First, the court’s are an atrocious forum for resolving marital disputes. After all, how are lawyers trained? Law school is a three-year course in “the case method” of teaching law, which is over 100 years old and still going (fairly) strong. In this model, students read written opinions from appeals courts and learn how to support each side. Our legal system is based on this “adversarial method of conflict resolution” in which each side promotes their side aggressively, secure in the fact that they don’t have to worry about the other side because they have their own representative promoting their side aggressively. Well, suffice it to say, if I were ever charged with a crime, I’d want one aggressive individual fighting for me. Yet, when intimate couples fracture their relationship, the intensity of individual vulnerability and wounding on both sides his breathtaking. The triggers that caused each person to become flooded by anger – or fear during the marital fights are no less sensitive when they commence upon the road to divorce. If anything, the vulnerability is even more exquisite. How cruel, then, to subject these poor people to the violations that are inherent in legal advocacy. Making the private pains public – subjecting individuals who are going through the soul-searing doubt of divorce to public revelations, criticism or outright attack is nothing short of torture. Adversarial lawyers speak of protecting their client’s rights. I would say, “protect from what?” The answer can only be the other person who had been their intimate partner. This is the individual who has seen us at our least guarded; with whom we shared sexual intimacy and who knows our deepest fears. We thought this person would hold this information in trust and yet they become weapons to persuade a person in a robe to give them what they seek. The minute we tell someone we will “protect” them from this other person, we have created an environment of paranoia which, in most cases, can only do ill. Courts are a too-blunt instrument for the exquisitely sensitive task of helping people dissolve their intimate bonds.
William Doherty is a nationally recognized authority in marital therapy who has written a host of really helpful books – my favorite being Take Back Your Marriage. Doherty came to speak to the annual conference of the Washington Association of Marriage and Family Therapy on 3/3 and introduced a room full of raptly attentive marital therapists to Discernment Counseling. “How do we deal with the couple,” Doherty asks, “where one partner is leaning into the marriage and the other is leaning out?” To attempt conventional marital therapy in such situations is an invitation to disappointment on everyone’s part. So Doherty has devised a powerful approach in which he works mostly separately with each partner. The referral often comes from divorce lawyers and in situations in which the “leaning out” partner is feeling done, but is willing to at least speak to someone because some ambivalence (if even ever-so-slight) remains. The partners agree that divorce will be off the table for six months as they work to see if reconciliation is even possible. The benefit of this kind of work is that that therapist can have open and very candid conversations with each person about the consequences of divorce; their own role in bringing the marriage to its current state and whether each is willing to make an all out effort to see if the marriage can be brought back. Studies have shown that of divorcing couples, fully 30% have at least one partner who is ambivalent and in 10%, both parties are. For more information, you can check out Doherty’s Couples on the Brink website.
Maybe the hardest decision in one’s life – the Decision to Divorce. In my experience it is never a decision taken lightly. Here’s how it seems to work in most cases. You feel disatisfied or increasingly discouraged with the relationship. After many arguments over the same thing, or attempts to get your partner to hear what is so vitally important to you, without success, the thought of ending the relationship begins to dawn. Imagine a bright line boundary – on one side is “Emotional Commitment to Marriage,” on the other, “Emotional Disengagement from Marriage.” You seem to bounce up against the boundary continually, but your commitment to your relationship is stong enough to keep you from crossing over. It looks a bit like this ……………….
You can go on for months or years, just bouncing up against that boundary. You believe you have let your partner know that you were feeling desparate about your disconnection. You know that you have tried. Then, one day, something happens inside you. Maybe it was another fight over the same thing. Maybe it was just waking up one morning and looking at yourself in the mirror and knowing something has changed inside of you. Whatever the spur – you have crossed over the boundary…and this boundary that for a moment seemed open enough for you to pass through has closed up. It has become an emotional, impenetrable wall. Now your process looks something like this:
When I start the process of divorce mediation with a couple, one of the first things I want to determine is whether one of the partners has crossed over that line. Almost always this has occurred. On the infrequent occasions it hasn’t, a referral to a couples therapist is always made.
A really important lesson I have learned over the years is that once a person has crossed over that boundary they have made a decision that is unchangeable. If you are the partner who feels left, you may experience a wide range of wrenching emotions – grief, fury, confusion, a sense of betrayal. My recommendation is to get help with those emotions. Seek out counseling. Read helpful books, like Bruce Fisher’s excellent, Rebuilding. Your life has changed – and while you may need to process through the trauma and the deep sense of injustice you may feel, once your partner has crossed over the line they will not cross back. While you may be drawn to do whatever you can to try to get them to do this, those efforts will amost certainly be fruitless and (here’s the important part) they will cause you deep and lacerating pain and frustration. My hope for those who have been left is that you find the resources you need to manage the pain and direct your energy to caring for yourself and slowly discovering your path to recovery.
