Of the major life stressors, including death of a child, death of a spouse, loss of employment, divorce and major medical conditions, divorce usually ranks second or third. I have had many people tell me that they think divorce, particularly divorce when there are minor children, is more stressful than death of a family member. After all, death has finality, and with divorce, you have to keep engaging and reengaging with the person that you want to separate from.
Despite the fact that for the last few decades, statistics show that 50% of all marriages end in divorce, there is still a strong sense of personal failure if a relationship is ending. There are still whispers or shouts from others, that “people nowadays get divorced at the drop of a hat, they don’t know how to work through the tough times, like people used to.”
If you move past the statistics and the opinions of others about personal relationships, it always comes back to you, your relationship, and what you want out of your life. I have been a divorce lawyer for over 25 years, and I have never found a client who came into my office on Monday morning, and told me they had a bad weekend, and they think it would be fun to get a divorce. Divorce is almost always a last resort after months and years of thinking about your life and your marriage, and the stress and difficulties involved in the divorce process.
So, when is divorce the right option for you?
1. Domestic Violence against you or a child. Domestic violence is more than situational violence, which is a one-time event which is out of a normal pattern of behavior. Your spouse is unexpectedly triggered by a long-forgotten trauma in the middle of an intense argument, and strikes out physically or emotionally. If it is situational violence, the person acting violent immediately recognizes their behavior as inappropriate or wrong, and immediately seeks to change the situation so that a similar reaction will not occur in the future. Domestic violence is part of a larger pattern.
Domestic violence is also more than physical abuse. It can be sexual abuse, forcing one partner into sexual acts that the person is not comfortable with. It can be emotional abuse, repeatedly putting the other person, or a child down, with the intention to harm the person emotionally. It can be financial abuse, where one partner restricts the other partner’s access to money or resources, so that they feel that they don’t have options to move out, live separately or initiate a divorce proceeding. It could also be threats to harm others, such as a pet or a child, in order to get compliance with one partner’s demands. Domestic violence is not about violence or anger, it is about control over a person by another person.
Legal actions usually only address the threat of physical violence, where you have been threatened with imminent bodily injury, or have had bodily injury, and have an objectively reasonable fear of additional violence in the future. It does not address other kinds of domestic violence.
If you are in a situation where you feel threatened by domestic violence, even if the domestic violence does not rise to the level of being legally actionable, divorce is the right option for you. Maybe the other person does not consider the actions in the relationship to be “abusive” but if you feel that you are not safe or your children are not safe, then divorce is the right option for you. Even if the process is difficult, think about what your children are learning and absorbing by being part of a relationship, even indirectly, where they witness abuse and what that does to their emotional and psychological development.
2. Actions taken by the other spouse threaten the financial survival and viability of the family. Marriage vows “for better or for worse” do not mean that you have to be a victim, and allow a course of action to threaten your ability to provide for yourself or your children. If your partner has an addiction, such as alcohol, drugs or gambling, these can consume a huge amount of financial resources and threaten the ability of the family to pay the day to day living expenses. Part of being in a healthy relationship is recognizing that both partners have to be in a situation where they are not creating harm to others in the family. Sometimes it is unavoidable. A partner has a life threatening illness that prevents him or her from working, and consumes resources of the family. And while most addictions are like a disease in that there is a physiological component to the addiction, there is also treatment available to address the problem. If you are on the other side of the problem, divorce may be a good option for you to be able to protect your own survival.
3. Personal stress and well-being. Most marriages or relationships in distress are not in distress because of abuse, or detrimental actions by one spouse. Many more relationships die a quiet death, when the emotional connections between two people become greater and greater, until the gap between the two separate paths is so great, it is difficult or impossible to bridge. Then the question for you is if you believe the relationship is at a fork in the road, where different paths in life are starting to diverge or if you are looking across a gap. If you are at a fork in the road, this is a great time to recognize that if you value the relationship, things can be done to restore the relationship, from counseling to both parties making a concerted effort to put the two life paths back together. It may also be, after serious reflection, that you and your partner are so far apart, that you cannot or do not want to go back and change where you are at in your life. It is not necessarily your fault, or your partner’s fault, it is simply that each of you may have different needs that are incompatible with the other person’s needs. Unlike 100 years ago, marriage is now considered more of an emotional relationship than just an economic or social relationship. If you find that your emotional or physical health is starting to suffer because you are so unhappy in the relationship, then you need to think about whether divorce is a good option for you.
4. Weighing the benefits of leaving the marriage or relationship against the cost of the divorce process. Ann Landers, in her advice column, used to ask people to weigh whether their life would be better with or without the other person. In looking at the two options, life now and life after divorce, you have to consider the step in between, which is the divorce process. Marriage is a contract between spouses and the state, which has economic and legal implications. Divorce is the price of breaking the contract. In getting divorce, there are three kinds of costs in the process: financial (what are the assets, the debts, the support needs), legal (what legal rights will be restructured, such as custody, and parenting issues) and emotional. If the pain of the divorce is less than the pain on continuing in the relationship, then divorce may be a good option for you.
No one goes into a relationship thinking about what happens in the breakup of that relationship, but life is not static. If you find yourself in a situation where you do not like where your life is at, and it is significantly more than a temporary “bad patch”, it may be time to decide that your family needs to be restructured in a way that does not involve the continuation of the marriage relationship. If that is the difficult decision that you are making, or have made, it is always a good idea to consult with a divorce attorney to learn what your options are, and what the costs and benefits will be, in advance of making your decision.