The question of whether to end a marriage and seek a divorce is one of the hardest questions a person will ever have to face. It can be extremely difficult to weigh the pain you are in against the barriers to leaving a marriage or long-term relationship.
Obviously, your marriage is not working right now, or the question wouldn’t be crossing your mind. If it were simple to just pick up and walk out of a marriage, you might have done so already. But the reality is, it’s not so easy at all, and there are serious pros and cons to consider whichever way you go.
Certainly no blog post will be able to answer the question for you – nobody can do that except you. Talking it out with a trusted friend, a coach, or a therapist can be helpful, but at the end of the day, you are the only one who can make this decision based on what’s right for you.
That said, here are some considerations to think through as you contemplate this complex decision. This post will take a look at some of the most common reasons for wanting a divorce. In future posts we’ll consider the ramifications of divorce on your life, and the alternatives you might want to think about before making a decision.
Why do you want to get divorced?
Let’s start by considering some of the reasons you might be thinking of divorce. (It would be hard to make this list comprehensive, but these are some of the most common issues.)
1. My partner cheated on me.
This is unfortunately an all-too-common situation that severely threatens marriages. Infidelity can shake the very foundation of the partnership and leave the betrayed partner questioning the entire relationship. It certainly makes sense to consider ending the marriage in the face of such a betrayal.
(Not all cases of infidelity are the same, of course. There is quite a difference in the impact on the marriage between someone who, having been separated from their spouse for an extended period, gets drunk one night and hooks up with someone at the bar vs. someone who has been lying to their spouse for years and carrying on a deeply emotional affair with their spouse’s best friend. This is not to judge anyone for their decision to end or not end the marriage in either case. I just mean to point out that in reality “infidelity” is not a monolithic concept.)
Most (but not all) people view infidelity as a major violation, one that justifies dissolving a marriage. It is interesting to note that while research has shown that the majority of married people say they would leave if their spouse cheated on them, it has also shown that the majority of people do not leave when it happens to them! This is one of those “easier said than done” situations. As an outside observer, it’s easy to say what we would do in a given situation. When that very difficult situation actually happens to us, it’s much harder to make such a hard decision.
So, if this is the situation you’re in, here’s a few things to know: first, it is absolutely possible to recover from infidelity. It does not have to mean the end of a relationship. You might decide you don’t want to keep this relationship after discovering an affair, and that is perfectly understandable. But you should know that repair is possible, and you have a reasonable choice here of which way to go.
You should also be aware that cheaters can and do change. The saying “once a cheater, always a cheater” has little truth to it. (The folks who are chronic cheaters are usually the ones who have no interest in making a change, or who have a sexual addiction problem.)
Third, realize that it’s okay not to know, to be ambivalent, to be confused. Life tends to be a lot more complicated than the movies make it out to be. You may still love your spouse despite what they’ve done. There may be a host of other considerations you have to grapple with (as we’ll discuss below). You don’t have to have an answer right away. You can take the time you need to think things through, and then ultimately decide to stay or to go.
Infidelity is certainly a strong reason for leaving a marriage – the violation can be huge, no doubt about it. But you also don’t have to get divorced because of this (even if your friends/family are saying you do!). If you do want to consider working things out, that is a reasonable option as well.
2. My partner is abusive/a narcissist.
The terms “abuse” and “narcissist” sometimes get thrown around rather loosely, which can lead to confusion about the reality of the situation you’re in. But rather than trying to diagnose your partner, it is probably more helpful to get a good grasp on the prognosis for your relationship. If your partner is sometimes mean, insensitive, and hurtful, that may or may not be a fundamental problem for the relationship. The key question is whether they are willing and able to change. If they’re prepared to discuss the problems with you, to go to counseling together, to try to do things differently – these are good signs.
On the other hand, if they refuse to talk about the issues and shut you down instead; if they will not seek help for themselves or the relationship and instead say that it’s your problem, you need therapy, you deal with it; if they are unwilling to make changes in the way they behave – these are not good signs.
(Note: it’s possible you do need therapy! That’s not a judgment or blame. The fact that we all have our own histories, struggles, and wounds doesn’t mean that your spouse can run roughshod all over you. Not to mention that a therapist can be very helpful in providing you with support in a difficult situation and gaining clarity on what the reality is in your relationship.)
Someone who is selfish can probably learn to be less selfish. (Weren’t we all selfish as kids? Most of us learned how to be different.) Someone who is narcissistic may not be able to change, and probably has no interest in doing so. They are focused on their own needs not just sometimes, but virtually always; they ignore your needs and show no regard for them or for the impact of their behavior on you. True Narcissistic Personality Disorder is pretty rare. But that doesn’t mean your spouse doesn’t show enough traits of it that you’d want to leave.
Abuse can likewise be very hard to pin down and identify. The experience of a victim of abuse often is one of being controlled and disempowered. In both situations of abuse and narcissism (which often overlap), the victim is always made out to be in the wrong, and the fault for any problem is always laid at their feet. Again, being mean or sometimes telling you what to do may not be proof of an abusive partner; it is rather a pattern of such behaviors that indicates abuse. If you think you might be in an abusive relationship, check out this list of potential red flags.
