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Straight Talk About Divorce

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Behind the veil of each night there is a smiling dawn

                                                                                 Kahlil Gibran

We live in a divorce culture. As a result, when compared to previous generations, couples who are unhappy for extended periods of time are more likely to consider divorce as a solution to their unhappiness. The high divorce rate – hovering somewhere between 40 - 50% - validates this. This is a dramatic rise when compared to the early 1960s when the divorce rate was around 10%.

Since divorce is socially acceptable nowadays, it’s also not uncommon for us to encounter what I would call “myths” related to divorce. What I mean when using the term myth, is that a number of widely held beliefs related to divorce can neither be validated nor empirically supported.

For example, conflicted spouses who happen to describe their unhappy marital situation to a trusted relative or friend are likely to hear the following advice: “Well, maybe it’s time to consider ending it and moving on.” Perhaps you’ve even found yourself repeating this advice. But this message, like many other similar messages related to divorce, is influenced by certain myths that we’ve come to believe are based on truth. But nothing could be further from the truth. With respect to this myth, the real truth is, when there are children involved, divorce doesn’t end our relationship with our spouse, but serves to complicate our lives far more than it serves to simplify them. That’s because both parents will generally retain some form of strained and conflicted connection to one another as a result of their children. To further complicate matters, and compound family members hurt and pain, since 70% of divorced persons remarry, and create new families, new challenges in the form of mixed allegiances to children from the first and second marriage emerge.  

Other Myths

There are other myths that we’ve absorbed resulting from living in a culture that promotes divorce as a solution to marital conflict. Here’s another popular one. When spouses are unhappy, it is better for all family members if they divorce.

I’m certain that almost all of you have heard variations of this myth. But make no mistake about it, this statement cannot be supported in social science literature. On the contrary, an increasing number of studies are beginning to show that all family members suffer negative, long lasting consequences when couples divorce. The following references reinforce this last point:                       

  • “Research shows that marital dissatisfaction is probably not in and of itself psychologically damaging for children: what counts is whether, how often, and how intensely parents fight in front of their children…When it comes to helping children succeed in school, the structural benefits of marriage – more money, better schools, and neighborhoods, and more time for supervision – seem to matter more than whether or not parents have a close and warm marital relationship."

The Case for Marriage (2000, pp. 144-45)

  • “The average mother and child whose family was not poor prior to the divorce suffer a 50% drop in income when the parents separated.”

                                                   The Case for Marriage (2000, p. 142)

  • “Moreover, prospective studies that follow the lifestyles of individuals as they move in and out of marriage show that upon marrying, people typically adopt a healthier way of living…. Let’s take suicide for example. Married men are only half as likely as bachelors and one-third as likely as divorced guys, to take their lives…. For men, a lot of the health advantage of marriage can be summed up in a single phrase: fewer stupid bachelor tricks…. The day a man says, ‘I do’,…he holds the Grim Reaper at bay.” 

The Case for Marriage (2000, pp. 52,53,55)

Here’s another myth that I’m certain we’ve heard that can’t be supported in the social science literature. It’s better to divorce than have to endure a lifetime of unhappiness.

Many books promoting “a good divorce” – and I believe this is an oxymoron - enable this type of thinking, as does our popular media. Quotes such as, “Be good to yourself,” and “You deserve better,” seem to pervade our society, and encourage conflicted spouses to consider the individual’s needs, irrespective of the children and family.

Despite what our pop culture advocates, researchers have begun to discover that many unhappy marriages do not have to remain conflicted and unhappy. Couples invested in reclaiming the intimacy and love they have lost can do so. Moreover, such efforts will protect them and their children from the long-term toxic effects of divorce. If you are considering divorce, please consider the following statement that hardly ever makes it into our media.  

  • “Even the unhappiest of couples who grimly stick it out for the sake of the children can find happiness together a few years down the road…86% of unhappily married people who stick it out find that, five years later, their marriages are happier.”

The Case for Marriage (2000, p. 142)

Here’s yet another typical myth regarding divorce that many people have come to believe is based on sound logic and reliable research. If parents are conflicted, children will be better off if their parents divorce.

