In July 2015 my divorce was officially finalised. It was a tough decision to end the marriage, and for this reason, I have yet to speak about it on my blog, but there have been a few events recently that have made me want to speak up and share my story.
The first is that I went to a wedding late last year and felt pity from many of my extended family members that I spoke to. I’m not sure if this is what they felt or if I was projecting this onto them, but part of me wanted to say “It’s okay. I’d rather be happily divorced than unhappily married!”
The second is that I see a lot of clients in unhappy or abusive relationships and marriages, and for whatever reason, they choose to stay. This occurs even when deep down they know that in the long run, they (and probably their partners too) would be much happier and better off if they were to leave.
There are many reasons for people choosing to stay in an unhappy marriage, including:
- they have made a commitment to each other in front of all of their friends or family, and they want to stay consistent with this,
- they married in a religious ceremony, and it is frowned upon in their religion or culture to get a divorce,
- they have invested so much, time, effort and emotional energy into their lives together, and find it hard to let this go,
- they fear the repercussions in how they may be treated after the split,
- they have children together and believe that they should stay together for the kids,
- that things will be better off financially if they remain,
- that things will be a logistical nightmare if they leave,
- they won’t know how to do everything on their own,
- they won’t be able to survive on their own, or
- they fear that they will never find another partner again and prefer an unhappy relationship to ending up alone.
Should You Stay or Should You Go?
I’m not trying to tell people that getting a divorce or breaking up is always the best option, but it is now legal to get a divorce in every country except for the Philippines, Vatican City and Sark (Dependency of Great Britain). In some cultures, it is still more frowned upon, and this may be due to both religious beliefs or how recently it became legalised in their country of origin. Italy only authorised divorce in 1970, and many other countries are even more recent, including Brazil in 1977, Spain in 1981, Ireland in 1996. Chile in 2004 and Malta in 2011.
Relationships do take effort and work and are worth trying to repair if both people still love each other, feel safe, have their personal boundaries respected and want things to get better going forward.
It is also especially important to try to make it work if you have children. A 2011 book titled ‘The Longevity Project’ by Friedman and Martin looked at factors that influenced longevity over eight-decades and found that individuals whose parents divorced when they were children died about five years younger than individuals from intact families. They were less likely to do well educationally or occupationally, more likely to engage in unhealthy habits such as smoking and drinking alcohol, and were also more likely to get divorced themselves.
It is not a good idea to just stay together for the kids, especially if there is a lot of conflict and you and the children are unsafe. Having parents who get a divorce can be traumatic for children, but seeing two people that they love always fighting and feeling stuck in the middle without being able to do anything can be traumatic for children too.
If you have recently divorced and are worrying about your children’s well-being:
- make sure that they understand that they are not to blame,
- try to maintain a positive relationship with your ex after splitting if it is safe to do so,
- don’t bad mouth or put down your ex to your children or make them choose sides,
- seek emotional support for yourself from friends, siblings, parents or professionals – not your children,
- help your children to build healthy social relationships through extracurricular activities, sporting clubs or supervised outings,
- help them to stay on track and engaged academically, including keeping communication channels open with the school regarding their progress and seeking extra support or tutoring if needed,
- help them to develop helpful coping strategies, including socialising, exercise, eating healthily, engaging in hobbies, mindfulness, journaling, planning or goal setting, and
- If they are struggling emotionally with the divorce or adjusting to their new life after it, make sure that they have a trusted adult in their life that they can talk to confidentially. If they do not, a child psychologist can also help, and a referral to see one can be sought from your General Practitioner (GP).
The last thing to consider when determining if divorce is the right option for you is your gender. Women are more likely to do well if they remain single following divorce, primarily if they are working and have strong social connections with friends, family, and social organisations. This is less likely to be the case for men, and longitudinal research has shown that single men tended to die younger than married men, due to their higher risk of social isolation, reduced emotional support and increased drug and alcohol abuse. They may also be less likely to seek help if they are sick, or have someone around to call an ambulance if there is a medical emergency. For this reason, males also tend to remarry much quicker than females, and the longer they remain in their subsequent marriage, the better their health prospects become (Friedman & Martin, 2011).
Essentially, a happy, warm and loving marriage is very positive for the long-term health and happiness of the whole family, especially males. An unhappy or abusive relationship tends to offer none of these positive benefits, and women who are happily single are generally better off than women in an unhappy marriage.
If you are in an unhappy marriage, it is okay to admit to someone that you trust:
- that you have made a mistake by getting married, or
- that maybe you married the wrong person, or
- that maybe you just changed and grew apart over time, or
- that you have fallen out of love, or
- that you don’t feel safe, or
- that you have tried your best to make something work and it still hasn’t, or
- that you want to leave and start all over again, either by yourself or with someone else.
What Does It Feel Like to Get Divorced?
For me, I felt isolated, embarrassed, and like a failure. I remember talking to a psychologist during my undergraduate studies who specialized in relationship counseling and research and also happened to be divorced and I thought “I wouldn’t see her for couples counseling if she couldn’t even save her own marriage!” It was a pretty harsh judgment by me that I never actually said to her. It also became the same judgment that I was then putting on myself once I realised that my marriage was never going to be anything close to what I had hoped and dreamed it could be.
