How To Know When To Divorce: 9 Important Questions You Must Ask Before Ending Your Relationship
Are you in relationship distress? Are you considering ending your relationship in this New Year? Thinking of divorce? If you’re like many, you toughed your way through the holidays, not wanting to disappoint the kids or other family members during what should be a time of celebration. You put on your best happy face and muscled your way through another miserable holiday. And now you just feel drained and done. After years of struggle and pain, you just want to start the New Year on a new footing. You just can’t survive another year as painful as the last one.
I can relate. I remember separating from my former spouse the day after the New Year. A friend offered me his beach house. I decided to spend two weeks there hoping my absence would somehow make my wife want to call off the divorce threat. It didn’t work. It only deepened her resolve and resulted in ending our 25-year relationship.
I was not prepared for the devastation that came with divorce. Losing half of my family, many friends, a lot of money, and so many years of shared life together overwhelmed me. Even though I was a therapist and had worked with people who had gone through divorce, I had no idea how deeply it would impact me.
Am glad to say that I have been happily remarried for the last eight years. There are so many things that my current wife and I have done to make our relationship loving and emotionally connected. But even as a psychologist I had a lot to learn about how to make love last. My first marriage would have survived if I had known then what I know today.
Here are very important points to consider before deciding to divorce, rather than rebuild, your relationship.
How to know when to divorce: 9 important questions you must ask before ending your relationship.
1. Is your partner really the bad guy?
In her book Hold Me Tight, relationship expert Sue Johnson describes a cycle of conflict called “find the bad guy.” Like many couples in relationship distress, you may be in a pattern of arguing where you protect yourself by hammering your partner with all of the reasons that he is failing you. Simply said, you are making him the bad guy.
Think about it. You probably married him because you thought he was really a good guy. In fact, an amazing guy. The love of your life! How is it that every time you argue now he turns into Frankenstein?
Do his friends and colleagues think he is a jerk? Do your family members think that he is a monster? Have you told them that you are thinking about trading him in for a “good” guy?
Don’t get me wrong, if he is doing terrible things to you or others you need to run like hell. But you need to be realistic about this. He may be reacting to you out of hurt, rather than responding. This can be changed with the right kind of help. Knowing how to communicate, or argue in a healthy way, doesn’t come naturally.
This brings me to your next consideration.
2. Have you given a qualified experienced marriage therapist enough time to help you rebuild your relationship?
I have turned my first marriage lemons into lemonade by becoming a relationship expert and applying what I have learned in my relationship with my second wife Paula. Luckily she has been as eager as I have been to apply the science of attachment to our relationship.
I see about 25 couples a week in therapy. Many are on the brink of divorce. The majority of couples who come to see me save and dramatically improve their relationships. I have to give the credit of my success to years of training in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). I’ve spent hundreds of hours filming my couples’ sessions and reviewing my work with more experienced therapists. Now I’m an EFT supervisor and do the same for other therapists.
A lot of individual therapists do not want to work with couples because it is difficult to get results, unless you really know what you are doing. Working with couples requires specialized training. Would you go to a gynecologist for a knee replacement? You can find an Emotionally Focused Therapist in your area by going to ICEEFT.com.
You won’t know if your relationship can be changed unless you work with a qualified relationship expert. And couples therapy takes time. Realistically you will need at least three months of weekly work for small issues and three years or more for big traumatizing issues like betrayals. Childhood trauma or other mental illness or addiction further lengthens the repair process.
For most, it’s worth saving your existing relationship if it’s savable. If you’re not sure, please continue reading the following considerations.
3. Are you objective about what you will lose?
When people are in pain all they can think about is pain relief. They don’t think a lot about the years of stress and struggle that it takes to build a life.
You may tell yourself that you do not need the house you are in, the fancy car you drive, your membership to your country club or gym, or your reputation in your church. You may not be thinking about what it will actually feel like to have friends pick him and ignore you. Or to have your kids angry at you for years or not like the new guy you bring into your life.
Divorce costs more than any of us can imagine.
Ask friends who have gone through it. They probably won’t tell you unless you ask how bad it was. Most of us are too embarrassed. Take notes. Then write out what your divorce will cost you.
If you are still not sure, consider the next question.
4. Are you being realistic about what you want in a relationship?
Have you told yourself that you are no longer in love with your spouse? I understand how painful this feels. It hurts like crazy to not feel connected to your partner.
I remember many vacations to romantic islands where instead of feeling the paradise, I felt miserably alone, void of the intimacy the venue should have produced. It’s really sad and discouraging. It can cause you to stop trying to create romance.
Most people are not realistic about the day-to-day emotional connection that is required to make romance possible. I didn’t understand this and now I do. You can understand this too by reading my book, Emotional Connection or other great resources by Sue Johnson, Stan Tatkin or Harville Hendrix.
If you still aren’t clear about your decision to divorce, keep asking the following questions?
5. Do you have unresolved hurt or issues from your past?
Did you grow up in an abusive or emotionally disconnected family? Were you traumatized by an abusive past relationship? Do you struggle with depression anxiety, ADD or other forms of mental illness?
You may have been so in love when you got together with your current partner that you thought that your past would not affect your present relationship. It’s common for new love emotions to temporarily cover past psychological problems. New love emotions are so intense that they block feelings of emptiness or anger from the past.
As relationships mature our brains stop producing the new love dopamine that works as an emotional painkiller.
If you are not conscious of what is happening, you can easily blame your partner for not making you feel the way you used to earlier in your relationship. The truth is, when the dopamine drug wears off, you’re left with your normal self. Your relationship will not heal your past hurt, at least right away.