Many unhappy couples considering divorce are comforted with the advice behind this myth. But recent studies do not support this. Longitudinal studies examining the effects of divorce on children over the last 25 years indicate that they are not nearly as resilient as we once supposed. Moreover, the effects of divorce have a negative impact on them in many different ways. Here are a few quotes from respected social scientists and thinkers to support this statement. 

  • “Boys raised in single-parent families are more likely to engage in delinquent and criminal behavior.”
  • “Children who do not live with both their biological, married parents are at greater risk of child abuse.”

 Why Marriage Matters (2002, p.15)

  • “A child in a single parent family is twice as likely to drop out of school, three times more likely to give birth out-of- wedlock, six times more apt to be in poverty or to commit suicide. Males from divorced homes are 12 times more likely to be incarcerated than those from intact homes; those born to unwed parents are 22 times more at risk of being jailed.

                                                A Marriage Agenda for President Bush

Mike McManus

(Director of Marriage Savers)

  • “A central finding in my research is that children identify not only with their mother and father as separate individuals but with the relationship between them. They carry the template of this relationship into adulthood and use it to seek the image of their new family. The absence of a good image negatively influences their search for love, intimacy, and commitment. Anxiety leads many into making bad choices in relationships, giving up hastily when problems arise, or avoiding relationships altogether.”

 The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (2000, p.XXIX)

So as not to belabor my point that we live in a divorce culture, here’s one last myth related to divorce. Have you heard this one? Father’s can be replaced.

We receive many conflicting messages regarding a father’s value. But recent research is beginning to show the positive impact that fathers have on their children and families. The following information reinforces these observations and serves to support this last assertion.

·      “In today’s dominant cultural conversation, probably the central prescription regarding fatherhood is to lower our standards…. Instead of good fathers, we settle for child-support payments…Search for adequate substitutes for fathers.”

Fatherless America (1997, p. 211)

  • “If mothers are likely to devote special attention to their children’s present physical and emotional needs, fathers are likely to devote special attention to character traits necessary for the future, especially qualities such as independence, self-reliance, and the willingness to test limits and take risks. If mothers frequently set the standards for children’s conduct within the home, fathers often take special interest and pride in their children’s conduct outside the home. When asked to define the satisfaction of parenthood, mothers are likely to describe the qualities of the mother-child bond. But fathers, much more frequently than mothers, link parental satisfaction directly to successful outcomes for their children in the society.”

Fatherless America (1997, p. 218)

  • “A father plays a distinctive role in shaping a daughter’s sexual style and her understanding of the male-female bond. A father’s love and involvement builds a daughter’s confidence in her femininity and contributes to her sense that she is worth loving. This sense of love-worthiness gives young women a greater sense of autonomy and independence in later relationships with men. Consequently, women who have good relationships with their fathers are less likely to engage in an anxious quest for male approval or seek male affection through promiscuous sexual behavior.”

 Fatherless America (1997, p. 46)

  • “For boys, the most socially acute manifestation of paternal disinvestments is juvenile violence. For girls, it is juvenile and out-of-wedlock childbearing. One primary result of growing fatherlessness is more boys with guns and more girls with babies.”

Fatherless America (1997, p.45)

Lingering Regrets

Dear Father,

“I don’t know why I’m writing you. I suppose I just felt a need to write someone…. It’s been eight years since my divorce, but I’m still not certain I made the right choice. We were married for eleven years, when we decided to end it. We had been growing apart for several years, and the only common commitment we had was to the children…. One day we started talking about our unhappy marriage. We both agreed we weren’t happy…. When I look back, I think that conversation got us both thinking about divorce…. It wasn’t long before the idea ‘to end it’ grew into a serious consideration…. I started consulting friends and family to get their opinions. Most supported my thinking…. Before I knew it, attorneys were involved, and we were caught in a process that seemed impossible to reverse…. It’s now been nearly eight years since my divorce and way down deep I still have some regrets and doubts….”

E-mail Respondent

I’ve received several messages like this one from both men and women over the past few years. These respondents speak with mixed feelings about their divorce. Some messages are more emotional than others. Almost all describe a similar scenario unfolding. “We weren’t happy when we decided to end it…. Friends and relatives supported my decision…. The idea grew into a serious consideration until it gained a momentum that seemed as if it couldn’t be reversed…. It’s been “X” number of years and I still have regrets.”  

