Many couples decide to divorce in response to a crisis: infidelity, addiction, or an incident of domestic violence. Others come to the conclusion that they are simply “not in love” anymore and long for the freedom to seek out a better mate. They imagine that the right person is out there somewhere and complete fulfillment awaits. In reality, unless there is a period of substantial personal growth, it is likely you will recreate the same situation you are in today. Far more couples would be better served by working out the difficulties in this relationship, rather than moving on to the next.
If you and your partner have children, then you need to know -- the breakup of your family will harm your children. Yes, there are some things you can do to minimize the damage, but the idea that parents can split up their family unit without creating trauma and heartache for their children is a fallacy. Our highly individualistic culture promotes the idea that divorce can be a benign experience for children, but the data simply does not support this conclusion. [i] Even the most peaceful divorce will cause them heartache. Not a great sales pitch for a mediator, right? I get it. But, I would be remiss in my duties as a professional and a human, if I did not warn you to slow down and reconsider before heading toward divorce.
Children of divorce have higher rates of anxiety and depression, both during childhood and later in life.
If you have not attempted counseling with your spouse then that should be your first step. Many types of marital discord can be resolved through a combination of individual and marital counseling. A few warnings, however. Therapists tend to take their lead from the client, i.e. individualism is an unconscious bias most modern providers bring into their practice. So, make sure the therapists you hire understand their assignment: to help the two of you work through your problems and stay together, not to feel better about splitting up. Second, therapy is like a trampoline: you get what you give. So, dive in with both feet and give it your full attention. If you are honest and vulnerable, therapy can lift you out of old patterns of behavior. If you stay guarded or dissemble, then you can expect little more than wasted time and money in return. Finally, you may have some individual trauma that you need to address in order to make progress toward repairing your current relationship. Be willing to dedicate the time and energy to individual counseling necessary to heal your past, while still making it clear to this provider that the overall goal of therapy is to strengthen the marriage.
Call in the allies. Let trustworthy friends, family and members of your faith community know that you need help ... but only the ones you know are on the side of your marriage. You will get a lot of bad advice from the friend who harbors a romantic interest in you or the ones going through their own painful divorce who for some sad reason think you should, too. The folks you need right now are the ones who can reflect back to you the inherent beauty and value of your family. We are social creatures by design. The people you draw close to you during this time of crisis will inevitably influence the direction you take. So, make certain you surround yourself with “friends of the marriage” who can support you and your relationship during this difficult time.
Now I want to be perfectly clear: If you or your children are in immediate danger of physical harm, please leave the household. Contact your local domestic violence agency to construct a safety plan and get out. From a position of safety, you can assess whether the perpetrator is willing to engage in treatment and whether that treatment is successful in rehabilitating his or her conduct. Addiction presents a similar risk to your basic safety and a good reason to exit the household. Tell your spouse you will require an extended period of sobriety, at least 3-6 months of consistent treatment and documented by clean, random UAs before you return.
If you are on the fence about divorce, I hope that these words will inspire you to pause and seek help first. But these are simply suggestions. I’m just one attorney with a few thoughts, based on my 12 years of experience in family law. Ultimately, you must decide what is best for you and your children.
[i] Beckmeyer, J, Coleman M, Ganong L (2014). Postdivorce Coparenting Typologies and Children's Adjustment. Family Relations, 63(4): 526-537; Bernet, W. (2015). Children of high-conflict divorce face many challenges. Psychiatric Times, 32(10): 9; Zill, N., Morrison, D. R., & Coiro, M. J. (1993). Long-term effects of parental divorce on parent-child relationships, adjustment, and achievement in young adulthood. Journal of Family Psychology, 7(1): 91–103; Hoyt, L.A, et al (1990). Anxiety and Depression in Young Children of Divorce. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology 19(1):26-32.