What To Do When Your Spouse Wants A Divorce And You Still Think There’s Hope
Anyone who’s been in a relationship for more than ten minutes knows that no two people will see eye-to-eye about everything. One’s wearing a sweater while the other is fanning herself. One puts ketchup on eggs while the other is horrified.
Fine, you say. There’s no need to agree. You can say tomato and I’ll say tomahto.
But what if your difference is about something more serious than diction or condiments or setting the thermostat? What if one of you desperately wants to hold your marriage together while the other has met with an attorney and is now spending every spare moment looking at apartments on Craig’s list?
You can’t very well agree to disagree about this.
If you were to poll twenty-five couples therapists, at least twenty-four of us would say that couples with this “mixed-agenda” are the most challenging couples we see. While one has come into the therapy to design an exit strategy, the other is frantically hoping that couples therapy will pull them back from the brink.
To the spouse who wants out, working on the relationship is roughly equivalent to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. All that person can think of is “where’s the nearest lifeboat and how soon is it leaving?”
As a couples therapist it’s my job to support the goals and interests of both clients, to not side with the concerns of one at the expense of the other. I can no more advocate for one partner to stay married (or do couples therapy) when he or she is dead set against it, than advocate that the other one give up all hope for a reconciliation.
In order to be most effective, I have to, essentially, take both sides at once.
In order to do that, I’ve had to challenge most of the conventional wisdom that shapes the way both therapists and clients look at the “one out and one in” dilemma. And, I’ve had to rethink some basic theories of couples therapy that I learned in graduate school, as well.
We therapists are trained to be neutral. While I have no stake in whether a couple decides to stay married or not, neutral isn’t my best stance when dealing with divorce. I’ve learned that whatever position a client has taken, be it IN or OUT, I’m most effective when I ask them to fully explore why they’ve chosen that option.
Too often, divorce is put on the table long before a couple has exhausted all other alternatives. And sometimes people want to stay in a marriage that is ultimately unhealthy for them. Divorce will set in motion a series of painful events that will impact all involved— the couple as well as their children, family and friends. My goal is to help them make the soundest decision possible.
Therapists are also trained to be in a supportive role with their clients. Challenging them about their inconsistencies and their blind spots, asking them to scrutinize their choices is bound to make them uncomfortable. Yet that confrontation is precisely what they need in order to grow. And growth is always accompanied by discomfort. If I wanted to be at all helpful to my clients, I had to expand my definition of support and learn to tolerate more discomfort myself.
To get an accurate sense of conventional advice, I did a Google search for the question, “what if my husband wants a divorce and I don’t?” Here are some key points that I gathered from marriage and legal advice websites as well as advice message boards:
You really don’t want to be with someone who isn’t in love with you.
Come on, face the facts. There’s no way to stop your spouse from leaving you.
The counselor said that it takes two to make a marriage work and that since he doesn’t even want to try, I need to go to counseling to deal with the divorce.
If your husband says he wants a divorce, don’t say anything. Just listen. The next thing you should do is find yourself a good lawyer.
Most of this advice is designed to persuade the person who wants to fight for the marriage to, instead, get on board with the divorce.
But what if that person strongly believes that divorce isn’t the right choice? What if she thinks they have a lot to lose and she’s willing to work hard to fix things? What if he wants to slow the whole thing down, to take a few months to really assess whether divorce is the really their only option?
Though there’s no guarantee that taking a firm stand for your marriage will convince your divorce-bound spouse to change course, giving up is guaranteed to bring the divorce you don’t want.
As you’re well aware, your partner’s actions are beyond your control. So let’s focus on the one thing you can control: yourself.
1- Stop trying to convince your partner to stay. Make your position clear and then quietly stick to it.
2- Take a look at how you’ve been behaving in your marriage. Clarify what your standards are for a good and satisfying marriage and start living up to them, even if your spouse isn’t doing the same.
3- If he or she won’t go to therapy, go on your own. See if you can find a therapist who will support you in looking at what’s gone on in your marriage without trying to convince you to accept your divorce as inevitable.
4- Avoid the well-meaning but possibly undermining advice from friends and family. Friends are often the first people we turn to for emotional support and they quite often come through. But let’s say your best friend has just been through the divorce from hell and she’s just now starting to eat more than one bite of a sandwich and sleep through the night. Or she got married four months ago and is on a honeymoon high. Maybe your best friend has strong religious convictions or came from a divorced family himself. Then again, maybe your friend never liked your wife in the first place and your bad news of divorce is good news to him.
My caution is this: the advice that you get from your friends might be more about them than it is about you.
Apply the same caution to advice from your family who may want to protect you from getting hurt if you go out on a limb for your marriage. The truth is, you’re going to feel pain either way.
There are couples therapists who are trained to do what’s called “Discernment Therapy” which is a process that will support your two-feet-in stance while helping your partner explore a third option. Most people think that agreeing to do therapy means they’re agreeing to stay married. The third option is to simply explore what it would take to even THINK ABOUT working on the marriage— a step that is often needed and too rarely offered.
The go-it-alone path will be difficult and often lonely and will require great courage. Friends may say you’re crazy, or that you’re clinging to false hope; or worse, that you’re hanging your heart on your sleeve for someone who doesn’t deserve your loyalty. You may come to wonder whether they’re right.
It can be hard to hold a belief that gets little support. Even your own therapist might try to convince you to move toward acceptance before you are ready.
I’ve seen many couples step back from divorce because one partner alone has been willing to champion the cause of resurrecting the marriage. Again, there’s no guarantee, but what I’ve seen is that the spouse who held fast to his or her conviction to give saving the marriage a go is able to say, in the end, “I gave it my all.”
No matter the outcome, that’s a satisfying feeling.
Here’s a true story written by a woman who took this approach to her marriage (published in the Modern Love column in the New York Times)