.org for more information on repairing a relationship.
What made me enter this relationship in the first place?
The state of your marriage in the beginning may tell you something about how salvageable the relationship is. The truth is that not all couples get married in deep love. Some rush into it, some are pressured into it from friends or family, some may tie the knot because of an unplanned pregnancy. Others get married because they’re madly in love.
If you got married because you were deeply in love with this person at the time, then you might have a better chance at salvaging things than if you entered the relationship in haste or with ambivalence. If the marriage was formed on shaky grounds, this itself can seep into the psychology of both partners. It may keep them from trying very hard to salvage things, since the marriage itself is shrouded in the belief that it was flawed to begin with.
But if you did love this person, if there was a time you believed he or she was your soul mate, then there is more of a foundation to work with. Despite the platitudes we give each other, people don’t truly “grow apart;” it’s just that sometimes the qualities they cherished in each other get buried underneath the baggage of life. Eventually people stop trying, and it feels like they’re a different person.
What is your past family history?
Did your parents divorce when you were a child? How about your partner? If one of you endured a parental divorce in childhood, the odds of your own divorce go up. If both of you experienced a parental divorce, they skyrocket even higher still. But this also means that baggage from your past is giving you a much lesser chance of success than other couples, which in turn means that if you can address these problems through professional counseling, you might have a decent chance of fixing things.
Is it possible to redefine the relationship?
“Being a lesbian is just another dimension to who I am. My husband and I have different needs, but we also have a connection. If sex was the only reason for our marriage, our marriage would no longer exist.”
– A woman quoted from Weintraub (2011)
Most people would assume that when a spouse comes out as secretly gay after many years of marriage, this would surely be an instant ticket to a divorce. But as the example above illustrates, when a couple is flexible and willing to redefine their relationship, anything is possible.
As a culture, we get sucked into believing that a marriage has to be defined in a particular way. We learn to think about marriage within the framework of a rigid set of rules. This limits our flexibility, and when things go wrong according to these rules, we make the leap of assuming that things can never work. It never occurs to us that it’s possible to change the rules so that they work for the relationship.
A marriage is whatever you choose it to be, and couples are free to write their own rules. A marriage can be a partnership based on romantic love, or it can be one based on mutual friendship and respect. A marriage can be built upon mutual attraction and have a strong sexual component, or this can be a small or irrelevant part of the relationship. In times past and in other cultures still today, marriage is built up as a financial transaction. It’s a way to pool wealth or share costs that makes life easier for both partners, and may have little to do with love.
The point we’re trying to make is that whether or not you consider a marriage to be working or not working, salvageable or hopeless, a success or a failure – this all depends on what particular measures you use to define it. And as psychologist and marriage counselor Christine Meineke points out, “couples can redefine a relationship as many times as they need to.” (Rosenberg, 2011, p. 70)
So ask yourself…
- Would redefining the nature of the relationship solve these issues?
- Is there a way to redefine the relationship in a manner that smoothes over the issues of contention while still keeping a solid foundation?
Should you try a period of separation?
The idea of a separation is to give each partner a little time away in which to collect their thoughts, assess the status of their relationship, and decide whether divorce is the right decision for them. This is often beneficial for couples who are in constant conflict or who find themselves struggling to collectively deal with life or family issues. Just be aware that after separating, only 21% of couples will end up getting back together and salvaging their relationship. The rest will end in divorce.