Whether you’re trying to approach the dating scene wisely or looking for permission to walk away from a marriage that’s falling apart, it makes sense to wonder when getting legally divorce is the right move. So let’s get into it.
A healthy marriage is built on trust. Without sufficient trust, you simply can’t make a marriage work. But as convenient as it is to heap all of the blame onto a single cheating partner for making trust impossible, in real life, things are more complicated than this.
Deception happens in every human relationship. In fact, some degree of deception is necessary to make human relationships work. This is because humans simply aren’t designed to handle knowing too much information about each other. Ironically, the kind of information that upsets us the most is the kind that confirms how much we have in common with our fellow humans.
There are times when you think some very mean, unfair, and downright nasty thoughts about your partner. They do the same regarding you. But if the two of you were to vocalize all of these thoughts to each other and try to run a marriage on the basis of “total transparency”, things would go downhill fast. Jess says to her husband, “Hey, thanks for finally fixing that door like you promised to a month ago. Honestly, I was starting to get really mad about it. The other day I was thinking, ‘He is such a selfish jerk to keep blowing me off while he watches his sports channel!'” Jess then laughs merrily, feeling liberated for getting this confession off her chest. It can be very freeing at times to admit how dark our thoughts get towards our partners. But in such moments, we want the sharing to be a one-way deal. We don’t want to then hear about how our partners have been secretly viewing us. Should Jess’ husband respond by saying, “No problem, honey. It’s a relief for me as well to have you get off my case about this. This morning I was thinking, ‘What a nagging bitch I married!'” When Jess thinks back to that morning, she remembers her husband smiling at her. At the time she took that smile to be genuine. Now she realizes he was actually thinking ugly thoughts about her behind it.
So, was this little moment of sharing worth it? No, it wasn’t. All spouses have ugly thoughts about each other, but most of those thoughts should not be shared. My point is that trust is not something that can only exist in an absence of deception. In real life, you and your spouse will withhold a lot of information from each other and tell a lot of fibs. A lot of the lying that goes on between the two of you will probably be attempts to avoid hurting each other’s feelings. Other lies will be about keeping certain information to yourself. We all have secrets, and this is appropriate, because total transparency simply doesn’t work between two human beings. When we pretend that we are being totally honest with each other, there are usually certain subjects that we’re particularly concerned about monitoring. So maybe we share extra regarding those topics, but we will continue to keep secrets in other areas.
Affairs are often held up as unpardonable sins and a free pass to walk away. Yet while many believe it’s impossible to recover trust after a partner has cheated, this is simply not true. The first place spouses go wrong in reacting to affairs is to not dig deep enough into the factors that caused the affair to happen. Having your spouse cheat on you because you starved them out of any physical affection is an entirely different deal then having them cheat on you because they have lost all interest in you and are now emotionally committed to someone else. Many affairs are driven by factors within the cheating partner, such as a low sense of worth or a need to resolve difficult relationships with parent figures. When children grow up feeling starved of male or female versions of parental affection, it’s very common for them to try to satisfy that hunger as adults through sexual relationships. It’s also very common for victims of sexual abuse to try to resolve their distress about being assaulted by seeking out sexual partners that remind them of their original abusers. My point is that affairs can be motivated by a wide variety of complex factors, some of which can feel much easier for the betrayed partner to empathize with. It’s also common for the betrayed partner to have behaved in ways that helped the affair to happen, and acknowledging this helps the blame be distributed more fairly and can make reconciliation much easier.
While affairs get most of the attention in movies and books, they are certainly not the only way to shatter trust in a relationship. But regardless of what happens to cause trust to crumble, it shouldn’t be assumed that trust can’t be rebuilt until both partners take the time to really understand what went wrong.
Trusting someone is always a risk, and for many, that risk is terrifying and exhausting. When one person reaches a point where they dig their heels in and simply decide that they are done trying to work on trust, the marriage is not going to have a chance. In other situations, one partner’s personal pains and fears from the past simply have them too crippled to be able to muster up enough trust to run a marriage. Whatever the cause, when a marriage reaches a point where there is no trust and no hope of building trust in the near future, it’s time to consider divorcing.
The greater the potential benefits a relationship has, the more work will be required to keep it healthy. As an intimate relationship, marriage has the greatest potential to bless both partners, which is why marriage requires so much work to maintain. Pouring work into a sinking ship is exhausting, and at first divorce can sound like a relief. But actually getting through the process can be brutally painful, depending on how hostile things are between you and your spouse and how complicated your society’s laws make it to dissolve a marriage. It’s common for divorce to bring out the worst in everyone, because ending a marriage is always painful, and hurting people often try to hurt others.
There are two common mistakes that newly divorced people make. The first is to rush into a new relationship (often with someone who has been emotionally supporting them through the divorce process). The problem here is that the death of the marriage needs to be properly grieved and processed before a new relationship is attempted. You also need to learn the right lessons from the past. A failed marriage can be just as beneficial to your personal development as a successful one if you take the time to do some reflecting and think about what went wrong and how you might act wiser in the future. When you skip this phase, it’s like you’re a runner with untied shoes who got injured in your first race by tripping over your laces. But before you take the time to figure out what caused your fall, you rush into a new race where you are going to trip again.
If I was asked what the most common reason was for why marriages fail, I’d say it was because people go into them before they are personally ready to handle an intimate relationship. Whether you’re in a culture that obsesses over infatuation and personal choice, or in a culture where marriages are treated more like business deals and spouses are paired up by third parties, the same basic ingredients are required to make a marriage work. How spouses get paired together isn’t nearly as important as how they treat each other afterwards. But when you go into a marriage when you are personally a train wreck of unprocessed trauma, and you try to make the thing a safe cocoon for yourself to thrive in instead of committing to a give-and-take partnership in which you won’t always have things your way, then your chances of success are very low.
Even if you weren’t the abusive partner, or the cheater, or the one who did the dramatic, trust shattering deed, it’s still very likely that you greatly contributed to your marriage tanking. A lack of boundaries, wrong priorities, unrealistic expectations, personal immaturity–these are all very common factors in marriages that fail. After you get a divorce, it’s vital that you take time to identify ways that you contributed to taking the relationship down and think about how you can help yourself grow in those areas so that you don’t repeat the same pattern with your next partner.
A second common mistake the newly divorced make is to embrace bitterness and write off the whole institution of marriage as a crock. Just because you and your partner failed a test doesn’t mean the test itself was flawed. It’s more likely that the two of you just weren’t ready for it.
The theory that you can get all of the perks of a marriage without bothering with legal entanglements is a lie. It sounds nice, but the reality is that there are some psychological realities that make that pesky piece of paper extremely significant. So, no, you really shouldn’t rush out and start having sex with someone who you aren’t legally bound to, all the while mocking marriage as a farce. Introducing sex at the wrong time can make it much harder to get a healthy intimate relationship off the ground (see Getting Legally Married: Is It Worth It?). Until you can talk about marriage without a bitter taste in your mouth, you’re probably not ready to give a new marriage a fair chance.
Seeing a Counselor
It is a joke to tell yourselves that you’ve given marriage counseling a decent try if all you’ve done is see a counselor as a couple. Marriage counseling simply cannot be done properly unless the couple is treated together and separately, with the individual sessions being kept confidential. The reason for this is that the problems you and your spouse think you have are often quite different than the problems you actually have. It’s also vital for the counselor to build trust with both spouses, and this can’t be done when the couple is only seen together. The whole “I don’t take sides” claim sounds nice, but it needs to be proven by both spouses experiencing the counselor showing empathy and understanding regarding their individual struggles.
You want more sex and your spouse won’t come across, therefore you blame his or her coldness for ruining the relationship. But maybe your spouse has been sexually assaulted in the past and they’re actually afraid of being touched. Fears of intimacy are very common, and spouses who have them often reframe them as something else because they are embarrassed or afraid of being hurt. Until a counselor digs deep with each of you in private sessions with an understanding that any information shared in solo sessions will not be relayed to your spouse, you’re going to have a hard time identifying the real cause of your struggles.