Across my marriage I learned that:
- If there is a lack of trust and openness in the relationship before the wedding, there probably won’t be much during the marriage either.
- Past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour.
- Both people need to care genuinely about each other, share similar values and want similar things when it comes to what they want out of life and their relationship.
- Opposites attract, but not always in a good way. For example, someone who puts others first may be attractive to someone who puts themselves first, but it doesn’t result in a mutually satisfying relationship.
- If one person has an avoidant attachment style and the other has an anxious attachment style, it is not a good mix. One person’s insecurities will only trigger the other person’s fear, leading to more conflict and disconnection over time.
- How people want to resolve conflict is the best predictor of relationship satisfaction.
- Someone who prefers to avoid conflict is not going to last long with someone who is volatile and critical but will do fine with someone who is also happy to focus on the positives.
- Two people that get everything off their chest as issues arise can do fine as well, as long as both partners are on the same page.
- If either person is trying to win a fight, it is the relationship that loses.
- Criticisms, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling will erode any goodwill that has been built up in a relationship over time.
- Long-term change is only possible if people are intrinsically motivated to do so and are willing to put in the consistent work that it takes to get there.
- It is therefore much more important to look at what people actually do rather than what they say.
I had always been a strong advocate for marriage and never thought that once I married that I would ever get a divorce. My parents had verbal disagreements at times when I was growing up but never seemed to come close to separating let alone getting a divorce. Neither had any of their siblings or their parents.
Wanting to have a happy marriage and being willing to work for a happy marriage doesn’t mean that you will always have one. In 2014, 121,197 marriages were registered in Australia, and 46,498 divorces were granted (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2015). With this many divorces, it seemed strange that I felt so alone in my experience and like such a failure. But looking at the following Australian statistics from the year of 2014 (ABS, 2015) helped me to understand why:
- The median age of males getting married is now 31.5 years.
- The median age at separation for males granted a divorce was 41.7 years.
- The median age of males at divorce was 45.2 years.
- Only 3.4% of all divorces involve males under 30 years.
- The median duration of marriage to separation is 8.4 years.
- The median duration of marriage to divorce is 12 years.
Even though 50% of first marriages end in divorce and 67% of all subsequent marriages end in divorce, I was still getting a divorce at a younger age than the average Australian male was getting married. I was married for much less time than average too, so it does make sense why it brought about some complicated feelings, including a sense of loss, disconnection, and shame.
Does It Need to Be This Way?
Leaving an unhealthy relationship is tough, and even to this day, I am reluctant to mention that I am divorced to people that I meet, including clients if they have ever queried me about my relationship status. Surprisingly, only one client ever asked me why I was no longer wearing my wedding band in sessions.
It took a long time to grieve and process the loss that I went through, including all of the old hopes and dreams that I had for my marriage and the rest of our lives. I also lost a lot of money and material possessions in the separation, including our brand new house that we had built in the suburbs and everything inside it except for my clothes.
This was hard, but not because I cared about the money or the stuff. It was just that my life wasn’t meant to go this way. I was reasonably responsible financially and had put enough money aside throughout my adolescence to not only pay for my undergraduate studies but also put a deposit on a house. And yet here I was, nearly 30, with nothing but a car and some clothes in my possession. I felt like a complete failure, and wondered if I had done it all wrong.
I now understand why they say that divorce is risky for men. The first 6-12 months after leaving weren’t easy, as I spent a lot, ate unhealthily, drank more than I should have on the weekends, and gained weight. I moved into the city, resumed playing sport and was able to go on some great holidays. However, I also fell sick whenever I did take some time off and was generally exhausted by the end of the week, struggling to keep up with all of the administrative duties alongside the hectic lifestyle that I was trying to live.
Fortunately, getting divorced also taught me more about myself and who I am, what I feel and what I need than I ever could have learned by remaining in an unhappy marriage. By continuing to read about relationships and reflect on my past ones I was able to figure out where things had gone wrong and what I needed to address to improve things going forward. I then sought regular individual psychological therapy to begin working on building up these skills and breaking old habits. I was also able to reconnect and develop stronger and more genuine relationships with my family and close friends.
Getting divorced is sometimes necessary, but it is never an easy decision. If deep down you know your marriage is not working, it’s highly unlikely that it will just get better without any positive steps taken together.
If you are thinking of separating, the best advice I can give is to do whatever gives you the best chance of having a warm, safe and loving relationship with someone going forward. This is worth it, even if it feels like you have to backtrack, admit that you have made a mistake, or start all over again, as relationship warmth and strong connections with others are the most important predictors of long-term health and happiness.
If you do not feel safe in your current relationship or are unsure of what to do, a referral to a psychologist could help you to clarify your thoughts, develop a plan, and get you the support that you need until things improve. Many psychologists also specialise in relationship counselling, and can see both you and your partner together if you would like to try to make it work or separate as amicably as possible.
Whenever anyone steps outside their comfort zone, it will be scary, but it can also provide them with a greater opportunity to learn and grow.
Dr Damon Ashworth