Should You Divorce? What to Do When You Can't Make Up Your Mind
Lots of people get divorced every day. But that doesn’t mean the decision to end a marriage is an easy one.
The path to divorce can start as just an itch in the back of your mind. Often, the "D" word hasn't even crossed your conscious thoughts. You might be asking yourself, "Am I happy?" or, "Is this what I really want?" for months or years before you seriously consider initiating the divorce process.
Once you admit to yourself that you're considering divorce, the logistical concerns come into play. Can you afford to split? What would your friends and co-workers say? What about your kids? Family members? Other obligations?
Getting a divorce is one of the biggest decisions a person can make, so it's natural to feel overwhelmed by the idea. And, as with many big decisions in life, it takes as long as it takes.
Why you might be considering divorce
Maybe you feel general dissatisfaction with your relationship. Maybe there was infidelity. Right now, it's important to assess your situation honestly. Beth Richman, LCSW, suggests you think it out this way: What needs are you trying to meet in your relationship?
"If you are monogamous," says Richman, "sex and intimacy might be the answer. If you have made a concerted effort as a couple to remedy sexual issues and it is not working, that would be a time to seriously consider divorce, especially if sex is important to you.
"If daily activities or leisure interests are highly incompatible, you likely won't feel satisfied if you spend the rest of your life married to this person."
Maybe you feel physically or emotionally unsafe with your spouse. If this is the case, Richman offers the following advice:
"If your partner degrades you, makes you feel unsafe, or is dangerous to you or others in your life, it is very important to carefully take steps to permanently leave. If this is the case, you should get help from a professional and have the safety of yourself and children as central to the process."
Hoping for a moment of clarity when considering divorce
When grappling with the decision to start divorce proceedings, it's common for people to hope for a moment of absolute clarity before making the leap. "Often, people wait for The Final Thing," observes Shea Root, LPC.
"That one big final event that makes it okay to leave their spouse. Something like physical abuse, infidelity, or substance use. If it's come to the point where you are waiting, and possibly hoping, for your spouse to misstep, it's time to look at leaving."
Richman frames the same idea in this way: "Ambivalence is a complicated emotional state. Sometimes, we truly feel two (or more) ways about something. Other times, we know the best decision, but we are struggling with the losses it would bring."
Richman often encourages people to trust their gut. "It can take time to admit that, deep down, we already know the right decision," she says. "But once we get there, the gut is an excellent guide." What both of these therapists are getting at is this: Sometimes, we really do know the right answer, but we're not yet ready to make the call, even to ourselves.
Why you can't make up your mind about divorce
How do we get stuck in an indecisive state? Here are just a few reasons why making the decision to divorce can be difficult.
It's natural to fear making the "wrong" choice. In fact, it's possible to feel absolutely frozen in fear of a misstep. It might help to remember that with personal decisions such as these, there is no universal right or wrong. You're only responsible for deciding what's best for you.
By the time you're considering divorce, it's likely you've been having a difficult time for a while. That mental fog, whether it rises to the level of depression or not, clouds your vision and makes it hard to see a way out. That means you may need to address your mental well-being before you feel ready to make any big decisions.
Lack of clarity
Sometimes it's difficult to jump into a life change because you don't have clarity about the problem. Maybe at this point, the question isn't, "Should I get divorced?" Maybe there are other questions you need to answer first, such as, "Can this relationship get better?" or, "Am I willing to work on this relationship?"
Feeling intimidated by the next steps
Once you make the decision to divorce, there's nothing standing between you and the process. Taking those first steps can be scary. In fact, all of the steps can be scary, from telling your partner you want out to plotting the legal logistics of divorce. But remember: You can get help and support through each of these big changes.
Decision-making exercises when considering divorce
Decision-making exercises offer twofold benefits. First, they shake you out of inactivity. They get you moving and thinking, allowing new ideas to rise to the surface. Second, they help you see the situation from a new perspective, which delivers objectivity to an emotional decision. If you're feeling stuck, any movement at all can help break the spell of indecision. Consider these decision-making tools.