Over the years a secure relationship will heal past relationship hurts and even some forms of mental illness. As long as you are not projecting your problems onto your partner. It is really important for you to own your issues by being transparent with your partner about how you struggle. This will give him more ability to be patient and kind with you when you need him the most.
You may also need to find an individual therapist to help you work through your past problems.
You may not want to do your own psychological work. Yes, psychological work is work. It requires vulnerability. Check out Brene Brown on the Power of Vulnerability.
Or you may just be burned out from so many years of trying so hard. If so you are probably telling yourself the following.
6. Are you telling yourself there is too much water under the bridge?
I had a couple in their 80’s come in for couple’s therapy. They were still in pain because of his betrayals in their early 30’s. Trust me. When you love someone your heart will not release you until you find each other again. Unless of course you divorce.
As long as you do not make the decision to divorce there is hope for change. Our hearts long to be reunited with the person we love even if we no longer feel “in love” with that person.
Most scientists now believe that humans, like other mammals, are wired for pair bonding. When we bond with another person we do not easily let go of the emotional memory of emotional connection even if it isn’t a current reality.
If you are burned out and feel there is too much water under the bridge you will probably need the help of a couples therapist to provide encouragement. You will need help to escape patterns of communication that are destructive.
But with the right kind of help many relationships can be restored regardless of how much water there is under the bridge.
There are two other major blocks that you must face and overcome if your relationship has a chance of moving forward.
7. Are you currently having an emotional or physical affair?
Being in an affair changes everything. Every new love relationship changes your brain. You feel on top of the world. You are easily fooled into believing that new love is true love. If you do not know what is happening, you will tell yourself that the new one is the true one and that the old shoe has to go.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, some people successfully marry their affair partner. And some of these relationships are better than the previous one. But all of these couples will tell you that when the new love chemistry wears off they still have to do the hard relationship work to make their love last.
The big problem is that it is nearly impossible to find your lost feelings of love for your current partner when you are all lit up with new love emotions with another person. And even worse than that, if your current partner finds out about your affair he will be devastated and more traumatized than you can imagine.
We are biologically wired to protect our primary attachment relationship even if we don’t like them very much. I have seen partners put tracking devices on their spouse’s cars. I have seen professional men who have never been in a fight duking it out in the front yard of the man who betrayed them.
The affair will lead you nowhere other than into more pain and hurt. This is not a good way to start a new relationship. And it will destroy what you have left of your current relationship.
You may not realize or admit that you are in an emotional affair. Have you opened up your heart to someone else? Are you sharing things you should only tell your therapist or your current partner? If so, you are in an emotional affair. Do not be fooled. Emotional affairs ruin relationships just like sexual affairs do.
For similar reasons the following issue will make rebuilding your relationship difficult or impossible.
8. Are you struggling with addiction?
Addiction will rob you of your capacity to be openhearted and emotionally connected. Addiction is a way of artificially regulating your emotions. In time you will learn not to seek out your partner when you need him the most to help you feel better. Instead you will isolate and use your favorite addiction to make you feel better. Your addiction will become your love object. Sad but true.
There are so many things that you can become addicted to. I won’t cover all of them here. The obvious are drugs and alcohol. Sex and porn are big ones too. Food, gambling, gaming, and work can all be addictions.
The universal path for addiction recovery is honesty and the support of relationships. Recovery groups provide a safe place to tell the truth when you are using or in emotional pain. And to have other people in your life that safely support you.
It is a bad idea to abandon your love relationship if you are covering up your emotions with an addiction.
Most recovery programs emphasize the importance of another practice that is important to do whether or not you are addicted. Here is the next and last question.
9. Are you doing your own spiritual work?
Human beings are meaning-makers. We have an incredible capacity to create beautiful things and to reproduce this beauty in the lives of our children.
No living creature on the earth comes even close to human’s ability to change the planet and grow the creation.
Most people believe that there is something amazingly special about human existence. All major religions teach there is a light in each of us that is a reflection of divinity.
I love the namaste saying at the end of Yoga that is commonly interpreted as “the light in me sees the light in you.”
Doing your spiritual work is about taking time on a regular basis to let go of negative emotions. It is about letting the loving light that lives in you come to the surface. It is also about sending that love and light to others that you love and care about. Especially to the one that you are in a life partnership with.
There is a lot of science that suggests that meditation will change your brain and make you a more optimistic, less anxious, less depressed and more compassionate person.
Compassion for yourself and for your partner may be the most important thing that you need to restore your broken relationship.
How to Move Forward
All of the questions above were meant to give you hope for a way to restore your relationship, rather than choosing divorce. They are not intended to shame you. We are all blind until we see. Sometimes seeing requires a little help from our friends or even therapists.
Everyone deserves to be loved and cherished. It is true that love takes two. But change can also start with you. Before choosing divorce, what would it be like for you to decide in this New Year to make some changes to give your love relationship a chance to heal and grow? If you’re considering divorce in this New Year, I encourage you to dig deep into these 9 important questions you must ask before ending your relationship.
Michael W. Regier, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and Certified Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist and EFT Supervisor in Visalia and San Luis Obispo, California. He and his wife Paula are authors of the book Emotional Connection: The Story & Science of Preventing Conflict & Creating Lifetime Love. They have developed an online learning course based on the science of attachment and healthy relationship.
Are you considering divorce? Contact us at: https://www.michaelregier.com/contact-us/ or subscribe to our newsletter at: https://www.michaelregier.com/blog/relational-excellence/.