As I’ve already stated, when two people find themselves in an unhappy marriage, it’s not long before they begin hearing messages such as the following few. “You deserve more…Life’s too short…. If you’re not happy, then maybe you should end it…. You have your whole life ahead of you…. You’ll be okay…. The kids will get over it.”

DON"T GIVE UP

If you’re having marital problems, unlike the above messages, you will likely not hear this advice repeated with any regularity - “Don’t give up.” So, I’m going to ask you to compensate for this and repeat it each day at least ten times. When you repeat these words, say them slowly and prayerfully, remembering that you are not alone, and that God can help you. 

Many low to moderately conflicted couples who chose divorce as a solution to their problems have mixed feelings after the divorce, others experience regrets, and still others believe they made a mistake. Many of these thoughts and feelings are prompted by a serious loss in income – most women see their standard of living compromised considerably. Other thoughts and feelings are closely related to parenting and children’s needs – fathers generally lose touch with their children, and children silently long for their fathers. What ever the reason, you owe it to yourselves to carefully and prayerfully consider the pros and cons of remaining married. For the fact is, many low to moderately conflicted couples who attempt to repair their marriages successfully reclaim the happiness they’ve lost. Some even report being more satisfied than ever.

Researchers now know what factors promote healthy marriages. This information has been translated into programs that help two committed partners reclaim their marriages. But this process isn’t enough. Even the best programs can’t help floundering marriages without both spouses’ cooperation and commitment. Many a time I have sat in a room with a spouse who simply couldn’t find it in his or her heart to commit to therapy – thus, therapy failed.

So, if you’re currently in an unhappy relationship, let me encourage you not to give up. If you’re interested in reclaiming the love, intimacy and happiness that you’ve lost, please know that it’s possible. With an unswerving prayerful commitment to change, many couples can turn an unhappy marriage around. I’m not saying it will be easy, but it is possible, if you’re committed enough. I know, because I’ve seen it happen numerous times in my work with couples. To help you, together with God’s help and the information in this resource, here are a few additional suggestions.

TRUST IN GOD       

Please remember that God can help you. More than likely, if you think back to the days when you were dating, God had a role in bringing you together. And even if He didn’t, God can help you reclaim the love and intimacy that compelled you to marry. Proverbs states, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Prov. 3:5-6). Elsewhere, Jesus teaches, “For truly, I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you” (MT 17:20). So, trust in God and do your part, your chances to survive the marital challenges you’re currently encountering will improve.

Time Heals All Wounds

Be patient. It’s likely that you got to this conflicted place over time. If you continue to do your part, by making some changes, and don’t give into the temptations to “end it,” this strategy will strengthen your efforts to improve marital satisfaction. Remember that you’ve gotten where you presently find yourselves over the course of some time, and it will take time to reverse this process. Just as time heals other wounds, with God’s help, and your cooperation, time will heal your wounded marriage.

Agree to Place a Moratorium on Divorce-Talk

In your efforts to save your marriage, you will undoubtedly have certain setbacks. In fact, in the beginning it will at times feel as though you are taking two steps forward and one step back. When this happens, whether it is during the heat of battle when some unresolved lingering disagreement raises its ugly head, or as a result of other circumstances that remind couples of their unhappiness, many engage in divorce-talk. What I mean by this is that they will threaten divorce or worse, they throw in the towel and consult an attorney.

Please be advised, if your mutual efforts to save your marriage from divorce are to succeed, you must agree to place a moratorium on all divorce-talk. Trust me when I state, nothing, absolutely nothing I know can serve to undermine your efforts more than this. So, in your prayers ask God to help you avoid bringing up the “D” word.

Begin to Acknowledge Your Mistakes

When couples find themselves close to divorce, both spouses are apt to believe that their failing marriage is largely or exclusively their partner’s doing. However, that’s not been my experience. After working with hundreds of couples, I can tell you that both partners share responsibility for their failing marriage. And while the responsibility may not always be equal, I’ve yet to meet with a couple where I came away believing the fault was entirely one-sided.

