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The idea of a separation and/or divorce crosses the minds of many who’ve lost the hopeful, dreamy visual of growing old and watching the sunset together.
They’ve lost it to the day-to-day, mundane, and, at times, resentful life of adulting. These waters are murky and confusing and often keep us in a place of holding.
If you’re finding yourself stuck here, you may get some clarity and direction thinking about the following:
1. Is respect a major issue in the relationship?
One of the most common underlying reasons couples seek marriage counseling is because one or both of the partners no longer feel respected by the other. While money, sex, or parenting might be what gets them in the door, most often the lack of respect is what shows up weekly.
Feeling disrespected in a relationship is a common reason for ending one, but can also be the breaking point that gets the two of you talking. Respect hinges on a lot of other emotions such as love, admiration, and a willingness to learn and be influenced by the other. It’s an umbrella term or catchall for feeling like you’re liked and wanted to be around.
While this may sound like I’m talking to a group of teenagers about self-esteem, the fact is that we all (as old as we may be) want to feel loved and like we belong. What often happens instead is small seeds of resentment grow into giant houseplants of contempt, another name for disgust. If contempt is present, not only can love simply not grow, but it damages the way you start to see yourself as well, impacting self-esteem, confidence, and well-being.
While contempt is something that can be remedied, it takes a tremendous amount of willingness and work to reframe it. If this is something that’s saturating your relationship and you or your partner are unwilling to or cannot change, it might be time to have an honest conversation about the state of the union and the direction you’re leaning toward.
2. Do you find yourself excited about the prospect of being alone?
“I can just picture myself in a small house with my own little garden. Just me, doing what I want to do, decorating the way I want to decorate,” described one of my clients as she enchantingly illustrated what life alone would look like.
It can be so easy and enticing to romanticize life alone when the world you and your partner live in is so difficult. It’s like a breath of fresh air when you’re in a relationship that feels so heavy. While this can be the visual that gets you through the day, spending time plotting your escape isn’t a good sign for the marriage.
If you’re doing this, chances are you’ve passed the hurt and grief stage of your relationship’s demise. You’ve spent a lot of time thinking you’ve tried fixing things and have come to terms with you or your partner never changing. Before you make a move though, consider that your husband or wife truly might not have any idea that this is where you’re at. Stones left unturned can show up as doubt and regret later on.
While difficult, opening up about your desire for independence, peace, a sense of calm, and feelings of wanting to leave may help pivot your relationship into a better direction—or at least offer that direction you’re looking for. Often, when we’re honest, we open the door for others’ honesty as well. You may be surprised at what you’re met with here, and get the response that gives you clarity.
3. Are the majority of your friends divorced?
I often tell a story to my clients about how I hated capri pants for the first two years they’d hit the market. Hated. Them. Yet everywhere I went there were capri pants—on models, on TV, in magazines. I hated them until one day I didn’t. The marketing worked and what I constantly saw I started to want. This is how the human brain works. We’re deeply influenced by what’s around us and what comes into our world has a big impact on the lens we look through.
If you’ve been thinking about ending your marriage, take a look at the people you’ve been hanging around. If the majority of them are divorced, you might want to change up your social circle for a bit to get some new perspective. When you’re married or in a relationship that’s in a bad place, being single can look so sparkly, fun, and free. Remember, there’s struggle on both sides of the fence and what we don’t finish in one relationship often gets brought with us into the next one.
4. Do you already feel like you’re by yourself?
Loneliness is no joke and we’ve become all too accustomed to detaching ourselves through our screens, but marriage should be the one place where we feel a healthy sense of attachment and belonging with our partner. I’m not talking about codependency here nor am I rooting for epic independence either—but if you’re in a relationship where you feel alone, change is necessary for your mental wellness.
Loneliness is one of the most impactful elements when it comes to depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. Did you think I was exaggerating on that sense of belonging we all have? I promise, I was not. Outside of doing things together like creating what John Gottman calls “rituals of connection,” meal times, holidays, the rhythm of the home, feeling known by your partner is a big indicator of a healthy relationship. This feeling of being known is so important in fact, that many couples reach out for therapy because this is missing from their marriage.
It’s easy to fall into a pattern of transactions in a relationship you’ve been in for a long time. “How was work?” “What are the plans for the weekend?” “Did you make that doctor’s appointment for so-and-so?” That’s not the work. The work is letting your partner see inside yourself by sharing something near to you, something that truly only you would know—a feeling, a thought, an experience from your perspective. The growth is in the share.
Before you decide whether separating or divorce is a viable option for you, and if it’s safe to do so—meaning there’s no physical, mental, or verbal abuse present in the relationship—make it a goal for you both to become more vulnerable with one another.
5. Do you have children together?
The research has wavered a bit on this topic over the years as have people’s general thoughts on this issue. This is a deeply personal decision and many factors go into a divorce or separation when it comes to kids. But know this, oftentimes the issues you had with your partner’s parenting style do not go away in a divorce. On the contrary, they can actually grow in intensity and in most cases, there might not be much you can do about it.
Do we owe it to our children to stay married? I don’t know—but here’s one thing I do know: we owe it to our children to be healthy adults handling conflict respectfully, pragmatically, and lovingly. No matter what. We also owe it to our children to show them what loving relationships look like because we are their models. Having children does not necessarily prevent you from separating or divorce, it does give you the ultimate responsibility however to model humanism.
6. Are you financially independent?
Fair or unfair, finances do play a role in making this decision and can inhibit your options if you’re in a position where you cannot support yourself without your partner’s income. For many people, this is the final barrier that prevents a divorce or separation. Lifestyle, career, and taking care of children as a stay-at-home parent all come into play. If you’re financially dependent on your spouse, educate yourself about your family’s finances, be in the know about expenses, and start getting a really good idea of how much your lifestyle costs whether or not you’re considering leaving.
This is also a good time to think about what you could live without and what your absolute necessities would consist of. I also advise meeting with other professionals who can contribute to knowledge surrounding this idea. Financial planners, lawyers, and career and life coaches can be incredibly helpful here to shed some light on how to get on your feet through a separation or divorce.
“Should we stay married?” It’s a common question yet so deeply personal in terms of your reasons for asking and the direction you might take.
If you find yourself thinking about this, remember that you own the story you’ve created about your relationship. While there are many barriers to a separation or divorce, sharing your draft with your partner isn’t one of them. Regardless of the end result, being able to be truthful is a move toward growth and wellness.