Simple answer: When you have tried everything else.
Oftentimes, I work with individuals who have been blindsided by the words, “I want a divorce. I am not in love with you anymore.” A lightening bolt out of the blue. On the other extreme, some couples have threatened each other with divorce for many years, and we might wonder, “What are they waiting for?”
How do people decide when it’s time to consider a divorce? There is certainly no recipe to follow, no formal rule of thumb about when that might be for any specific couple. Every individual and every couple are unique with their own histories, personalities, interactional patterns, biologies, and more. When I am working with an individual who is contemplating divorce and she just can’t bring herself to take that step, I realize that she is not ready yet - for whatever reasons. Too often this kind of person feels shame about not making a divorce decision, wondering why she can’t take that plunge, change her entire life, shake up her whole world. But I don’t wonder, and here’s why.
Divorce is a huge commitment, an enormous change in a relationship and in lifestyles, a upset apple cart for not only the couple but for the children and the extended family. No small matter. No wonder people need to make this kind of decision not only with emotion but consciously, with rational and clear thinking, just in case there is a way to either save and improve the marriage, attend to an unhappy partner’s intrapsychic troubles, or help the couple tweak their communication styles and patterns, so that everybody is more satisfied, healthier and hopefully happier.
Sometimes, fear and anxiety about the unknown keeps people in pretty disturbing relationships because at least the relationship is familiar and staying with the familiar is sometimes easier than jumping ship into risky territory. Sometimes, it is hard to imagine how a couple has stayed together so long because they seem to not only dislike each other but to hold each other in great disdain. We therapists realize that we don’t know everything and that something is keeping the couple together, and we want to discover those reasons and honor them.
Some therapists want above all to keep couples married. I do too when that is a good decision for them. But, I can sometimes see how a divorce can help a family grow healthier instead of continuing a tragic spiral downwards, when there is much harm happening within the couple and the family. I often tell couples that I don’t have an agenda for them when they enter couples therapy, that they are the ones who will figure out at some point if the marriage can be healed or not.
I recommend highly that couples do all that they can, find services to help them make such weighty decisions so that their marriages are respected well, and the difficulties are carefully examined in order to make necessary changes, or to decide that the marriage will end. And, as strange as it may sound, some families do thrive and develop new lives after divorce, lives much more satisfying than ever before.