That being the case, here’s a great suggestion. Examine how you’ve contributed to your marital problems, and take responsibility for your part. One way to do this is to put some private time aside, and prayerfully consider developing a list of the things you’ve said and done, as well as the things you’ve failed to say and do, that have contributed to your marital woes. Then ask yourself how these words and actions have poisoned your marriage. If you do this exercise correctly, and you’re brutally honest with yourself, I guarantee you’ll be surprised at what you discover.

Mind you now, as you’ve already discerned, this won’t be an easy exercise to complete properly. But it’s where you need to start if you’re going to begin turning things around. That’s because you have to somehow broaden your perspective of your problems and understand that it’s not his fault or her fault, and that you’ve both been negligent in caring for your marriage. The only way your problems will begin to get resolved is if you stop pointing fingers at each other and point the finger at yourself first. Remember what Christ taught, “Judge not that you be not judged…. First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (MT 7:1, 5).

Emphasize the Positive

It’s probably been a while since you complimented your spouse for anything. It’s also likely that it’s been some time since you thought in positive terms about your marriage and spouse. After reviewing much of this book, I’m certain that you know by now that negativity can be very toxic to a relationship. However, do you know how toxic? Researchers who study interpersonal relationships have concluded that for every negative interaction that occurs between two people, five positive interactions must occur to offset the negativity from one negative interaction. What this means is that you’ll need to work on infusing your relationship with warm-fuzzy moments, and start removing the prickly comments and behaviors that are slowly poisoning your marriage.

Don’t Simply Think About Yourself

This is going to be one of the hardest suggestions I’ll make in this book. The reason for this is because we’re programmed to think about ourselves first. Individual rights and individual needs seem to always come first in our society – irrespective of others. So it is that I believe we are inclined to think about ourselves first. So, when I suggest that you avoid thinking about your own needs, I’m not suggesting that you engage in some masochistic exercise. I’m simply asking you to stop thinking only about yourself and your needs, and to balance your needs with what your marriage needs, your family needs and your children need.

Often, when spouses are having problems, they are apt to think about their own needs almost exclusively. In the face of the disappointment, confusion, pain and frustrations they’re experiencing, it’s understandable that conflicted spouses focus on their personal needs. However, this is skewed approach that’s invariably leads spouses toward marital meltdown and divorce.

Here are some comments I’ve heard that may help you better understand what I’m trying to help you understand in this section. They are typical remarks that clients have made to me.

“I’ve been so unhappy. I just need to try something different.”

“Is it wrong to want more from life?”

“She doesn’t do it for me. I just don’t know…. I guess I need more.”

Did you notice that the emphasis in these statements is on the pronouns, “I” and “me?” But shouldn’t these people also be concerned with their marriage’s needs, and their family’s needs or their children’s needs? Why are these needs being ignored? I’m not suggesting there aren’t good reasons why some people begin thinking in self-centered terms about divorce, because there are good reasons why people divorce. What I am suggesting is that the divorce culture in which we live may often encourage and compel us to think about divorce before it’s time.  

So, if you’re caught on the road toward divorce, or are simply contemplating getting on this road, I’d like you to invite you look beyond your personal needs, and also consider marital, family and your children’s needs. Admittedly, this invitation won’t be easy to accept. But it may be part of the solution you’re searching for in an effort to turn things around.

Let me finish this section by referring you back to the first part of this chapter, and reminding you that all members of the family suffer when spouses divorce – especially children. That stated, if there is any hope for reconciliation, then I would suggest that you owe it to yourselves and your children to make a honest, prayerful effort at reclaiming the trust, understanding, intimacy and love that’s been lost.   

What About God’s Will?

In this complicated mix that I’ve been discussing, many believers fail to permit God to participate in this decision making process. So, I’d like to ask you to consider the following questions:

To what extent do you believe divorce is God’s will?

On what basis can you justify your decision to seek a divorce?

How does Holy Scripture and the Church support your decision to seek a divorce?

If you can’t answer these questions, or haven’t bothered to ask these questions, I would encourage you to do so. God is not interested in keeping you in a destructive relationship. God only seeks the best for you, and He will not put you in harm’s way, nor will He obstruct us from finding happiness. On the contrary, as the good Father that He is, He is profoundly interested in our well-being and happiness. So, permit Him into any thoughts you have regarding divorce, and seek His will. Scripture teaches, “But seek first His kingdom and righteousness” (Mt 6:33) and He’ll guide you to the answers that are related to the hard questions.

Consult Your Pastor

Research suggests that most conflicted spouses and couples are likely to consult their pastor for help in resolving marital problems. Depending on how seriously you are conflicted, many clergy have excellent counseling skills, and their expertise can prove helpful. In cases where there are complicating factors such as depression, violence or some other form of mental health issue, it may be best to consult a pro-marriage therapist first, since psychotherapists are trained to detect and work with these complicating factors. Should you determine to seek professional help, I would also encourage you to enlist your pastor’s help, since spiritual counseling, confession and the sacraments should prove indispensable to your mutual efforts to revitalize your marriage and increase marital satisfaction.

Find a Competent Pro-Marriage Couples Therapist

Finding a pro-marriage couples therapist may prove challenging. That’s because many psychotherapists today who market themselves as marital and couples therapists are more likely to focus on individual needs to the detriment of the marriage. Additionally, some therapists may have difficulty respecting a couple’s religious  orientation, and will tend to disrespect or misunderstand a client’s religious orientation. This means that you’ll need to spend some quality time in search of a pro-marriage therapist who has experience working with religious populations. In an effort to assist you with this challenge, here are a few suggestions.

  • Approach your pastor for a referral. It may be that he can provide you with the name of a professional pro-marriage therapist whom he knows and respects. Another advantage of proceeding in this manner is that this is a team-building strategy that will help you both begin building a team that will address your marital woes.
  • If my first suggestion doesn’t prove helpful. I would suggest that you log onto the following Web site: www.aamft.org. Once you get there, look for the “therapist locator” option on the sidebar. This option will help you identify the couples therapists in your area who specialize in marital therapy. I would maintain that you shouldn’t simply settle for any type of psychotherapist. You should look for one that tends to specialize in couples’ problems, has worked successfully with religious populations and has a pro-marriage orientation.
  • What do I mean when using the term “pro-marriage?” This is a therapist who makes the marriage the identified patient. Such a therapist will seek to focus on your ailing marriage’s needs, rather than each partner’s individual needs. This is not to suggest that a pro-marriage therapist will ignore individual needs, because they won’t. What they will do is seek to promote marital well-being, with the underlying assumption that if they promote marital well-being, then individual well-being will also be enhanced. In other words, seek a Systems Therapist.
  • In your search to find a pro-marriage therapist, here are some questions that you should ask that should prove helpful. If the therapist does not have time to address them, then I would continue your search. Then ask the therapist if you can schedule a paid consultation. Should the therapist resist, I would continue your search. What percentage of your work is with couples? What percentage of couples with whom you’ve worked would describe their work as leading to a “positive” outcome? Do you work with religious populations? Do you feel you can be respectful to my religious perspective?
  • After sharing what you’ve discovered with your spouse, should you both feel comfortable with the therapist’s response to questions such as those listed above, I would make an appointment. During this search, remember that you’ll also want to find a therapist who will be proactive. By this, I mean that they will not sit back and observe, but be very active in the therapy room.
  • After two or three sessions, if you’ve not received some relief, and aren’t noticing some signs of positive change, I would consider looking for another therapist. Effective couple’s therapy should begin making some difference in the first few sessions. In some cases, this difference will be dramatic, but in most instances it will simply permit a few rays of hope into the process.
  • You might also be prepared to commit yourselves to this process for an extended period of time - somewhere between 8 – 15 sessions. Moreover, in many cases, you’ll also discover that couple’s therapy is not reimbursable. That’s because most insurance plans to not pay for couple’s therapy. So, don’t be alarmed if the therapist informs you that couple’s therapy is not reimbursable under your insurance plan. Moreover, if you can help it, don’t simply select a psychotherapist on the basis that they are a provider under your insurance plan. Many couple therapists are not providers, but this does not mean their work is somehow inferior. It only means that insurance companies have determined that couples work is not reimbursable at this time.     

