To Divorce or Not to Divorce: Is It Time to Move On?

It’s no secret that approximately 50% of marriages end in divorce, but how can you tell on which half of the statistic your marriage will fall? Are there ways to predict a doomed marriage? What are the signs that a marriage has gone past the point of no return and cannot be saved? How do you determine if your marriage is worth salvaging? Oftentimes — particularly in high-conflict marriages where there seems to be no resolution — couples may want to cut their losses and move on. The decision to divorce is not usually an easy one to make.  Although every marriage is different, there are ways to help identify the best next steps for your relationship and situation. If you have invested years and an incalculable amount of effort into your marriage, and there is no physical or emotional abuse at play, you may believe that it is worth attempting to salvage. However, there are marriages that simply cannot (and should not) survive. It's during these tumultuous times in your marriage that it is important to know when to call it quits.

A Professional May be Able to Help

It can be very helpful to turn to outside professionals for assistance concerning your marriage, and it’s often advantageous to speak with a therapist when considering a divorce. A neutral third party can help you explore your feelings, cope with your emotions, consider your options, and help you make the decision to either work things out with your partner — with more help from a family therapist — or transition into a new phase in your life. Talking about what you are going through is an excellent, therapeutic way to deal with your emotions and adjust to the changes.

A good couple's therapist may be able to help you better understand whether your marriage could work, or whether you are ready to move on.

Mental health professionals are also trained to help individuals and couples sort through a number of issues that may be obscuring bigger thematic concerns more fundamental to relational functioning and that frequently play out in day-to-day living. Clarifying these issues can help a couple focus in on the issues that truly impact their quality of connection, and direct the dialogue towards addressing questions about needs, wants, and hurts. Even if a couple decides to move forward with divorce, clarifying the issues can lead to increased understanding, decreased hostility, and ultimately, a more amicable starting point for working through a separation. Particularly when children are involved, a therapist can be tremendously helpful in helping a couple identify strategies for working together and being constructive rather than destructive when the children are experiencing the emotional gamut that comes along with parental separation.


Predictors of Divorce

Whether you hope to recognize signs that your marriage is headed for the rocks because you want to actively combat them, or you want to effectively predict and anticipate divorce down the road, there are certain behaviors that experts agree are the most reliable predictors of divorce. For example, a recent study of 373 newlywed couples found that couples who showed destructive behaviors like showing contempt for each other, yelling, or stonewalling conversation could predict a divorce up to 14 years later.[1] Destructive conflict behaviors like criticism, insults, and belligerence predict an increased likelihood of divorce because they are overly negative reactions to problems in the marriage.

Behavioral experts on relationships have suggested that conflict behaviors have significant implications for couples’ evaluations of the future of their marriage. Dr. John Gottman—widely recognized for the last forty years as the leading research and treatment expert on marriage—identifies the feeling of contempt by one partner towards the other as the most destructive negative force in relationships and the number one predictor of divorce. Contempt, Gottman, has found, is one of the communication styles he has dubbed as “The Four Horsemen,” referring to four particularly devastating communication patterns that are considered harbingers of relational fracturing: contempt, stonewalling, criticism, and defensiveness. A few of these, as well as additional predictors of divorce, are discussed below.[2]

Contempt

Contempt is a lethal combination of anger and disgust. It is far more destructive than mere negative feelings or general frustration. Contempt often involves a feeling of superiority. If you begin feeling better than, smarter than, or generally more emotionally or intellectually superior to your spouse, you will begin dismissing your partner or seeing his or her opinions as invalid. Ultimately, you may stop empathizing with or trying to understand your partner’s perspective.

A spouse exhibiting contempt is closed off to the other spouse, especially emotionally. In fact, the contemptuous spouse is more concerned with unleashing their feelings of superiority and disgust, rather than trying to understand his or her partner. When the contemptuous partner attacks their spouse from a place of superiority, the attacked spouse feels disliked, misunderstood, and under-appreciated. As a result, the attacked spouse is deprived of his or her safe, trusted understanding of the relationship. Meanwhile, the disdainful spouse has closed himself or herself off from their partner’s needs and emotions.

Criticism

Criticism involves making statements about your spouse’s character based on his or her conduct or behavior. Essentially, it’s an unnecessary verbal attack. Criticism is not constructive feedback about a poor habit or annoying behavior; it is meant to make your spouse feel rejected, hurt, and small. While complaints are usually about specific issues, criticism does nothing more than attack a person’s character — who he or she is. For example, a critical wife attacks her husband about leaving used water glasses around the house. She demands to know why he is always so messy, dirty, and lazy — rather than politely requesting he help out more around the house. Criticism is only constructive if you choose your tone and words very carefully, hence the popular adage “constructive criticism.”

Criticism makes your partner act defensively and it sets the tone for an argument. It usually creates an endless cycle of attacking, met by defensiveness, and eventually creating a vast amount of disconnect and distance in a relationship. The criticized partner might want to withdraw from interaction altogether. Additionally, criticism can pave the way for the most menacing behavior of the “Four Horsemen” . . . contempt[4].

