“Divorce should always be an option,” she said emphatically after several months. She came to counseling deeply anxious and depressed, and concerned that her mental health was affecting her kids. She thought her depression was the problem, but we eventually realized that her depression was rooted in her marriage.
It wasn’t until she understood that divorce was an option that she began to experience freedom to seek fulfillment on her own terms. She started exploring the dormant parts of her talents and personality. Her depression improved significantly.
Not only did she feel significantly better, but it also wasn’t until she told him that divorce was an option that he began to take her feelings seriously. None of this was easy or fast, but she finally chose the right kind of hard. She chose the kind of hard that didn’t mean sacrificing her personhood, her soul. She did not have to ignore what she needed and how she felt any longer. She expressed herself honestly and set the boundaries that she couldn’t before. In doing so, she and her husband were able to re-establish a friendship.
So many of us, especially women, have been taught not to trust our feelings. We tell ourselves we are too much, or not enough. We tell ourselves we should be grateful for what we have. A nuclear family is better than a blended family. We believe in this idea so deeply that we grow complacent or depressed. Sometimes drinking too much, or having affairs to get our needs met. We are doing it for the kids, we say.
In 70% of divorce cases, women are the ones who file. I have some educated guesses about why that may be. I’ve met with so many husbands whose wives told them for years they were unhappy. Disconnected. Lonely. She doesn’t feel seen or heard. In some cases, these husbands made more effort after the conversations, but things quickly went back to status quo. In many cases, husbands dismissed and ignored their wives feelings. Since they were satisfied with the way things were, her unhappiness was not his problem. When they finally show up in my office, it’s because she asked for a divorce. He is blindsided because he wasn’t really listening until then. Now he says he’ll do anything, but it’s often too late.
Sometimes it’s the husbands. They stay in a marriage where they are verbally and emotionally abused. Where they feel controlled and disrespected, because the idea of not seeing their kids every day is understandably too scary. They numb and distract from their unhappiness with work, booze, porn, or affairs because “divorce isn’t an option,” and the problems only worsen. We’re doing it for the kids, they say.
When divorce isn’t an option, one or both partners can be lulled into a false sense of security or complacency. The idea that divorce isn’t an option keeps people from taking the time to examine how they are feeling about the relationship. This complacency keeps people from growing and being intentional to keep their relationship strong and connected. Instead, they distract and numb themselves while resentment grows.
I have dedicated much of my life to saving marriages. I believe in the value and sanctity of marriage. I have seen the destruction that divorce causes families. I am not advocating for divorce. What I am advocating for is choosing the right kind of hard. Sometimes the right kind of hard is being honest about your needs and getting intentional about making your marriage become more than just functional. And sometimes the right kind of hard is divorce. Why? Because I don’t believe we should stay in marriages that require us to lose our souls. Mental health and physical health are undeniably linked. And if you have children, they need to see you save yourself. They need you alive. I mean this both literally and figuratively. They are not meant to witness a marriage in which one, or both, have to lose themselves and slowly die inside because divorce wasn’t an option, or because they “didn’t believe in divorce.”
But what if (we admitted that) divorce was an option the whole time?
What if both partners realized the need to romance and date each other?
What if we stopped taking each other for granted?
What if the other person took it seriously when one says they are unhappy?
What if we went to counseling when the problems arose instead of waiting years?
What if we took an active role in our own emotional growth instead of becoming further entrenched in our unhealthy habits?
What if we stopped believing that a lack of intimacy (both emotional and physical) is just a part of life, of marriage?
What if we listened to our emotions and instead of numbing them, allowed those feelings to give us important information about what we need?
Maybe then we could prevent the inevitable divorce that “wasn’t an option.”