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Who to Talk To – And Who Not To Talk To Around A Potential Divorce

Who to Talk To – And Who Not To Talk To Around A Potential Divorce

We’ve seen people in your shoes—a spouse announces a divorce—make a bunch of mistakes when it comes to talking with others.

One mistake is to not tell anyone, often out of shame or to avoid recognizing the threat at real. The result is isolation and stewing in one’s juices.

A second mistake is to tell the world. You’ve seen it: everyone at work, church, and the book club gets told. The spouse is furious for being made to be the bad guy for a marriage crisis. And people start taking sides. A third mistake is talking to a few wrong people.

Top on the list is your children—young or out of the house. Let some dust settle before bringing them in and churning them up. Make sure your emotions have stabilized first, or else you will be inviting them to take care of you, and maybe side with you. Wait a bit to see if you spouse wavers on the divorce idea.

And don’t talk to your spouse’s relatives and friends—that will feel like back stabbing.

So who should you talk to?

Ideally just one or a couple of very trusted friends or family members. Here are some criteria to use in choosing confidants.

  • Someone who will listen and empathize but not take your side against your spouse.
  • Someone who will be reluctant to give advice and prefers to help you sort out your own options.
  • Someone who will not tell you to just accept the divorce as inevitable.
  • Someone who shows compassion for your spouse and not just you.
  • Someone who is positive about marriage (avoid marriage skeptics) and is able to hold hope for your marriage.

So here’s our input: open up, don’t go through this crisis alone, but choose your confidants wisely.

Tell them what you need—caring, support, constructive challenge, and friend for you and your marriage.

What is Marital Doubt?

People usually keep doubts about their marriage to themselves.

Here we’re not talking about ordinary concerns about the relationship or even feeling in a stuck pattern—instead, we’re talking about worries about whether the marriage will survive. This is scary to think about. If you tell others, you might get unhelpful suggestions such as “just listen to your inner voice” or “make a pros and cons list”!

The doubts stay underground, coming and going, sometimes for years. Marital doubt is way more common than most people realize. And there are ways to get past it and get clear about the future of your marriage.

Here’s what new research says:

About 1 in 5 married people (22%) report having some doubt about whether their marriage will survive.

To put it simply, you have lots of company if you have doubts about your marriage.
But this is not a permanent 24/7 state of mind, as you have likely already experienced.

Marital doubt can take a lot of pathways: sometimes it just lingers at the same level, but more often people describe it like a roller coaster. Sometimes you feel confident about the future of your marriage, and then something happens that puts you in a gloomy, doubt-returning place. You talk your way back, reminding yourself that you love your spouse and that divorce would hurt a lot of people. But hours, days or weeks later, your doubts creep back. It’s anxiety-provoking and extremely unpleasant (to put it mildly). This limbo state of anxiety can seem to go on forever, draining your energy for the future.

It’s important to appreciate that marital doubt is by its nature a private emotion.

There is no big public sharing as there may be for career angst, or when a family member getting a scary medical diagnosis and you have a cadre of people to process your emotions. When you were falling in love, everybody knew. But now maybe you have just one friend or a counselor you’ve opened up to. Certainly not your spouse! Your anxiety grows from hiding such a threatening emotion and from worrying about the risks of “outing” yourself.

Many people in the marital-doubt camp are trying to figure out if their spouse is capable of changing. This leads some doubters to unconsciously create “tests” for their spouse, to see if change is possible. (“If I don’t remind him of my birthday, will he remember?”) When the spouse fails the test, the doubts are fueled.

Because there is no sharing, a doubter’s spouse has no idea what’s going on. Even if they sense the other’s discontent, they aren’t likely to see any threat to the future of their marriage. Every marriage has its ups and downs, they think, and they may also have gripes about the marriage (but not about whether divorce is in the future).

So where do these doubters go on their journey?

During this marital doubt phase, according to researcher Diane Vaughn, the doubter may ask about marriage counseling. This may be a great idea (and hey, we’re huge fans of marriage counseling!) but rarely do they come clean, at home or in the therapy office, that they aren’t sure about the future of their marriage. Why?

Marital doubters are scared and not ready for a crisis, so the work in the therapy room may stagnate. If you’re not sure your spouse can change, and if you believe that without the change you have no energy for the marriage, it’s no wonder the couples therapy falls flat, fast!

The average number of couples therapy sessions divorced people report having?

Just four sessions.

To state the obvious here, that’s not enough time to dig into issues and start to work on them. For these couples, often the excuses are that life gets busy, someone gets sick, someone feels on the spot in counseling. Basically, there is no real momentum to keep plugging away, particularly for the clueless spouse who thinks things are basically okay.

Sometimes the other spouse makes the argument that marriage counseling is unnecessary or that the time and money are not there for it. Especially if they are not seeing any warning signs about divorce! The doubter, perhaps also not sure about where marriage counseling will work, withdraws the request to start or stay with the counseling–and then keeps simmering.