Defensiveness

Defensiveness is using a counter-complaint as an attempt to defend oneself from a perceived attack. A defensive partner regularly plays the victim in uncomfortable situations with his or her spouse. A common example is consistently being the first to say, “It wasn't my fault!” If you have been known to play the victim — even when your partner is criticizing you — you may be prone to defensiveness. It is essentially blaming someone else, often your spouse and usually an individual whom you perceive is being critical of you. Defensiveness is only natural when you think you have been wrongly accused or unjustly misunderstood. Unfortunately, defensive strategies are rarely successful. A sure way to curb defensive behavior is to take responsibility for your role in bad situations. Failing to take responsibility fuels negative communication and escalates a toxic exchange. Therefore, it may be worthwhile—albeit unpleasant-- to hear your partner’s critique and take accountability for your actions. [3]


Additional Predictors of Divorce

Differences in Values

When your core values are drastically different from your spouse’s and it is challenging if not impossible to find common ground, you will have a more difficult time moving forward with the marriage. Drastically different values and belief systems in a marriage can make it more difficult for both parties to feel content in the relationship.

Values come in all shapes and sizes. The old saying “Opposites attract” is often misapplied when it comes to values. Opposite values—while they may initially be perceived as exciting, provocative, and exotic—do not bode well for long term relational health. Feelings (including attraction) wax and wane depending on a number of perpetually fluctuating internal and external conditions, but values are largely immovable. So while people’s feelings can change fairly easily, their values rarely do. What may strike one person early on in a relationship as an interesting or exciting worldview different from their own may ultimately be an intolerable value disparity. A common example is a person who has been raised in an affluence finds themselves drawn to an individual who comes from humble or even impoverished origins. Initially, thrift, minimalism, street smarts, conservative spending, and an emphasis on non-materialism may be hugely interesting or attractive to the person from the affluent background. However, over time, these traits and related decision-making may result in significant disagreements, resentments, or even hostility.

Ongoing, Deeply-Rooted Arguments

Ongoing arguments—the deeply-rooted ones or the ones that start out superficial-- are one surefire way to ruin the bliss and security of a relationship. If a marriage contains more negative interactions than positive, the hurtful conduct and other abusive behavioral tendencies will categorically lead to toxic and unhealthy relationship patterns. Personal insults, regrettable accusations, and physically lashing out (throwing objects, breaking things) are highly associated with severe disagreements and communication incompatibilities.

Arguments that are out of control and high-conflict should be irregular occurrences, not a normal part of any relationship. Whenever a spouse makes his or her partner feel devalued with harsh or unfair words on an ongoing basis, it minimizes each spouse’s value in the marriage and makes it difficult for the marriage to recover. If individuals escalate in an attempt to be heard, feel validated or respected, or instill fear or guilt in the other person, no constructive problem-solving can occur.

Feeling Emotionally Drained

An unhealthy marriage can take its toll on a couple and result in a host of different psychological and emotional challenges. Emotional exhaustion is usually one of the final signs that a divorce is imminent, especially if the couple has exhausted other measures like marriage counseling. It's a dismal sign that you have tried multiple techniques and feel drained rather than refreshed. A divorce might be the only and final way to salvage your emotional health at this point in your relationship.

It’s often difficult for one or both partners to identify emotional drain as a function, byproduct, or cause of marital difficulties, and frequently, all three exist in a sort of emotional revolving door. Certainly, when one is already worn out, it is difficult to muster more motivation and energy to work on a relational problem; and the less assertively a relational problem is addressed, the more pronounced it will become.

Emotionally aware individuals may be haunted by the suspicion that they are too drained to work on their relationship, and they may have feelings of guilt or failure about this. They may be ambivalent about divorce because they wonder how the relationship would work—or if it could work-- if they had more emotional energy to devote to it. They may put additional pressure on themselves to attend therapy or be overly tolerant or accommodating in an attempt to give the relationship a chance.

Time, energy, and effort are finite resources. Be compassionate towards yourself when you start having negative, self-critical thoughts about what you “should” be doing to work on your relationship. There are many things that might be more possible in a perfect world . . . which is why we refer to a “perfect world” as a fantasy concept. At some point, we have to stop throwing good effort after bad out of guilt and regret.


[1] Atkins, David C., Baucom, Donald H., &  Jacobson, Neil S. (2001). Understanding Infidelity: Correlates in a National Random Sample. Journal of Family Psychology. 15(4), 735-749.

[2] Dr. John Gottman has an extensive cannon of work in which he discusses these concepts. His books include, “The Seven Pricniples to Making Marriage Work”; “The Relationship Cure”; and “What Makes Love Last.” For more on Gottman’s work, visit his website at www.gottman.com.

[3] Kira Birditt, et al., “Marital Conflict Behaviors and Implications for Divorce Over 16 Years,” Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, no. 5 (2010): 1188-1204.

[4] Ellie Lisitsa, “The Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling,” The Gottman Relationship Blog, last modified April 23, 2013, https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/.

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Julia Rodgers is the firm's business director. You can read her full bio here: https://mavrideslaw.com/about/rodgers-julia/

To speak with a lawyer about divorce or a child custody matter, contact Mavrides Law in Boston or Wellesley, MA. To schedule an in-depth initial consultation, call 617-723-9900 or contact the firm at info@mavrideslaw.com

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