Are you mulling over the pros and cons of leaving your marriage? Susan Pease Gadoua, author of Contemplating Divorce: A Step-by-Step Guide to Deciding Whether to Stay or Go and the Executive Director of The Transition Institute of Marin (which offers services for divorcing men and women), provides some questions you need to consider before taking a premature plunge or sticking in a stagnant relationship.
Q: What is the “Marital Indecision Cycle”?
A: The MIC is the term I use to describe the dynamic when a person begins to contemplate divorce but who stays in the marriage. The cycle starts with a routine, then, as tensions in the relationship escalate, the person considering leaving often begins to question the marriage. Tensions continue to escalate to a point of crisis or to a blow up. If the relationship remains intact following this pinnacle event, tensions usually dissipate. There may be some residual questioning but eventually the inter-relational dynamics find their way back to a routine. I believe that this cycle is important to endure initially because every relationship has its ups and downs. However, I have seen people stay on this ride for years.
A healthy marriage should not feel like a merry-go-round. If a person continues to question why they are staying in the marriage yet not take action to do something different, it begins to erode their sense of self-esteem. This is the danger of staying in an unhealthy marriage too long and why it is important to break the cycle somehow.
Q: What kinds of questions do you need to ask yourself and your partner when you’re contemplating divorce?
A: The primary question I encourage people to ask themselves and their partner is, “Am I doing (or have I done) everything I can to work on this relationship?” Another key question is, “Am I working on this relationship with my spouse?” If the answer is no, you must realize that you can only do so much. Your partner really needs to meet you half way in order to be working together on the relationship.
In my book, Contemplating Divorce, I encourage people to look not just at their reasons for staying, but at their motives. For example, a person may say they are staying “for the kids,” when in fact they are staying because they are afraid to be alone, or don’t want to lose a lifestyle. Motives are deeper than reasons and they are often the piece that doesn’t get talked about openly. Everyone has motives and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. I encourage those contemplating divorce to be aware of them and honest with themselves about what is driving their decision to stay or go.
Q: Are there right and wrong reasons to get divorced?
A: Yes and no. One person’s “right” reason may be someone else’s “wrong” reason. The distinction I make for people is not whether their reason is “good” or “bad,” rather whether the reason is made primarily or exclusively because of what others need versus what you need. Said another way, when a person tells me they are making their decision to stay or go because they are going toward a goal they have, I consider that a “right” reason; when they make a decision based on fear, that it was I consider a “wrong” reason. I say this is because I believe that when we do anything in life out of fear, we move away from our truth. When we act based on what is true for us, we are in integrity with ourselves. It doesn’t mean fear doesn’t come into the picture. It means we don’t let our fear make our decisions for us. Staying married or getting divorced are big decisions that should not be made compulsively or taken lightly.
Q: How can you tell if you’re staying too long in an unhealthy relationship, and how can you tell when there’s still a chance to work things out?
A: A person in an unhealthy marriage often waits for a sign or a “feeling” that the time is right before making a move. The problem with this thinking is that these signs and intuitions normally don’t happen. Believing that they will often causes people to stay married for much longer than they should. As I said earlier, what begins to happen to this person is that their sense of self-esteem begins to erode: they feel terrible about themselves and often become more resentful of their spouse and sometimes even their children. I have seen people live like this for years and it is often quite obvious to the onlooker that the marriage is over but, for whatever reason (and there are a vast variety) the spouse(s) believe(s) they have to stay together. In some cases, people honestly don’t know whether they should stay or go, but they have felt bad for a long time.
I developed a system for people to determine whether they have what I call, “a workable marriage.” These factors include aspects in the relationship such as trust, communication, a sense of safety, caring for each other, love and respect and much more. The “Workability Quiz” can be found on my website. The quiz includes some of the workability factors. Because it is a partial list, it should not be used as a basis for determining whether to stay or go. It’s important to read the book in its entirety and seek professional guidance.
Q: Any concrete tips for people who are contemplating divorce?
1. Get support from professionals, friends and neighbors who have your best interest in mind (and who won’t tell you what to do or judge you).
2. Read books on the subject to gain clarity and insight (Contemplating Divorce and Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay are good choices).
3. Work on yourself.
4. Work on your marriage when and where you can.
5. Be as open and honest with your spouse about your process as possible.
6. If you have children, you don’t need to share too much information with them, however, if you are going to be making a move, they need to be kept informed as to what is happening.
7. Don’t make any rash decisions (unless you have to for safety’s sake).