Just as gym memberships spike each January, so do calls to divorce lawyers. It’s prime resolution time right now; whether the goal is shedding extra pounds or casting off the dead weight of a bad relationship, there’s no time like the New Year to make much-needed changes in your life.
But there’s obviously one big, fundamental difference between losing weight and leaving your spouse. While deciding to lose weight can be a no-brainer, it is often very difficult for people to know whether ending a relationship will lead to a greater sense of well-being – or whether it will have the opposite effect.
Relationships are complicated, and they are never 100% good or 100% bad. They’re always a mix of good and not-so-good (or bad), and sometimes it’s hard to know whether there’s enough bad to justify calling it quits.
I’m a divorce mediator, so most people who call me are sure that they need to end their marriages (that doesn’t mean that they aren’t grieving – many of them are, even as they work their way through the negotiation of the legal issues on the way to finalizing their divorces. There’s always a sense of loss, and lost possibility, no matter what).
But other new callers say they’re ambivalent, or downright confused, about whether or not to end their marriages. Many times, a telephone call from a total stranger has opened like this: “Hi Rosanna. I’m pretty sure I need to end my marriage, but I’m confused. I’m hoping you can help me figure out whether that’s the right decision.”
That’s a heavy ask, but I’m happy to help people talk this question through, if they’re prepared for an honest and difficult conversation. Here are the questions I think need to be explored in order to get closer to the “right” answer to the question “Should I stay or should I go?”
- Clearly, you have some serious relationship issues. What are they?
- Have you raised these issues with your spouse? If not, why not? If so, how does your spouse respond when you raise these issues? Does he seem willing to address them, or not? Why do you think he responds the way he does?
- Do you think your spouse might respond differently if the issues were raised in a different way, or in a different venue (for example, in a therapist’s office?)
- How do you think your spouse feels about your relationship, as things currently stand?
- Do you see your issues as short-term or long-term issues? Fixable or irreconcilable ones? Issues you can live with in the grand scheme of things, or deal-breakers? Are there major character flaws or red flag issues that you think will simply never change?
- When you compare what’s good about your relationship with what’s not, is there enough good to compensate for the bad?
- Do you respect your spouse? Do you feel that your spouse respects you?
- Are you attracted to your spouse? Do you feel that your spouse is attracted to you? Are you having sex? If the answer to one or both questions is no, is this a problem for you and/or your spouse? Do you see that changing? Are you able to discuss this with your spouse?
- Do you love your spouse? What does “love” mean to you? To your spouse? How would you describe your relationship? Do you feel like partners? Friends? Business partners? Co-parents? Roommates? Brother and sister? Do you think you could feel satisfied with the type of relationship you have if nothing changes?
- How old are the kids? What’s your financial situation? What kind of family support do you have? Can you afford to leave? Would it be easier/possible to wait until a more suitable time?
This list of questions is not exhaustive, but these questions really get people thinking, and often help them come to the right conclusion about which path to take. For example, it will often come out that the marriage was entered into for the wrong reasons, and that there was never a real connection there in the first place. Or maybe the marriage has been sexless for the past five years – that’s pretty hard to overcome!
Other times, it becomes apparent that one spouse has a major flaw that will probably never go away – for example, the person is abusive, or is a raging alcoholic who refuses to get treatment. In such circumstances, it often becomes clear that divorce could actually be a positive move.
Many people know deep down that a marriage needs to end, but they feel guilty because they don’t want the children to come from a broken home. But some of these people realize, after talking it through, that many children whose parents are together are living in broken homes, too. Staying together for the kids at all costs, or staying together because you “don’t believe in divorce” is rarely a good idea, if that means resigning yourself to a life of misery.
The fact is, by the time a person is calling a divorce mediator (rather than a therapist) to ask the big question, the writing is usually on the wall. The person knows deep down that divorce is the right path for him or her, but is terrified to take that step and deal with the fallout from the other spouse, children, relatives, and community – and cope with the financial and practical consequences. In these cases, it’s not so much that people are confused about whether to leave; they are sure they need to, but are afraid to, and that’s understandable, because no matter how “right” leaving may feel, it’s pretty brutal to actually do it.
Deciding whether to separate can be confusing. But I believe that people who call a divorce mediator to ask, “Should I stay or should I go?” aren’t really asking for the answer. If they were, they’d be calling a therapist. When they call me, they’re asking for someone to hear them out and support their decision to leave. They are looking for the courage to give themselves permission to do what they already know, deep down, they need to do. Because often, it takes far more courage to leave than to stay.