Is your marriage a mess but you’re afraid to get a divorce? Are you scared of being on your own? Are you staying together for the kids? There are so many things to think about before you decide to get a divorce. The average person thinks about divorce for 7 years before taking that step. So it makes sense if you’re stuck and not doing anything about it.
If you’re feeling that you don’t want to stay married but you don’t want to get divorced, you’re not alone. Many people stay in their marriages because they’re scared of the alternative. It feels better to be together because your children are in an intact family. And staying married feels safe and stable. But if you’re unhappy, depressed or anxious, that’s not really stable. And if your children see conflict or tension, that’s not good for them.
If you’re unhappy in your marriage, it’s taking a toll on you. Even if your marriage looks ok from the outside, you know what’s really going on inside. If there is no connection, no communication, no partnership or respect, it can feel horrible. Maybe one partner shows their rage toward the other in private but everyone outside the family thinks he or she is a great person. Maybe one partner isn’t willing to work on the marriage and expects the other to accept it as it is. Being in an unhappy marriage can have emotional and even physical consequences. I understand; I was there too. I started having optical migraines and acid reflux which are both physical conditions that stem from stress.
Once you realize that there are serious negative consequences to being in an unhappy marriage, you can start to get closer to a decision to divorce. Understanding that you deserve to be happy, and your children deserve to have happy parents, provides you with the courage to overcome your fears of getting divorced. Millions of people have gotten through divorce, you can too.
Get support as you go through this very stressful time - get support from family, friends, a therapist or from my group coaching program – Thriving Through Divorce. If you know it's the right decision, you can find the courage to do this. You can build an amazing new post-divorce life for yourself and your children.
Sometimes you may feel your relationship is going well and other times you may be worried about the strength of your relationship. It can help to take a step back and see what’s working and what’s not. Here are some areas to look at:
These five areas are important when assessing the strength of your relationship. If you’re doing most or all of these, you’re probably doing pretty well. If you need work on one or more of these areas, don’t be discouraged. These skills can be learned. You can improve the strength of your relationship yourselves or you can always try couples counseling.
Relationships are tricky. In order to have a healthy relationship, you must compromise. You have to give up some things that you would want and hopefully your partner also gives up some things that they want. But how much giving up is too much? How do you both give to each other while making sure that you're meeting your own needs?
Communication is key to finding the balance between taking care of yourself and taking care of your relationship. Make some time to talk when you’re both relaxed and can focus on the conversation. Listen to each other and try to understand the other’s point of view. If you find that your partner doesn’t allow you to have your own friends or activities, that may indicate a serious problem in your relationship. If you can have a reasonable conversation about how you can work through this issue, that’s a very good sign for the health of your relationship.
Too many people get into relationships and find that everything they do revolves around their partner. The problem with this is that it may work in the beginning but after some time you'll most likely feel resentful. You'll wake up and realize that you’ve become distant from all of your friends and you don’t have any outside interests. It doesn’t have to be that way. You can give of yourself to the relationship while you take care of yourself.
The first step is to think about what’s important to you. Prioritize the things that you do that make you happy. Is it important to attend a weekly book club with your friends? Is it important to work out every day? Is it important to spend time with your sister regularly? You probably won’t be able to do it all but you can choose some things that you value the most. You need to feel grounded and happy. If you find that you’ve given up too much and you’re starting to feel resentful, that needs to be discussed.
Good communication is essential to finding the right balance for your relationship. Check in with your partner regularly and make sure you’re on the same page regarding time spent together and time spent apart. If you do so, you’ll develop the basis for a really strong, connected relationship.
Most couples struggle with communication. You may spend a lot of time together with your partner but much of that is tied up with kids, work, or chores and responsibilities. At the end of the day, exhausted, you each watch your favorite program and go to sleep. In truth, very little meaningful communication occurred.
If that sounds familiar in your relationship, you can make some changes that will significantly improve your communication. The first step is to schedule time to communicate into your day two to three times a week. Make that time sacred so that nothing else can take priority. It doesn’t have to be that long – 30 minutes is plenty of time. Make sure there are no distractions. Then use the following guidelines to structure your communication time:
Good communication in relationships is a skill that takes practice. It may take some time to change the way you communicate, especially if you’ve been doing it differently for a long time. But using these techniques successfully will help you communication better and as a result, you will have a closer, more connected relationship.
In most relationships, there is conflict. The way that you deal with conflict is so important to being close. John Gottman suggests using specific word to help people repair their relationships when there is conflict. He suggests using “I feel” statements instead of “You” statements. Saying how you feel with “I feel” statements allows the other person to hear you without becoming defensive. It’s a non-threatening way of communicating.
I Feel statements:
If the communication starts to get more intense or emotional, one of you may need to take the intensity down. When emotions are high, it’s very difficult to have a reasonable conversation. Here are some suggestions for those circumstances:
I Need To Calm Down:
Apologies and taking responsibility for your part can be really powerful, especially when they’re heartfelt. They can immediately change the intensity of the interaction and start moving you in a different direction.
Finally, in every conflict there is a way to get to a resolution. Providing some positive comments can be very helpful in getting you to an agreement.
Get To Yes:
Using these statements and tools involves being kind. Kindness is the glue to healthy relationships. Kindness is like a muscle – it’s easier to be kind the more you practice. It’s difficult to practice kindness during a fight when emotions are running high. When you’re emotional, it can be hard to think of what to say to be kind. But these kind words can be powerful tools to repair feelings during a conflict so that the end result is a much closer, more intimate relationship.
When your partner pulls away, you may feel hurt. You may even feel a deep sense of rejection and fear that he or she doesn’t love you and may leave you. Typically, this is an irrational feeling if your partner has shown you over time that they love you. Your partner pulling away from you is likely the result of their past experiences and circumstances. Something happened in their past that makes them pull away when they feel upset.
Intimate relationships are hard because there are so many complex emotions that we might not fully understand. Experiences from the past are brought up and those feelings impact your reactions. If it was just about the single incident, it wouldn’t take you long to recognize that your partner loves you and when he or she pulled away, it wasn’t due to the way they feel about you. But instead you feel that irrational rejection. So why do you have that irrational feeling?
These irrational feelings are usually triggered by past experience – possibly being rejected by a parent or a past partner. A part of the brain that is triggered doesn’t know the difference between the current experience and the past experience. So you feel deeply hurt and you become scared that the person will leave you. You immediately react – either fight or pull away. This may create the same feeling in your partner and, in turn, they may pull away even further. Before you know it, you are completely disconnected from each other emotionally.
What do we do about this? The first step is try to figure out what previous experience is coming up for you. Did you have a rejecting parent? Was your parent depressed, anxious, addicted to something or unable to meet your needs when you were a child? If so, when a partner pulls away you feel like a child again. I call it being “kicked into your kid”. You are that 8 or 10-year-old child again where you didn’t get your needs met and didn’t feel unconditional love from a parent. If you have a bad experience of being hurt by a previous relationship, when a partner pulls away you may feel scared of being hurt again. This is a little easier to understand and connect on an emotional level. But this new partner didn’t leave so it’s important to separate your feelings from your past from this current relationship.
The second step is to share your feelings with your partner in a clear, non-threatening way. Use an “I message”:
I feel ________________ when you ____________ because _________. Would you please ______________?
I feel hurt when you pull away because it brings up the feelings I had when I was rejected by my mom when I was a child. Would you please let me know that you still love me?
This is scary to do for many people because you are making yourself extremely vulnerable. But you are also learning how to communicate your feelings which will bring you closer and will enable you to have a truly deep intimate connection with your significant other.
