Saying “I do” is a big deal, but saying “I don’t” can be just as important and life-changing. YourTango asked relationship experts Dr. Joyce Fine, Marni Feuerman and Lesli Doares what questions and considerations to keep in mind before signing a divorce decree. Have you thoughtfully considered them all?
According to Fine, “The first question to clear is whether or not both partners truly still want the marriage to work. While most couples who come in for therapy do want to better their relationships, not all couples do. Sometimes one partner comes in to appease the other, or let them down ‘easy’, in the shelter of a therapist’s office — and has not told their partner that they really want to end the relationship. At other times one partner may be pushing him or herself to stay invested when really he or she is not. It may take weeks or months to get through the layers of wishful hope, or a drive to be true to a commitment, before someone can be deeply honest and say ‘I’m already out.’ If you are already at ‘I don’t', continuing to say ‘I do’ is counter-productive.”
Feuerman echoes this sentiment, adding that ambivalence toward a relationship doesn’t have to be the nail in the coffin: “Being unsure, or ambivalent, is entirely normal and therapists expect it. You can explore that state of mind in the couples treatment or in individual therapy. In cases of extreme ambivalence or if divorce is an issue already on the table, consider your own therapy with a goal of being motivated to work on the issues with your partner. This may also be called ‘discernment counseling’ which is designed to deal with the ‘mixed agenda’ couple. Being uncertain is not the time to throw in the towel on your marriage. There is help for this situation, and you and do not want you to simply look at the treatment as last on the check-off list prior to divorce. Truly explore what is going to be a life-altering decision.”
If you’re actively working with a couples counselor, Feuerman also encourages you to ask this question: is he or she the right therapist for you? “Do you feel comfortable with the therapist? Do you think that he/she has stayed neutral, unbiased and fair during the process? Does the therapist have specific training or licensure in couples therapy? The therapist should be able to tell you that a significant portion of their practice is with couples. Even a good individual therapist may have little or no formal training with couples and this would not be a person to see for marital therapy. A reputable resource to find a couples counselor is TherapistLocator through the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (www.AAMFT.org).”
Doares adds, “Have you really committed to counseling with a qualified professional? While many licensed therapists can do couples counseling, not all are equally proficient. A good counselor will have specific training in couple’s therapy and a practice that consists mainly of this kind of work. Your relationship problems did not develop overnight and won’t be resolved in two or three sessions. Good progress can be made in as little as three months but, if you aren’t prepared for six months of work, you haven’t really committed to the process or to the relationship.”
The experts agree that you should be looking inward at your part in the marriage’s breakdown. Says Doares, “Have you identified and taken responsibility for your part in the breakdown of the marriage? Relationships are reciprocal. You each put stuff in and you each take stuff out. It is really easy to focus on what your partner is doing without owning your unproductive behavior.”
Fine agress: “Getting to know yourself and what you really need and want in your marriage is an integral part of couples therapy. The more honest you can be with yourself and, in turn, your partner, the more likely you are to benefit from couples therapy, both as an individual and then as a couple.”
But you shouldn’t expect thoughtful introspection to fix all your problems: you have to dig your heels in and do some work. Says Feuerman, “If you ignored a cancerous tumor in stage I and you finally sought treatment in stage IV, the treatment would definitely be longer and more intensive then if you attended to it early. By the time couples present for treatment, an average of six years has passed, sometimes longer. Think about a tumor growing for six years… yikes! If you have decided to work on the marriage in therapy, are you really making the effort to go religiously? Are you following through on tasks the therapist asks of you? Couples counseling takes many months, often one to two sessions a week.”
Says Fine, “Diving into couples therapy and doing all that you can do to repair this primary relationship means laying yourself bare and accepting your bare spouse. This can be extremely challenging. The more you allow or push yourself to be in the trenches the more you and your spouse will gain from the process.”
If you’re sure you want a divorce, Doares encourages you to consider this; “Are you truly prepared for all that divorce will mean for you and your children? Divorce is a decision with multiple consequences for your emotions, finances, friendships, family support, life style, etc. Your children’s world will be upended and it may take longer than you anticipate for things to settle down. Not seeing your children every day and not having a say in what happens when they are not with you is a consequence many people are unprepared for.”
Perhaps the most important thing to consider is whether your problems are truly insurmountable — of if you’re just hesitant to tackle them. Says Doares, “Are the reasons you are considering divorce hard reasons or soft reasons? Hard reasons are things like addictions, abuse, criminal activity, and personality disorders. Soft reasons are everything else: growing apart, poor communication, unhappiness, different people, even infidelity. Hard reasons are beyond your ability to fix on your own, but soft reasons can be successfully addressed.”
Fine adds, “What really, at a basic bare essentials level, has made this marriage so troubled, and how much of a priority are you willing to make fixing it? While there are many events and interactions that take place there are usually core repetitive painful patterns that occur which, as they happen over and over, build barriers between partners.”
As a last piece of wisdom, Feuerman implores us not to let too much outside influence affect our decisions. “Are you asking your friends, your mother and neighbor what they think about your situation? Are you giving them the play-by-play negative highlights?”
The decision to divorce is a monster one, and while it’s a chocie for only you and your spouse, asking the right questions with a couples counselor or therapist might help clear away some of your doubt, confusion and fear.
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