The New York Times last week ran a great story by Pamela Paul describing the many couples who choose not to live together, but to stay married. These couples include Warren Buffet and his wife (who remained married for 27 years after separation and despite his long term relationship with another woman). The article raises all the questions you face in deciding to divorce – the hassle and expense of divorce vs. the confusion and financial risk of staying married to someone you no longer share a life with vs. the benefits of remaining married (health insurance coverage, for one). Despite a full-on article about this potential path in the NY Times, this is still a rare choice. When a marriage or long term relationship ends, almost always there is one partner who leaves and one who is left. The “leaver” is anxious to start anew. In fact, the article seems mostly to describe couples who have been together and raised a family so that the press to chart a new course in their lives may not be as pressing. In any event, its a well written piece and thought provoking.
I attended a wonderful conference on brief therapy a couple of years ago and concentrated on the folks who were presenting about marital/couples therapy. Thus inspired, I had dinner with an old friend and his second wife (also, now, a dear friend). Their union was very connected and sweet, and definitely had benefited from years of work. (They say a good marriage is work and whoever “they” are, you’d best believe them.) I had listened to my friend describe his first marriage and a mismatch which had produced his beloved daughter. The way he described the relationship, I had to come away with the belief that it was a good thing he had gotten divorce. So over dinner, I regaled him with my new-found commitment to the idea that any marriage can be saved and that divorce is an avoidable trauma – necessary only in cases of abuse (emotional, physical, sexual). My dear friend looked at me like I was nuts. He assured me that his first marriage would have resulted in years of despair for (probably) his wife and (certainly) for him. They were young. They were mis-matched.
In my years of helping people disentangle from painful marriages, I know very well that for one partner, the time comes that their emotional commitment to the marriage is simply gone. At some point there is no reviving a person’s commitment to a marriage. That person knows that the marriage is over in their heart. It is a very painful truth.
While it is definitely possible to stop this erosion of emotional commitment to a marriage before that line is crossed – once that last step is taken my observation from years of working with divorcing people is – there’s not going back. Sadly – wrenchingly – it’s over. There comes a time when our energies need to shift from holding onto a marriage that has emotionally ended for one person to recovering emotionally from the grief and loss of this transition and finding a new path that will, over time, bring fulfillment and love.
There really is no such thing as “your day in court.” The desire (or fantasy) that if only we had a chance to tell our story, a judge would understand the justice of our cause and the right outcome will result. I say to those people, “Forget about it.” First of all, if there are two people in a legal dispute, both of them feel that justice is on their side. The folks in the robes making the decision are going to take the argument of the other person very seriously. For years I have heard people in courthouse hallways after their day in court stunned at the decision. Sometimes they are shocked because they are so polarized from the other person that they can’t imagine anyone taking their spouse seriously. Other times, they lose in court because the judicial officer was overworked, impatient, biased, irritated at some inconsequential thing they or their lawyer did or simply weren’t paying attention. Many hearings in divorce are early in a case and seem over before they begin. You only get to tell your story in 20 pages and your lawyer only gets to talk for 5 minutes. Next time you opt for having a court decide your future, rather than sitting down with your spouse and a neutral mediator, you may want to think again.
Divorce is a process over time. It’s not an event. Many experts who have studied the divorce process believe that to fully recover from the divorce and see the world through truly renewed eyes may take as much as two years. Abigail Trafford, in her excellent Crazy Time, believes that the worst part of the process occurs in the 6-month period after separation. That’s when people may feel that their world is completely out of control. However, once we get through that wretched stage, while the going is a bit easier, it will still take a long time to: See ourselves as truly separate from our spouse; Be able to even think about committing to another relationship; Stop ruminating about the marriage – what you did wrong, what they did wrong; No longer feel triggered by what our spouse does; Actually accept the notion of our spouse with another partner; Honestly feel happy again. I think the most important message that a divorcing or depressed person can receive is that there will come a time when you will feel good again. It won’t happen tomorrow, next week or even next month – but it will happen in due course. Statements like that may be no more than seeds planted in another’s mind and heart. They will germinate in their own time. It may be the greatest gift we, living outside the world of the suffering, as we do, can offer the dispirited.
Lots of marriages have run aground over the depression of one of the partners. Most frequently, it has been the man. I think we have a mistaken assumption that depression means that someone doesn’t get out of bed or is basically non-functional. Most people who are depressed have families, go to work and generally do what they gotta do. It’s just that the color is drained from their lives. Depressed people don’t find enjoyment in the things that used to please them. In the face of suggestions about change, their common response is a variant of “What difference does it make?” While you may be successful in your job, this task uses up about all of your reserves of energy. You feel there’s nothing left when you come home. Certainly not for dealing with the challenges that go along with maintaining a strong relationship. The partner of the depressed person feels alone. Any negative comment directed at the depressed spouse is taken in deeply by the depressed mind as a global criticism and they withdraw. The good news is that treatment approaches for depression abound. A marriage doesn’t have to end over one spouse’s depression. The approaches of David Burns, Aaron Beck, Michael Yapko and Martin Seligman all point the way out of the (falsely) inescapable darkness of depression. Finding the works of any of these people on Amazon cannot steer you wrong.