As a divorce coach, the number one thing people ask me is, “Should I get a divorce?”
While the only person who can answer that is the one asking the question, these 10 questions might help you clarify your thinking:
1. Is your spouse physically abusive? Physical abuse leaves you and your children at risk of injury or even death. If we are being physically abused, we should start to work on an exit strategy. We need to start putting aside some cash if we can and arrange a safe place to stay. The National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) can help us formulate a plan.
2. How does your spouse talk to you? Is our spouse cruel or sarcastic? Does he or she make jokes at our expense? Emotional abuse may not leave bruises, but it’s damaging to our mental health. A constant diet of criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling will harm our self-esteem. Marriage counseling can work for some couples, but many emotional abusers never change. Are we willing to live with that?
3. Do you have access to your money? If our spouse controls our bank accounts, we have limited access to funds, or our spending is closely scrutinized, these can be signs of financial abuse. It’s normal for spouses to jointly make plans to save money and contain their spending, but financial abusers use money as a method of control. If we decide we want a divorce, we should take photos of any financial papers, like bank statements and pay stubs. Talk to a lawyer with experience with financial abuse so they can help you access your money.
4. Is your spouse having an affair? People think of affairs as marriage deal-breakers, but lots of marriages survive them. The key is to be honest with ourselves. If we are going to hold this over our spouse forever (or they are going to hold it over us), continuing our marriage might not work. If the affair has ended and we are both willing to address the root of the problem in counseling, there may be hope. Some couples opt for an open marriage after an affair, and as long as both parties are happy with that solution, it can work.
5. Is your spouse preventing you from making positive changes in your life? Ideally, spouses will both grow over the course of a marriage. Sometimes, however, only one of us wants to make a change for the better. That can be fine as long as the other person is not holding us back. If our spouse makes us feel guilty or tries to sabotage our progress, this is a big red flag. Someone who loves us wants the best for us and isn’t scared of being left behind.
6. Is your health suffering because of your marriage? Marriage stress spikes cortisol levels, kicking off a whole host of medical problems. If our health is suffering and our relationship is stressful, the two are likely linked. Don’t sacrifice good health for a bad marriage. Seek counseling to see if you can fix the problems or consider a split.
7. How important to you is your current lifestyle? If we love our house and our extended family and love the holidays and love everything about our lives—except our spouse—know that divorce changes everything. I walk my clients through the IMPACT of divorce, so they can think about how divorce might change their: Identity, Money, Parenting, Activities, Community, and Traditions. Sometimes, after reviewing everything else that will change, people choose to stay in their marriage.
8. Can you find a way to make yourself happy within your marriage? Have we tried to make ourselves happy within our marriage, by changing jobs or taking up a hobby or getting a dog? Sometimes, we blame our spouse for our unhappiness when the problem lies outside the marriage. It’s common for empty nesters to blame each other for their unhappiness when, in fact, they just miss their kids. Make sure your spouse is truly the cause of your unhappiness before deciding to divorce.
9. What is your marriage preventing you from doing? Often, people blame their marriage for holding them back from doing what they love. Perhaps we love to travel and our spouse hates it. Perhaps we love art museums and he or she does not. Can we do any of these activities on our own or with friends? Sometimes, when we start to do the things we love, our spouse will decide to join us. Other times, this will highlight that we are on totally different paths. Either way, it will help make the divorce decision clearer.
10. If your spouse were to call you right now and tell you your marriage was over, how would you feel? Our gut is often a better guide than our brain. If we think about our spouse ending our marriage, how does it feel? If we feel heartbroken, there may be life in our marriage. If we don’t miss our spouse but feel anxiety or fear about the future, we may need to work on a divorce plan. If we feel happiness or relief or have a sudden desire to cheer, then I think our decision to divorce is pretty obvious.
When it comes to whether or not we want to divorce, sometimes the decision is clear. If our personal safety or emotional health is at risk, we’ll be better off leaving that situation. In other cases, the decision is more difficult and it’s worth exploring other solutions.
The one thing that’s universal is that the more we can plan before announcing our decision to our spouse, the better. It’s worth working with a therapist, coach, or attorney to make sure we have a solid plan in place.
The things we do to improve our lives within our marriages will also serve us well in divorce. Focus on self-care, becoming financially independent, and surrounding yourself with people who can support you whatever you choose to do.