When Your Spouse Refuses to Cooperate

I’ve met many spouses who’ve indicated, “My husband doesn’t think we have a problem, so he refuses to come to therapy.” or “My wife thinks it’s my problem, and that I need therapy.” In many cases, the partner who’s offering me this information is also the partner who’s working overtime to save their marriage. In these cases, this partner has generally pleaded, cajoled, threatened and relentlessly pursued his or her partner in an effort to find some help. However, all efforts have not only failed, but matters may have also worsened. This partner is also generally exasperated, worn-out and experiencing some symptoms of depression. If you can relate to this, don’t throw up your hands in despair thinking there’s no hope. Instead, here are some strategies that may prove helpful.

  • Stop pursuing your partner, because the more you pursue, the more they will distance from you. This pattern simply makes matters worse.
  • Start taking care of yourself. Get a physical. Obtain some medication for the anxiety and depression.
  • Start exercising. Physical exercise is a great release.
  • Begin praying, reading from scripture and receiving the sacraments regularly. In your prayers and Bible study, ask God for some help with what I’m suggesting in this section, because you will have some difficulty following the rest of my advice.
  • Start working on living your life to it’s fullest with or without your spouse. In most cases, this will mean you will begin living your life without your spouse. Cultivate old friendships, consider doing something you’ve wanted to do for a long time but have been too preoccupied to start because of your marital problems. In short, take all the energy you’ve been expending in promoting marital satisfaction, and channel it into the direction of personal well-being.

As confusing as this point might be, the reason I’ve offered it has something to do with you, but it also has something to do with helping your marriage. Let me explain. But before I do, I want you to be as honest with yourself as possible when answering the following question. Isn’t it true that everything you’ve tried to do to get your partner to work on your marriage has failed? If this is correct, then doing more of the same won’t help. In fact, pursuing your partner further will only push them further away. So, for the sake of your marriage, stop doing this.

Then again, all the energy you’ve expended trying to resolve your marital problems has only made you sick and sapped the zest out of life. Moreover, if you don’t stop, you’ll only get sicker and sadder. So, start taking care of yourself. Furthermore, should you determine to do this, don’t be surprised if your partner doesn’t begin to take notice of your newly found positive attitude.

Such a strategy may produce several positive outcomes. It will reduce the tension between you and provide both partners with some needed breathing room. It will also serve to help you gain some physical well-being and emotional control so that you can think clearer and make some sound decisions. And while I’m not suggesting that this will happen, if your partner is resolved to divorcing, and the marriage comes to an end, you’ll be in a better position to move on with your life.

Some Marriages Die

Even the most admirable of efforts can lead to failure if your spouse is determined to end the marriage. In this case, there is little that you can do, other than to try and accept the inevitable, and move on. This will not be easy, especially if you desperately want the marriage to succeed.

I’ve worked with numerous people who were unable to let go of their relationship. In one particular instance, I remember one spouse who was willing to overlook repeated promiscuous behavior, emotional abuse, and even occasional physical abuse. This sweet soul continued to accept these and other abuses, convinced it was God’s will that she endure his abuses. This, despite the fact, that all her closest relatives and friends – even her in-laws - were encouraging her to accept the inevitable and move on. Eventually she did move on, and now she is doing much better, but it took time, prayer and therapy to help her see things more clearly.

Sometimes, things just simply don’t work out. If you’re caught in a marriage that you’ve tried to keep together with no assistance from your spouse, please remember that it takes two committed spouses to make a marriage. So, after you’ve done everything you can, if your spouse continues his or her abusive, insensitive ways, at the very minimum, it’s time to talk to your pastor or a professional to gain a clearer perspective, because the sad truth is, some marriages die. 

Conclusions

When you married, you both began co-authoring a book together. The book that I’m referring to is a book about two people who chose to form a life together. If you’ve identified with the contents in this article, then several of the recent chapters you’ve co-authored may not be much fun to review. But this observation doesn’t mean that you have to continue writing chapters filled with conflict and heartache. It also doesn’t mean that the only way to stop writing these types of chapters is if you consider divorce. There is another option.

Determine to commit yourselves to revitalizing your marriage for the next 6 – 8 months. And then make this a priority. With the assistance of the materials outlined in this article and Web site, God’s guidance, and some outside help, many couples successfully end up revitalizing their marriages, finding increased marital satisfaction and co-authoring happy beginnings that are even more satisfying than what they remember.