No matter how rocky your marriage has been, filing for divorce is never an easy decision. It’s normal to feel conflicted, especially if you’re the partner initiating the divorce.
This is doubly true if you’re a parent, and must come to terms not only with the end of your marriage, but with the end of your nuclear family as your children have known it. Just thinking about your kids shuffling back and forth between separate homes likely stirs up a tremendous amount of guilt for you, on top of the fear, sadness, and loss that come with the end of a valued relationship.
All of these difficult feelings can cause you to second-guess your decision — either to continue working on your marriage, or to end it. The stakes are sky-high. How can you be sure you’re making the right choice, for yourself and for your family?
As an experienced marriage counselor and discernment counselor, I’ve helped many people on the brink of divorce resolve their ambivalence and find their path forward. This process involves a few steps:
Getting clear about the problems in your relationship.
Determining which problems are solvable, and which are not.
Reaching a mutual understanding about what fixing the relationship would entail.
And determining how willing and able both you and your partner are to undertake that work.
Once you’ve done that, you can feel more at peace with your decision to continue working on your marriage, or to part. Here’s where to begin:
Divorce is a process that starts long before anyone calls an attorney. If you are considering filing for divorce, you likely endured months or even years of difficult experiences in your marriage, and you likely worked really hard to make things better before reaching this place.
Or, maybe something happened in your relationship that feels intolerable, but there’s still a nagging voice in your head, saying “Maybe I should tolerate this?” in light of the emotional, financial, and practical costs of divorce, for yourself and for your children.
It’s totally normal to wonder whether your reason for wanting a divorce (or wanting to stay in a floundering marriage) is “good enough.” The truth is, answering that question with confidence usually requires some expert guidance.
Ultimately, people get divorced because they feel that their relationship, as it is, is no longer tolerable, and they don’t know how to fix it. They’ve tried everything they know how to do. Maybe they’ve even tried marriage counseling and it didn’t work, so they believe they’ve truly tried everything.
But just because you don’t know how to solve the problems in your relationship doesn’t mean they’re not solvable — and just because you’ve connected with someone who offers marriage counseling does not mean you’ve connected with someone who has the tools and experience to help you.
The sad and serious reality is that most therapists providing couples counseling are not qualified. I mean this quite literally; the majority of couples counselors are individual therapists who, at best, have had one graduate-level course in couples work. When unsuspecting couples connect with these therapists, their outcomes are often bad. One partner gets labeled “the problem” (which is never helpful), because individual therapists are trained to hone in on pathology and to treat it. When they focus their work on your childhood experiences, or your partner’s codependency, rather than on improving your interactions or repairing your bond, they’re simply doing what they know how to do.
On the other hand, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists, or LMFTs, are trained to view relationships as systems. They focus on improving your relationship system, rather than on parsing out blame or pathologizing either partner. If you’re considering marriage counseling, I recommend connecting with an LMFT who uses evidence-based forms of couples counseling. This is the professional who’s truly qualified to provide help for your relationship.
If you’ve tried counseling in the past and it wasn’t helpful, I recommend trying again with an LMFT. You’re likely to have a more positive, productive experience.
To reach clarity about your decision, you need to know whether your relationship can be repaired, or become sustainable.
A qualified marriage counselor will help you find your relationship’s growth opportunities. There are things that can be improved, like communication issues, constant arguing, or failing to work as a team. And there are things that aren’t so easy to fix, like fundamentally different life goals, or an attachment that’s been ripped apart too thoroughly to stitch back together.
A good counselor can also help you understand other things that may be influencing your feelings about your marriage. There may be expectations about what relationships “should be” that you or your partner hold that are causing problems for you both. You may have developed negative inner narratives about each other based on hurt feelings, that aren’t necessarily in line with reality and that can be shifted with new experiences.
If you or your partner have formed an attachment to someone else — through an emotional affair or a sexual affair — that will greatly impact how the partner who committed infidelity feels about their relationship. It’s common for someone who engages in infidelity to see their relationship and their partner in a more negative light. This helps them to resolve their own inner conflict about what they’re doing. Once they’ve released their attachment to the affair partner and turned back toward their relationship, their negative narrative will likely change.
Marriage counseling can only be productive if both partners are committed to the process of working on their marriage. When relationships are pretty far gone — too far gone to have open, vulnerable conversations, even in the presence of a marriage counselor — there is still a type of counseling that can be useful: discernment counseling.
Discernment counseling is designed to help couples assess their opportunities to fix their relationships, and assess each partner’s willingness to do the work. Marriage counseling fails when one partner is eager to fix things (or is “leaning in” to their relationship), and the other partner is no longer interested in repair, or is ambivalent about it (“leaning out”).
If this is the case in your relationship, spending four to six sessions with an LMFT who’s trained in discernment counseling can help you get clear about your opportunities to improve things, and your willingness. Only then can marriage counseling be effective.
Sometimes, you know your marriage needs to be over…but you still feel conflicted about it. That’s completely normal.
Even if you have all the reasons in the world to divorce, attachment bonds are powerful forces that defy logic. You will likely face a painful emotional fallout if you divorce, and sometimes staying in a relationship is just a way to avoid that fallout.
Aside from the emotional pain of divorce, you also have practical considerations, like finances, your children’s wellbeing, and the ways it will affect your social circle. You might be afraid to be on your own, or simply afraid of the unknown.
These challenges can feel overwhelming, and can leave you feeling ambivalent about your decision to divorce, but they’re all solvable problems. Working with a good divorce recovery counselor or coach can help you work through complicated feelings, find solutions to practical problems, and face your fears.
Our most difficult life experiences are also the incubators of our most significant personal growth. Divorce is not what you had planned for your future, but you can turn this painful event into an opportunity to grow — emotionally, spiritually, and in all other ways.
If you move forward with the divorce process, you will be forced to reimagine your life. Your identity will evolve. You’ll create a new rhythm for yourself. You’ll tap into a well of strength you didn’t know you had. Just because you encounter difficulties along the way doesn’t mean you made a mistake.
You have what it takes to rebuild your life after divorce. If there’s something you need along the way, there will be a book, or a teacher, or a guide, or a support system that can help you.
Everything will be ok.
Divorce is a legal procedure and a logistical one. It’s also a mental and emotional transition that takes many months, or even years to move through.
Most people feel conflicted about divorcing. Taking the time to understand what these feelings mean, and allowing yourself the space to get clarity and resolution through the practices I described will help you find new opportunities to grow, either within your marriage, or outside of it.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, PhD, LMFT, LP, BCC, is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Licensed Psychologist, Board-Certified Coach, and the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling & Coaching. She’s the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to an Ex Love” and the host of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast.