“Is this an intolerable situation? Chronic affairs, chemical dependency, gambling – those are the kinds of hard reasons (for a divorce). The person is not willing to change. They have a drinking problem and won’t get it fixed. They’re gambling the family money away and won’t get help. If somebody won’t work with you on that, then you have to go. Nobody should have to live this way.”
– Psychologist William Doherty, a marriage and family therapist and professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota (Jayson, 2011)
So how fixable is your own marriage? Let’s start with a list of marital problems that are the hardest to overcome:
When to Make the Decision to Divorce
- Persistent alcoholism or drug abuse
- Ongoing domestic violence
- Chronic cheating or affairs
- Repeated abuse or maltreatment of children
- Persistent money or gambling problems
- Psychological or mental health problems
- An unwillingness to try by one partner or put forth an effort to repair things.
This doesn’t mean families experiencing these things must divorce; it depends on the dynamics involved and how disruptive these problems are. However, these are the issues that tend to be the most intractable and difficult to overcome. On the opposite end, there are many marriage problems that can be readily overcome, so long as both partners are willing to work on it:
- Disagreements about parenting
- Money or work problems
- Sexual problems
- “Growing apart”
- Conflicts over raising children
Next we’ll discuss a few of these in further detail:
Should I get a divorce because of Infidelity
Many people regard marital infidelity as an absolute deal-breaker within a marriage. This is unfortunate, because such attitudes are seldom a rational interpretation of reality. For one, infidelity is quite common, and promiscuity a basic aspect of human nature. Neither of these things make it right or excuse the behavior, but we also shouldn’t elevate the act to a holy extreme. The fact that some spouses can succumb to this temptation should be no more shocking than the revelation that people can succumb to the appeal of drugs or alcohol, or that they are vulnerable to eating too much and exercising too little. Human beings can succumb to vices of all types, and the psychological pull that leads people towards extramarital sexual encounters is not discernibly different from the motivations that lure people into other types of pleasure or adventure-seeking behavior. This doesn’t make it right, but we also need to be realistic about human behavior.
From a young age we’ve all been taught to elevate sexual issues to a holy pedestal. We endure constant brainwashing from our culture which tells us that sexual indiscretions are more horrible than other types of failures. Yet all scientific evidence in existence directly contradicts this notion, and there’s absolutely no reason that failures in sexual fidelity should be treated as any better or worse than other types of marital problems. (You can read more on this subject, including guidelines for coping with infidelity, on LifePsychology.org/relationships/infidelity.)
Second, and most importantly, is that marital infidelity is not always a sign that the relationship is in trouble. In fact, contrary to popular belief, a number of studies have found that the majority of couples who reported an affair were not actually discontent in their marriage. (Jayson, 7-1-2008) So it may not be wise to throw away an otherwise productive partnership over a partner’s infidelity, and whether a marriage is kept or not should be based on the relationship couples can create going forward, not on what happened in the past. The relationship should be salvaged whenever possible, especially if there are children involved.
If this is the rocky ground that is breaking the marriage apart, you might want to seek counseling first. Many people act as though marital infidelity is a MUST for getting a divorce. They may believe that they have little choice, or that they’re being a “sucker” to stay in the marriage after such an indiscretion. This is a mental illusion, and the result of cultural conditioning. Sexual infidelity shouldn’t be elevated to a pedestal above any other marital problems. If the situation can’t be resolved or corrected, that’s one thing. But it’s not as though this should be an automatic ticket to divorce court, any more than one serious fight should automatically mean a divorce.
Deciding to divorce because of Money Problems
Divorce lawyers state that “one of the primary reasons for marital discord (and ultimately divorce) is money.” (D Magazine, Oct. 2011, p. 128) Yet if it’s money problems that are dragging down your marriage, you have to ask yourself whether the financial benefits you hope to gain by divorce will outweigh its costs:
- The divorce itself can easily run $10,000 in fees for mediation, $50,000 each or more if you hire lawyers and go to court.
- The divorce will divide your collected assets in half, instantly making each of you poorer.
- The cost of living going forward will skyrocket as a percentage of your income, because it’s always more expensive to maintain two of everything (house payments, car payments, insurance payments, etc.) than it is to pool these costs.
Therefore the money problems need to be pretty severe before they outweigh the financial strain of divorce, and if money problems are the primary reason for the divorce, it should only be considered after all other options have failed.
Getting a divorce because you are growing apart
This most infamous of reasons for divorce is usually marriage-speak for “we don’t communicate well anymore.” More ironically, it also often means “We’ve grown too familiar with each other” or “don’t take the time to express interest in each other anymore.”
Despite being one of the most frequently cited reasons for divorce, this problem has a decent chance of being fixed through marital therapy, specifically through exercises to rekindle the romance. Despite what you may hear, people who at one time loved each other enough to get married don’t ever change enough to truly grow apart. Rather, it’s that relationships have a tendency to grow stale over time. People become too familiar, and so it feels as though the special connection they once had has been sucked out of the relationship.
Deciding to divorce because you are unable to talk together
It’s not that you’re unable to talk with each other; it’s just that too many other things get in the way of good, open communication. Too many past hurts, too many disagreements, too much judgment towards the other spouse create barriers to effective communication. Though “talking” sounds so simple, this may actually be harder to fix than the growing apart issue, since it will require both partners to change their patterns of behavior while learning to be less judgmental and more open with each other. This takes time, but when both partners are willing to work their issues out through therapy, it can certainly be done.