Major secrets are often lurking in the background of struggling marriages, along with great fears about what will happen if those secrets are shared. Often the biggest obstacles in a marriage are based on experiences the spouses had before they met each other. Once you can identify what the real problems are, you can start using effective tools to deal with them. For example, a man who is dealing with a wife with touch trauma is only going to keep isolating her if he keeps demanding full on sex. A woman who is frustrated with her husband’s refusal to cuddle or kiss will also make things worse by pressuring him to engage. Restoring physical intimacy in these kinds of situations requires a very different approach (see How Can I Help My Partner Feel More Comfortable In Bed?). It’s quite doable, but you won’t use the right methods until you understand the problem.
A good counselor should be able to identify the underlying reasons for why you and your spouse keep clashing with each other. A good counselor should also be able to come up with many useful exercises and strategies for the two of you to try. Don’t pay a bunch of money to someone who just sits and listens while the two of you fight. Counselors should be educating you and helping you, not just saying “uh-huh.” If you’re not being given new tools and insights, find someone else.
Respecting Your Soul
I’ve had clients who were in very toxic marriages that were not able to be repaired because one spouse was simply unwilling or unable to step up and do their share of the work. In such cases, divorce is preferable, because remaining in an abusive relationship when you are trying to mature and grow can really hold you back. But that said, some of my clients who could have benefited from divorcing were not spiritually ready to do so.
Morality is a very important issue to your soul, and when you personally believe divorce to be morally wrong, you should be very cautious about taking that step. To avoid pitching yourself into a spiritual crisis, it’s best for you to not get a divorce until your soul is comfortable doing so. That means you have worked out an understanding for why getting a divorce isn’t going to land you on the wrong side of God’s wrath, or whatever it is that you’re concerned about. Your soul has an enormous impact on your well-being, and its concerns should not be trivialized. If you feel strongly that divorce is not a morally acceptable option for you, there are other steps you can take. Moving into separate bedrooms or separate houses can be a healthy step to take when you are trying to minimize the damage being done in a toxic marriage.
Along with trust, well-balanced power is another vital ingredient for a healthy marriage. In a marriage, power should be balanced 50/50 between partners. Some religions teach that males should hold the majority of the power in a relationship. Well, if you want a healthy relationship, you need to strive for 50/50. This is because of the type of relationship marriage is.
There are two kinds of power structures that all human relationships fall into: peer dynamics and authority dynamics. Friendships and marriages are peer dynamics. Boss-employee and parent-child relationships are authority dynamics. If you apply the wrong kind of dynamic to a relationship, things turn into a mess. A boss who treats his coworkers like his equals loses their respect, gets less done, and increases conflicts. A father who treats his young son like his equal greatly distresses the child with his behavior and the child acts out, which then upsets the father. To be healthy, a marriage needs to be treated as a peer dynamic, which means the spouses try to share power equally. Sharing power doesn’t mean tasks can’t be divided up, or that one person can’t be better at handling finances. Recognizing skills is a different concept than sharing power. Sharing power essentially means letting someone else have their way even when it’s not what you prefer. By trying to make this happen an equal amount of time for both spouses, power remains balanced. But when one person starts demanding to have his or her way most of the time, things turn abusive.
Personal fears and wounds are the main reasons why some spouses try to hog power while others try to avoid it. Either behavior is dysfunctional and will harm the health of the marriage. Keeping power in balance requires ongoing effort on both sides. When one person is hogging power and refusing to even try to learn how to share it, the marriage can be impossible to save, in which case divorce becomes recommended. It is harmful to both parties to continue an abusive relationship.
Divorce is not something that should be rushed into. All marriages go through stormy seasons, and it’s truly amazing how many obstacles can be overcome when spouses work together. Marriages can be greatly strengthened by going through some rocky times, so before you call it quits, it’s always wise to consider the possibility that you might just need to use different tools to help your marriage through its current rough patch. Learning more about relationship mechanics is a good place to start when you’re feeling frustrated, and for those who want in-depth help, I’ve written a book with exercises that you can do to pinpoint problems and solutions for your current relationships (see What’s Wrong With My Relationships?).
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