From time to time, I have people contact me with a description of their marriage or their thoughts about filing for divorce. After describing the situation, they often conclude with the following question: should I stay or should I go?
I have yet to encounter an email which prompts me to answer that question directly with the advice to divorce or to stay in the marriage. After all, barring the extreme cases of physical threats and violence, that is not an outside observer’s call to make. Instead of offering a verdict, I instead pose questions gathered from the shared information.
I have found that often the inclination to stay in a marriage or to leave via divorce is often rooted in some assumptions or thoughts that have not been fully explored. These are common statements that I receive and some of the questions that I pose in response –
The following are not always a good reason to leave a marriage:
I miss or crave the independence and freedom that comes with being single.
Specifically, what does freedom look like to you? Feel like? How would being independent change how you move through life and alter the decisions you make? Are there ways to find more space and agency within your marriage?
What are some of the downsides that come with the freedoms of single hood? What are some of the positives you only gain from a long-term relationship? Is the grass actually greener, or is it because of your current perspective? Are you putting energy into watering your own grass?
How much of this feeling of being tied down can be attributed to your marriage and how much is because you’re feeling the pressure of being an adult (and maybe missing the freedoms of your youth)?
I have a crush on somebody and it makes me feel so alive.
Isn’t that feeling of early infatuation so powerful? What do you like about yourself when you’re with this person? What do they see in you that makes you feel desired? How are you different with them than you are with your spouse?
Are you seeing this crush in their entirety, or are they only presenting their best selves? Does the crush have the traits that would make them a good long-term partner or possible parent?
What was it like when you first met your spouse? Do you put as much energy and intention into the relationship now as you did then? Are there times when you still see your spouse through that lens of infatuation, excitement or curiosity? Do you struggle to see them apart from their role as parent or caretaker or are you taking on a “parental” role with them?
When are other times or situations that also make you feel alive?
I’m bored in my marriage; it’s just not exciting anymore.
Are you bored or are you boring? What are you bringing to the marital table to bring excitement or interest? Do you tend to respond with “yes” or with “no”? Are you curious about your spouse?
When was the last time you and your partner did something new together? Do you ever ask your spouse questions that you do not know the answer to?
I’m feeling restless. I want to make some major changes in my life.
Have you brainstormed areas of possible change? Have you approached your spouse with some of your ideas? Are you assuming that they aren’t interested in your propositions before you’ve asked?
Are you living a life that feels purposeful? Do you have any feelings of emptiness? Do you feel like you can be yourself around others? Have you been living the life you want, or the one that someone else decided for you?
Are you uncomfortable with some area(s) of your life and you’re hoping to leave them behind? How do you envision life being different after you make these major changes?
I feel like my life has gone off course. This isn’t what I imagined.
Has your destination changed or is it more that the path isn’t as straightforward as you pictured? What adventures and sights have you enjoyed that you wouldn’t have if your life took the expected course?
What role did you expect your spouse to play in your life? How did you think marriage would look? Do you struggle with the contrast between the partner you imagined and the one you have?
Have you strayed from your core values and beliefs? If so, what can you do to recommit to your guiding principles?
My partner has changed. They are no longer the person I married.
What are some of the life events that have impacted your partner or your marriage since you met? In what ways has your partner changed for the better? Can you find a way to reframe the other changes in a more compassionate or understanding light?
Can you respond to these changes with curiosity? Have you tried to get to know your “new” spouse? Have you talked to someone who likes your spouse as they are to gain their perspective?
Would you be upset with a child for not being the same person at high school graduation as they were in preschool? How have you changed since the beginning of the relationship? How have these changes in your partner challenged you to grow?
The following are not always a good reason to stay in a marriage:
Leaving would break my spouse’s heart.
Do you feel like it’s your role to protect your partner’s feelings and/or to take care of them? Is it fair to your spouse for you to withhold important information from them? How might they feel if they find out later that you wanted to leave?
Are you underestimating your spouse’s strength? Have you explored this thought with them? Do you know with certainty that your partner wants to stay in the marriage? How can you broach this topic with them in a kind and compassionate manner?
It’s easier just to stay.
If your friend described this same situation, what advice would you give them? Have you ever gone through something difficult that was worth it in the end? Is there energy required to stay?
Do you feel like you have a realistic idea of the effort needed to divorce and start a new life? Have you talked to somebody who is a year or more out of divorce to gain insight into the process? How do you think you will feel about this decision ten years down the road? Twenty?
I’m scared to leave. I am intimidated by starting over. I’m worried that I’ll be alone forever.
Fear can be so convincing, can’t it? What scares you the most about leaving or starting over? Are you trying to look at the whole big picture at once? Have you broken it down into smaller, more manageable steps?
What is a time in your life when you overcame a fear? How did you feel leading up to your action? How did you feel after?
Which is worse for you – the idea of feeling alone in your marriage or the idea of being alone? Is it possible that your fear is lying to you?
I’m staying for the kids.
Are you and your spouse able to maintain a loving and peaceful environment for the kids? Do your marital tensions impact how you interact with your children? Have you seen changes in the kids that may be indicative of their stress at home?
Will you stay after the kids leave home? How might their parent’s divorce impact them when they are older?
Have you talked to divorced parents and/or adults of divorced parents to learn more about what it’s like from someone who has experienced it? Did you have a traumatic experience from your own parents’ divorce? How could you make divorce less harmful for your children?
I’m hoping it will improve.
If you know for certain that your spouse and/or marriage would be the same in five years, would you decide to stay? Have you communicated your wants and needs with your partner in a way that they can understand?
Are you putting up with abusive or cruel behavior? Would you want your child to be in a marriage with somebody like your spouse?
I’m staying out of obligation.
Do you feel trapped by your marriage? Do you feel contempt and/or frustration for your partner? If so, how might that impact the energy in your home? If your spouse gave you permission to back out of your vows, how do you think you would respond?
Are there situations when it is okay to change your mind? Are there any “dealbreakers” in marriage for you? What are they?
If you discovered that your spouse was only staying out of a sense of obligation, how would you feel? Does divorce feel like failure to you?