The common element in all three dilemmas is fear. Victims of the first dilemma fear making a mistake. Victims of the second dilemma fear their own attachment to the familiar. The third group of victims fear accountability and softness. All three result in divorces that are combative and drag on and on, sometimes for years on end.
For divorce to be a collaborative and respectful process, the couple must be prepared to separate their lives on all levels — legally, practically, and emotionally. To do this, each person must face their own divorce dilemma by answering the following eight questions:
- Do you still have feelings for your partner? Many people who say they want a divorce still have strong feelings for their partner, but due to an ongoing power struggle in the relationship, there is a lack of intimacy. If this is you, it is best to work on your relationship before deciding to divorce, otherwise your feelings of loss will overwhelm you and you may be worse off after the divorce than you are now.
Were you ever really married? To really be married, a couple must have created a relationship that included an "us." Many people who are considering divorce never had a marriage that was anything more than two individuals meeting their own needs. They may have raised children and shared a home, but they participated in those activities from a competitive rather than a unified position. If you have not developed a genuine "we" in your relationship, this would be the time to either commit to learning how to do that, or to admit that you have never really had a marriage in the first place.
Personally, I had a very difficult time admitting that my own marriage of fourteen years was in name only, despite years of matrimony. Every few months we would threaten to break up, fighting was a daily ritual, and agreements rarely lasted more than a week. Despite numerous counseling offices we attended, the pattern remained. I had to acknowledge the truth before any real change could occur.
- Are you truly ready for divorce or are you just threatening? Divorce is often threatened, especially in heated marital arguments. People who consistently threaten divorce lose credibility. If the person is not merely threatening, but is genuinely ready for a divorce, they can sustain the following thought in their own mind, "I wish to close a chapter of my life because I am at peace with the fact that there is no more that I can do or give to this relationship." They will discuss this appropriately with their spouse without any blame.
- Is this a sincere decision based on self awareness or is it an emotionally reactive decision? To be ready to divorce your partner means being able to make a clear, unemotional decision that you can support over time. Divorce means being able to let go of all strong emotional attachments to the other person, the loving ones as well as the hostile and hurtful ones. Emotionally charged decisions do not last, and if acted on, do not resolve the underlying problem. People who divorce out of anger often stay angry even after the divorce is over.
- What is your reason for wanting a divorce? Any agenda other than ending the marriage is an indication that you are not ready to divorce. If you are hoping that through the divorce, the other person will change and start treating you better, or realize how much they have lost, or pay for how much they have hurt you, you are getting a divorce for the wrong reason. Divorce has no power to right wrongs nor change people's hearts and minds. Divorce can only do one thing: end a marriage. Divorce frees each person to make new attachments to new people.
- Have you resolved your internal conflict over the divorce? Everyone who goes through a divorce is conflicted. People can feel guilty at the same time as they are sure that they want to end the relationship. Or, they can feel betrayed and at the same time recognize that their life will be better once they are out of the relationship. Recognizing the conflict and owning that different parts of you will be struggling with the impact of divorce, at different times, is part of the process of getting ready for divorce.
Can you handle the unpleasant consequences of divorce? Divorce brings grief because it marks the loss of the "happy family" dream. Hurt, disappointments, loneliness, failure, rejection, and inadequacy can all take hold of the psyche when we are in this extremely vulnerable passage. To be ready for the ups and downs of divorce, it is necessary to have a support system of family and friends who will be there to help you emotionally and practically when needed. One of the hardest consequences of divorce is needing to face the pain of your family and friends. The reality is that divorce affects so many people's lives. If you are the one choosing the divorce, you will have to hold on to your decision and the end of your marriage in the face of all these people and circumstances.
If you are the one who does not want the divorce, but your spouse wants to proceed, you will still need to get ready to accept the consequences of a failed marriage. Here are some rules of thumb: If you don't want changes to your finances, lifestyle, or traditions, then you are not ready for divorce; if you cannot accept your children's sadness and anger, then you are not ready for divorce; if you cannot accept times of insecurity, fear, and the unknown, then you are not ready for divorce; if you are not willing to let go of your spouse mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, then you are not ready for divorce.
- Are you willing to take control of your life in a responsible and mature way? Whether you are the one who wants the divorce, or the one who is having to respond to your spouse wanting the divorce, both situations have one thing in common: the marriage is ending. How people respond to this fact determines the type of divorce and future they will have. They can come from a position of bitterness, revenge, or helplessness, or they can negotiate for their future from a position of strength, understanding, and respect. The attitude you choose will determine the type of divorce you have.