When you disagree with a spouse, co-worker or child, it’s easy to get emotional. Intense feelings can be triggered and the disagreement can turn into a messy fight. Things are said in the heat of the moment that you can’t take back. At that moment, it seems like you don’t have control over your brain. Wouldn’t it be great if you were able to train your brain so this wouldn’t happen?
During these interactions, we get consumed by what's called the “reptilian” part of the brain – the survival part of our brain that scans for danger multiple times per second to find potential danger lurking. That primitive part of the brain only sees two possible solutions to problems – fight or flight. The reptilian brain feeds on fear and actually shuts off the creative problem-solving part of the brain. Your heart starts racing, you get flushed and your voice starts getting louder. The other person responds in the same way and the interaction escalates.
When your creative thinking area of the brain is shut off, you won’t be able to come to a compromise or handle the situation in the best manner. So what do you do to train your brain not to respond this way? The main technique to learn is to slow your brain down. To be able to do that you literally have to remove yourself from the heated situation by saying, “I need some time…” Give yourself the time and space to slow down. Take deep abdominal breaths, go for a walk, listen to music or call a friend. It may take anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes. Once your brain is functioning slower, you may be able to think of a solution. Or you may realize that you don’t need to come up with a solution right away – you may be able to give yourself a few days or more to find a compromise.
Training your brain this way takes time and practice. Don’t get discouraged if you can’t do it right away. Tell yourself, “I’ve got this, I can do this.” Eventually you’ll learn this technique and you’ll find that your newly trained brain will help you tremendously in many different areas of your life.
Most people who are thinking about divorce are extremely conflicted. Some days you feel confident that divorce is the right decision but other days you question whether or not you could be making a mistake. It may be on your mind for years. There are so many things that change when you decide to divorce. It’s absolutely normal to be unsure and to question yourself about this important decision.
Even if you’ve spoken to your spouse or a lawyer about divorce, you may not be ready to make that decision. Guilt about the impact on the children, fear of financial instability and fear of being alone could be significant factors in the decision of whether or not to divorce. The decision to divorce is one of the most difficult decisions a person can make with consequences that last for a lifetime.
It is extremely important to think through the decision rationally and to try not to let emotions get in the way. Fear, anger, resentment and loss can be so intense that you may not see things clearly. If you can work through these feelings with a friend, therapist or divorce coach, you will be better able to make an informed, rational decision that you will be able to live with for the rest of your life.
The following are factors that you should consider before divorce:
If you have thought through these questions and still feel that divorce is the right decision, then you’re probably ready to start the process. If you need help with making this decision, a therapist or divorce coach can help you think through these issues in a calm, rational and confidential way. You are the only person who can make this decision but it can make a difference if you have support throughout the process.
Typically couples start marriage counseling when it's too late - after an affair, when they're thinking about divorce, when there are years and years of anger and resentment built up. Although counseling can help a couple at almost any time, the sooner you start counseling, the more likely the couple will be able to make significant positive changes in their relationship.
The best time to start couples counseling is when you first see signs of issues. Even before there are any issues, most couples can benefit from counseling. During one of my sessions with a couple, one client said, "I wish I had known this years ago." If couples were to start couples counseling early on then they can avoid issues that can develop over time. Here are some signs that couples counseling is a good option:
1. When you're not talking
2. When you don't feel like your partner hears you
3. When you're communicating in a negative way - where you feel judged, shamed, disregarded or the tone of communication is condescending or sarcastic
4. When affection is withheld as punishment
5. When you see your partner as an adversary
6. When you keep secrets
7. When you're considering having an affair
8. When you find you're staying together for the children
Couples counseling can be a safe place to learn how to heal through awareness, compassion and behavior change. When couples are committed to the process, they can develop a truly connected relationship where they remember why they fell in love.
Jill Barnett Kaufman, MSW, LCSW and Certified Parent Educator is an experienced clinician who helps clients discover new ways to resolve a variety of challenges and bring more happiness and peace into their lives.