Does Getting a Divorce Mean That You Failed?
When I first see a couple for relationship or marriage counseling, I ask them why they want to save the relationship. It seems like an obvious question, right? Couples come to counseling to try to salvage their relationship. I ask the same question to people who are coming in for individual therapy addressing relationship issues. The answers that people give are often things like “I love him/her” or “I don’t want our relationship to end.” Sometimes, people can’t answer the question at all. They say something like “I don’t know.”
If the answer is: “I don’t want to get divorced” I have to ask more questions, because not wanting to get divorced is not the same as loving someone and wanting to stay with them.
“I didn’t exactly want to get divorced. I didn’t exactly not want to. I believed in almost equal measure both that divorcing Paul was the right thing to do and that by doing so I was destroying the best thing I had. By then my marriage had become like the trail in that moment when I realized there was a bull in both directions. I simply made a leap of faith and pushed on in the direction where I’d never been.”
I Don’t Believe In Divorce
Sometimes, one or both of the people will say something along the lines of “I don’t believe in divorce” or “my family does not believe in divorce.” Their religious beliefs may prohibit or at least strongly discourage divorce.
We are taught, both overtly by someone telling us “God doesn’t agree with divorce” and covertly by watching our parents who clearly do not want to be together resist divorce that ending a relationship should be a last resort. Is that true though? Should ending a relationship, divorcing, be the last possible option?
Here are some bad reasons to stay in a relationship:
- Staying together for the kids
- Staying together because family will judge you if you don’t
- Fear that you cannot financially support yourself
- Concerns about what other people will think
- Believing that God wants you to learn something from being unhappy
- Fear of being alone
- You never pictured yourself as someone who would get divorced
- Divorcing means giving up which makes you a failure.
There Are Wrong Reasons to Stay Together
Believe it or not, there are good reasons to end a relationship. Infidelity might be a deal breaker for some. Abuse, whether it is physical, mental, or emotional is a good reason to get divorced. Unfortunately it is not always as obvious as that the relationship is overtly abusive. I have had people say “I made my bed and now I have to lie in it.” What an awful way to think about the next fifty years of your life!
We are lucky in that we live in a time where it is easier than ever to get a divorce. Some people might disagree with that statement so strongly that they stop reading this article but I hope that you will take a moment to hear me out. If you make a mistake and choose the wrong person for “forever” should you really have to spend the rest of your life miserable because of it? Does realizing you are incompatible with someone once you are in a committed relationship mean that you are stuck? Should you make the choice to spend years of your life feeling alone, unfulfilled, and unhappy?
I, for one, think not.
That does not mean that I encourage everyone who is unhappy in their marriage to end it. Identifying that you are unhappy in your relationship is a chance to determine why you are unhappy and whether or not anything can be done about it.
Unhappiness is the sign to really examine what is happening, what has gone wrong, and to give energy and attention to reversing it if possible.
Signs That You Should Get a Divorce
This is by no means an exhaustive list but here are a few things to pay attention to. One or more of these things can be a sign that your relationship needs to end. At the very least, they are red flags that can alert you to the need to seek some professional guidance on what you should do to save the relationship.
- One of you no longer wants to be in the relationship. Unfortunately if one of you wants the relationship to end, counseling is probably not the answer. Both people have to be invested in saving or repairing the marriage.
- Behavior of one person is a problem and that person has no interest in changing. While there is never just one person to blame for problems in a relationship, if there is a behavior that is causing issues and the person does not want to change, that is a sign the relationship needs to end. Examples can be chronic infidelity, an active addiction, or controlling or abusive behavior. If you want your partner to stop having sex with other people and they are not interested in doing so, the relationship needs to end.
- There are truly irreconcilable differences. You want kids and your partner doesn’t. Your spouse will be moving for a job and you do not want to leave the town where you currently live nor do you want a long distance relationship. Your partner has decided to quit their job and join a vegan commune and you think that is nuts. When you want completely different lifestyles and neither of you has an interest in trying to find a middle ground, delaying an end is prolonging the inevitable.
- One or both of you do not like or respect the other. “I love you but I don’t like you” might be a saying but it is not really something that works with a significant other. You might always love your child even if you do not like their behavior but for a spouse or partner it is almost impossible to love them if you do not like them. If your partner does not have respect for you, it is possible they might be able to learn how to respect you but that is a sign of very big issues.
“If you have done all the work of trying to make the marriage better and nothing is changing, finding the courage to leave and move forward pays off in the long run. The pay off? You stop putting all your energy into a relationship that no longer works and put more energy into yourself and your kids.” – Cherie Morris
Good Reasons to Work on Staying Married
There are also good reasons to stay married! Here are a few signs that the relationship is worth repairing.
- You both love each other and want the relationship to continue.
- Your problems stem from a skill that can be learned or a disconnect in expectations. This includes things such as poor communication; confusion on how to meet the other person’s needs; unrealistic expectations of partner or marriage; and drifting apart over years.
- The relationship is built on shared values, interests, and mutual respect.
- Both partners want the same things out of their life and relationship. Conversely if one of your desperately wants to have children and the other has no interest in it, that is a sign that the relationship will not last.
- You are both willing to make reasonable changes to behavior and do not blame only one person for all of the relationship problems.
“Couples wait an average of six years of being unhappy before getting help.”
– John Gottman, PhD
When To Seek Professional Guidance
I see many people, often women, who come to therapy individually for relationship issues. They usually say, “I want to get couple’s counseling but my husband/wife/spouse/partner will not come with me.” It is nearly impossible for one partner to change a relationship alone. However if you are both willing to come to counseling, that is a good sign that you are both ready to put an effort into improving the relationship.
If you find that you are fighting frequently about the same things and the issues never seem to be resolved, that is a sign that you might benefit from seeing a therapist or counselor. If one or both of you feels like the other never understands what you are trying to convey and you have many miscommunications, that is another sign that couple’s counseling could be beneficial.
Whether or not you are able to save your relationship, please remember that an ending is not the same as a failure! Making a decision to end something that is not healthy for you is a choice that takes great strength.
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Stacey Aldridge, LCSW
Stacey is a therapist in private practice and the owner of Inspired Happiness Therapy and Wellness in Ridgeland, MS. If you are in the state of Mississippi and are interested in seeing Stacey for therapy, please visit the Appointments page.