Melissa sat in my counseling office and told this story:
"Gene and I have been married 22 years. He makes good money, which allowed me to stay at home with our three great kids. Now all of them are doing fine in college. Our friends think we have the perfect marriage, but I feel dead inside. The house feels so empty. The marriage feels empty.
"I find myself fantasizing about what it would be like to be with someone else. If I thought I could leave this marriage without my kids hating me, I'd do it."
I often hear stories of dissatisfaction in my counseling office: "My husband isn't paying attention"; "My wife doesn't respect me"; "Our sex life is nonexistent"; "I can't breathe." Some of these complaints arise because the realities of paying bills, pursuing a career and caring for young children douse the flames of what started as a hot romance. And often, as Melissa experienced, the last child leaves the nest and a full-time mom becomes full-time disillusioned.
Individuals in these circumstances may contemplate divorce. But no matter how a person evaluates the choice, divorce is not a tidy pathway to happiness. Far from it. I don't judge anyone who has experienced divorce, but I do believe that divorce-minded couples should consider the consequences and explore other options.
Before I share about divorce's drawbacks, I need to offer a few disclaimers:
- I'm not advocating that anyone in a difficult marriage "suck it up" and suffer indefinitely in silence.
- I'm not focusing on situations involving any form of abuse. Abuse requires immediate separation to ensure safety for the family and, if needed, assistance from law enforcement, a professional counselor and an attorney.
- I'm also not addressing spouses who are dealing with addiction or unrepentant infidelity. These require prolonged intensive work to bring about healing and restoration.
The downside of divorce
Here are reasons you should think twice before moving forward with divorce:
There's a good chance you won't be any happier. The Institute for American Values published a report challenging what is called the "divorce assumption." Many people assume that a person in a difficult marriage has only two choices — stay married and remain miserable, or get a divorce and become happier. But researchers found that unhappily married adults who divorced were no happier than unhappily married adults who stayed married. Plus, two out of three unhappily married adults who avoided divorce considered themselves happily married five years later. The scholars reported that divorce did nothing to reduce symptoms of depression.
The kids definitely won't be happier. Divorce will upend the stability of your kids' world. The impact on them will extend in all directions — home, relationships with family members, school, activities, friendships, holidays, standard of living and their future marriage. Dr. Judith Wallerstein's The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce describes a 25-year study of 131 children of divorce, ranging in age from 3 to 18. The research showed that divorce commonly has a prolonged negative impact on children well into adulthood.
Like Melissa, many unhappy spouses think it will be better to wait until the last child leaves the nest before divorcing. In the past two decades, the rate of "gray divorces" involving couples over 50 has sharply increased. Accompanying this trend, a growing number of books and articles are noting a profoundly negative impact on adults when their parents split up.
Your standard of living will decrease after a divorce. Divorce is expensive, especially if child custody is an issue. In most states, the division of assets is 50-50 and always results in more modest financial resources for everyone involved; however, women generally take a harder financial hit. Working through the financial details of a divorce — not only dividing assets, but managing insurance, taxes, loans and ongoing expenses — can be a daunting process, as well.
Three mindsets for marital happiness
What can you do if you're in an unhappy marriage? The Institute for American Values report identified three marital attitudes that predicted whether couples who stayed together would ultimately have happier marriages. I encourage couples to work on developing these mindsets:
Commit to stay married.
In interviews with couples whose marriages improved, some said they did not work on their marriages; instead, they endured them. The couples reported that over time their problems got better, which improved their happiness.
I wouldn't recommend planning to outlast your marital problems through stubborn willpower, but a commitment to stay together "no matter what" can serve as the foundation for finding ways to improve your marriage.
Here's a critical question that profoundly affects this commitment: Is there someone else in the picture? If you intend to stay and work on your unhappy marriage, the other relationship must be terminated. Otherwise, engaging with your spouse can feel like a trek across the Sahara, while the other relationship beckons like a cool and refreshing oasis. Your marriage won't stand a chance. (By the way, the oasis is a mirage.)
Establish a marital work ethic.
Troubled couples can move toward reconciliation through counseling, marriage seminars, good books or a mentoring relationship.
In the book The Good News About Marriage, researcher Shaunti Feldhahn points out that most marital breakdowns are not the result of "deep, systemic, big-ticket" problems such as spousal abuse or addiction. "Instead, what usually happens is that a husband and wife who deeply care about each other are tripped up by some relatively simple things, often resulting from a lack of knowledge about what the other person needs or what hurts them."
Melissa was experiencing a common issue for wives — that of not feeling cherished. Further counseling sessions with her husband, Gene, eventually revealed some issues that are common for husbands: He felt disrespected, described a sexual drought and saw himself taking a relational back seat to the kids. At best, he was occasionally acknowledged as the one who was funding the partnership. They agreed to work on making the marriage more emotionally enriching and less like a business arrangement.
Decide to pursue contentment while remaining faithful.
Your happiness is not ultimately the product of your circumstances or the responsibility of your spouse. Cultivating contentment amid less than ideal situations or flat-out adversity is a lifelong pursuit and definitely worth the effort. This idea goes against the "having it my way" mindset, but contentment is — along with a healthy respect for God — the beginning of wisdom and emotional maturity. (See Philippians 4:10-13.) I challenge you to take stock of your own responsibility for the feelings of dissatisfaction. (Remember, if you leave the marriage, you still take yourself with you.)
I walk my clients through a multistep process called "the invitation." This involves identifying what you want or need and then considering how you might express this to your spouse with specific and realistic requests. You then extend a warm and generous invitation to your spouse to work on the issues. This invitation will include both an acknowledgment of wounds that have been inflicted and a desire to heal them.
If the spouse's response is positive, great! Now get to work.
If the spouse's answer is negative, I offer strong advice: Stop demanding what your spouse won't give. You need to release your anger and your desire to judge your spouse, no matter how deserving of censure you think he or she might be. Instead, figure out one or more responsible and moral avenues in which your needs can be met, such as building same-sex friendships, investing in the lives of your children or grandchildren, or engaging in a ministry.
Having your needs appropriately met elsewhere is likely to help you dial down your irritation and become more generous with your spouse. It also lowers your risk for having an affair.
Gene chose to accept Melissa's invitation to work on the marriage. Three years later, she believes she made the right decision. Marriage can be likened to a garden: To be fruitful, it needs constant attention. If a couple makes the decision to work cooperatively on their troubled marriage, they can turn a disheveled patch of weeds into acres of beauty.Teri Reisser has been a marriage and family therapist for 25 years. She has been married to Paul Reisser since 1975.
Do you know of a marriage in crisis? Learn more about Focus on the Family’s marriage intensives by visiting HopeRestored.com.