Whether or not there is any attempt at couples therapy, some doubting spouses go into individual therapy. Sometimes it is a great experience, especially if the therapist helps them see their own part of the marital problems and offers ideas for self- change.

Other times individual therapy becomes a “bitch session” every week, with no real personal growth and a terribly one sided view of the other spouse.  (Some therapists are not good at seeing the perspective of the spouse who is not their client.)  But we think that the majority of doubters do wish for personal growth and don’t want to just attack their spouse.

When marital doubts linger long enough, people start to rehearse in their minds what they would do after a divorce. They imagine being single again, and they think about how to prepare for that possibility—just in case. This may mean starting a job, finding separate friends, or not making big commitments for the future, like upgrading the house.

This creates more distance in the marriage, something they don’t want, but the doubter’s dilemma is that verbalizing doubts to the spouse can propel them into crisis mode. They don’t know how their spouse will respond—constructively, nastily, or with panic?  Now you may have two people in doubt—and bringing their worst selves to the situation!

But here’s the thing: the longer you prepare for the possibility of divorce without telling your spouse, the more blindsided they feel when you do tell them—and the more likely that your worst doubts are realized.

You may be wondering, then, how does marital doubt end?

In the three simplest “end game” scenarios of marital doubt, the following can happen:

– Doubt goes away, replaced by normal ups and downs of marriage but without the edge and anxiety about commitment and stability. You’re back in, with maybe just occasional flare ups of doubt. You may get there on your own, or with help.

Doubt turns to crisis when it’s shared with the spouse prior to a decision to end the marriage. Sometimes the crisis leads to real change, with counseling help or on your own as a couple, and the doubt goes away. Other times it leads to divorce, but with enough time for the spouse to understand what’s going on and for both of you to try to save the marriage if possible. This shows the benefit of sharing doubts with the spouse before deciding to divorce—it gives them a chance to respond well and for reconciliation to occur—even though it’s scary because you don’t know how they will react.

– Doubt is not shared and turns into a sudden announcement of divorce–a kind of “Dear John” discussion: “I am leaving you. I have a lawyer and I suggest you get one.” This is, of course, the most heart wrenching for the other spouse and can lead to bitter divorces and troubled shared parenting later. However, it might be necessary if the other spouse is a threatening person who could do grave harm if told in advance.

If you or someone you know is having marital doubts, there is hope for understanding what’s going on, gaining more clarity, and getting off of the roller coaster of emotions!

A Marriage Isn’t Over Until It’s Over: Research On Divorce Ambivalence

It’s commonly believed that when people enter the legal divorce process, they have come to accept the reality that divorce is inevitable.

Even therapists and lawyers tend to assume that once divorce papers are filed, ambivalence about divorcing is over and the only task ahead is to help couples have a constructive end to their marriage.  Recent research shows that these assumptions are not founded.  In fact, many divorcing people aren’t sure they want their marriage has to end.

The first empirical study on attitudes towards reconciliation during the divorce process was conducted by Doherty, Peterson and Willoughby (2011), who surveyed a sample of 2,484 divorcing parents. 

They found that about 25% of individual parents indicated a belief that their marriage could still be saved, and about 30% indicated an interest in reconciliation services.  

That study was replicated by Hawkins, Willoughby and Doherty (2012) who found similar levels of belief that the marriage could be saved (26%) as well as interest in reconciliation services (33%).

A third study (Doherty, Harris, and Wilde, in press) asked about specific attitudes towards the divorce in a sample of 624 individual parents who had filed for divorce.

The study found that just two-thirds of participants were certain they wanted the divorce. The rest were ambivalent or did not want the divorce. Parents who were not certain about the divorce were highly interested in help to save their marriage.

Keep in mind that this study, like the other ones mentioned, were conducted with people who were well into the divorce process. Unpublished data from clients in initial consultation with lawyers has found that half of initial clients were ambivalent about getting divorce or didn’t want the divorce; only half were certain.

Other surveys of divorced people have found indicators of ambivalence about divorce. Several surveys reported that half of divorced individuals wished they had worked harder to overcome their marital differences and avoid their divorce (see Hawkins & Fackrell, 2009, for a summary. Hetherington and Kelley (2002) reported that in 75% of divorced couples at least one partner had regrets about the decision to divorce one year after the breakup. 

In a qualitative study, Knox and Corte (2007) found striking levels of rethinking among currently separated spouses.  They reported:

“Clearly, one effect of involvement in the process of separation was a re-evaluation of the desirability of initiating a separation to the degree that they would alert others contemplating separation/divorce to rethink their situation and to attempt reconciliation” (p. 79).

In summary, research now shows that divorce ambivalence is widespread among people who have entered the divorce process. It’s not over just because the legal divorce process has started.