Being in a relationship with an abuser or a narcissist is grueling, life-sapping, and usually miserable. If you are certain that that’s what’s going on in your marriage, divorce unfortunately usually comes out to be the only option. If your partner is willing to seek treatment, that’s good news – there are therapists who specialize in Narcissistic Personality Disorder and dedicated groups for abusive partners. Know however that the success rates for treating either of these issues are not stellar. These marriages often do end in divorce.
3. My partner is an addict.
Substance abuse is another very difficult challenge to a marriage. Addiction can ruin the life of the person suffering from it along with anyone close to them. It is completely understandable to want to get out of this kind of situation. At the same time, it is natural to want to help your spouse, to believe in their ability to overcome their addiction, or to feel guilty about leaving them in a time of need.
Your support can be invaluable to your partner during this time; but of course, you need to be able to survive yourself. Getting your own support through a nar-anon or al-anon group – groups specifically designed for friends and family of people addicted to drugs and alcohol – can be extremely helpful. Even then, it might not be possible for you to stick it out with your spouse.
Here again the biggest question is probably whether your spouse is willing to seek help. Denial is often a significant part of the picture with addiction, and so it may take some time until they get to that point. You may or may not be able to wait until that point, depending on how destructive their addiction is to your life and to the marriage.
Substance abuse can lead to all kinds of problems, including broken trust, financial problems, physical violence, and more. You need to evaluate how much you are prepared to tolerate while things get to the point where your spouse gets the help they need. If they aren’t willing to get help at all, that is definitely not a positive forecast for the relationship.
Even if they are willing to get help, know that the path out of addiction is full of ups and downs. Relapse is an expected part of the process. It is a long road to the end, but it’s possible to get there. If you want to walk it with your partner, make sure that they’re walking with you, not being dragged along by your hopefulness that something will change. They’re going to need to travel this road of their own volition or success is unlikely – and you may end up getting pulled down with them.
4. I fell out of love/we grew apart.
It is not uncommon for people to find that the feelings that once fueled their relationship are no longer there. In fact, this is the rule rather than the exception! The excitement at the beginning of the relationship can’t possibly last for years and decades. But love is not the same as excitement. Love will feel different after many years of marriage; it is deeper, stronger, and more secure. Don’t mistake this feeling for the absence or loss of love!
There is no question that it can be sad and painful to find yourself in a marriage that is not loving and connected. Loneliness is all the more bitter when you’re not actually alone. And it is natural to seek connection, to yearn for something more if your marriage has felt dead like this for some time.
It is certainly possible for people to grow apart or to feel different about each other than they did at the outset. The good news is that it’s generally a reversible process. If you grew apart, you can grow back together. If you fell out of love, you can fall in love again. There may be obstacles to overcome – emotional injuries to the relationship, years of resentment over the state of the marriage, lack of knowledge of how to repair – but as above, the willingness to seek help and to change makes all the difference. There are many books, courses, and professionals who can help a relationship get back on track, even after many years.
You may find yourself resisting the idea that your marriage can improve. It is worth taking some time to contemplate if there is something going on besides your feelings of having grown apart of fallen out of love. Are you in fact angry about things that have happened in the marriage? Are you convincing yourself that your spouse could never be different (although in truth you can’t really know that for sure)?
Or perhaps it really has little to do with them and more to do with you – an attraction for someone else, or an unwillingness to put the work in yourself. These are not judgments; they are cues to consider what might be the source of a conviction you may feel that the relationship is not salvageable. It is not unusual for something else to be going on when the stated concern is the quality of the emotional connection between spouses (although it’s certainly possible there really isn’t anything else).
5. We don’t communicate well/We’re always fighting.
Poor communication kills a lot of marriages; so does constant fighting. Who wants to live in an atmosphere of constant stress and tension? It’s very uncomfortable, sometimes unbearable. And it’s not just the fights themselves, of course. Eventually you get to a point where you’re afraid to talk about anything. You’re walking on eggshells all the time. This is excruciating for everyone.
The ramifications of this situation are often some of the problems we mentioned above. Spouses feel distant because they can’t communicate; they rarely talk about anything besides practical day-to-day matters; they begin to grow apart. Sometimes they begin looking for connection outside the marriage, leading to an affair. It makes sense – if you can’t communicate, you can’t grow or repair a marriage.
Fortunately, this problem is also quite resolvable. Communication and relationship skills can definitely be learned. This can improve connection and reduce friction in the relationship. We’ve seen many couples come in for counseling who were high on anger and resentment and low on communication skills, who go on to have happy and fulfilling marriages after going through couples therapy.
It can be beyond frustrating to try to get through to your partner and keep missing, or to be told that, despite your best efforts, “you’re not hearing me.” It doesn’t have to be that way. Yes, divorce is an option – although, as we’ll discuss in the next post, if you are going to be tied together by children, business, or some other factor, you may find that the communication misses will likely persist even after the marriage is over.
When it comes to communication issues, the best approach might be to work together on gaining the skills you need to make this work, whether it’s through a book, an online course, marriage counseling, or whatever approach works for you.
There are some of the most common reasons that lead people to seek a divorce. All of them are sensible and understandable motivations. However, as we have discussed above, some of them are more resolvable than others; and in all cases, it is the willingness to get help and to change that will make the biggest difference. If two people are prepared to work at it, it is rare that a marriage has to end in divorce.
In the next post we will tackle some of the factors besides the quality of the relationship itself that go into this decision, including children, finances, and more.