Rate your satisfaction
Make a list of the needs you want your marriage to fill or the areas of life where you desire compatibility between yourself and your spouse. Then, rate how satisfied you are with each element on your list.
Make a pros vs. cons list
Create a pros vs. cons list for divorcing versus not divorcing. Use the list as a jumping-off point to clarify your fears or the places where you're missing information. For example, financial factors are often part of the decision to divorce. But there's a big difference between the looming fear that you can't afford to go it alone and actual numbers from a financial advisor.
The act of writing helps ideas flow. You might be surprised by the wisdom and insight you already have once you take a moment to put pen to paper and listen to yourself.
Reflect on your relationship story
Root advises people struggling with the decision to divorce to reflect on their relationship history. "Do you recall mostly positive experiences or mostly negative experiences? This balance of positive versus negative is a good measure. Do you and your partner have more bad times than good?" Sometimes, thinking about your relationship in retrospect can help you see it from a different perspective.
Consider setting a time limit
First, give yourself a period of time where you decide not to decide. Relief from the constant pressure to decide can be a great help and provide a much-needed break. Stop trying to second-guess yourself for a while. Consider what a reasonable amount of time would be. One month? Three months? Mark a date on your calendar.
During that time, try to let go of the decision-making process. When your time is up, set the next deadline. This time, it's your deadline to make a decision. Again, decide on a reasonable timeline. Then, look at it as a project you're managing. What needs to happen before your decision deadline? Steps might include:
- Talking to an accountant or financial advisor to fully understand the monetary implications of a divorce or to start planning life in a single-income household
- Finding a therapist to help you come to a decision or to help you come to terms with a major life transition while safeguarding your mental health
- Reaching out to a resource like Hello Divorce to get clarity on what the logistics of divorce would involve
You can also check out this resource for setting post-divorce goals.
Getting support when you are considering divorce
Making big decisions on your own is scary. Not only is it helpful to reach out for emotional support, but you may benefit from tangible, logistical support, too.
Support from a therapist
How do you know when it's time to see a therapist? "If you are struggling with this decision and feel you want impartiality and privacy, it is an excellent choice to seek professional help. Our friends and family are often our backbones of support. But when it comes to divorce, they cannot always be unbiased. and it can become sticky," says Richman. "A therapist can help in these situations by being completely focused on your needs and helping you make a complex decision that is best for you."
Says Root: "Discernment counseling, in particular, is designed for couples who are unsure if they should divorce. Counseling can also help you have a more amicable divorce and can especially help if children are involved."
Support from a coach
You may also find the services of a coach (like me!) helpful. Coaches can help with lots of things: the decision-making process, communication while uncoupling, looking after your own wellness, and imagining what life post-divorce could look like. Check out this resource if you're debating between coaching and therapy.
Support from an online divorce platform
Hello Divorce is another fantastic resource that can help cut through the confusion about what a divorce would actually look like. Once you understand the process you're considering, some uncertainty is likely to fall away.
Finally, try to make this thought from Richman your mantra: "There are times you just know you can no longer stay in a marriage. It is important to trust your gut and see this change as positive rather than a failure."
Experts featured in this article: Beth Richman, LCSW, CADCI is a Psychotherapist, Clinical Supervisor, Clinical Consultant, and Educator in Portland Oregon who specializes in sex, sexuality, gender, relationships, and trauma. Shea Root, LPC, From the Roots Up Counseling.
Stella Harris believes communication is key to satisfaction in relationships. Professionally trained as an intimacy educator, coach, and mediator, Stella brings empathy, expertise, and a fresh perspective to help clients find their sticking points and break through the roadblocks to their goals. Stella’s wide-ranging expertise has led to being featured on the evening news discussing the importance of sex education in schools, appearing as an expert witness in court, and even speaking as an authority on banana slug mating habits. Stella is the author of two books, Tongue Tied: Untangling Communication in Sex, Kink, and Relationships, and The Ultimate Guide to Threesomes. Learn more at www.stellaharris.net or follow her on Instagram @stellaharriserotica.
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