When you have been experiencing serious problems or unhappiness in your marriage, at some point you are likely to consider whether or not you want to stay in the marriage at all.
Divorce is usually final in more respects than one, marking the point of no return for both your marriage as a legal status, and the relationship on which it was founded. It is not a decision to be taken lightly. While some divorces are more amicable than others, most are upsetting, and not all divorced former partners find that they can remain even on friendly terms with their former spouses. But divorce can also provide a feeling of liberation and peace for those who had been in a chronically unhappy or abusive marriage.
Reasons for divorce
There are many different reasons why married couples decide to divorce, and each case is unique. Here is a shortlist of ten of the more common reasons, with associated practical considerations. Does any of these apply to your marriage?
- Sexual infidelity – one partner engaging in a sexual relationship with a third party without the consent of the other partner.
- In cases where the illicit relationship is with someone of the opposite sex, this is legally known in law as adultery and is a formal ground for divorce.
- When you have discovered your partner’s sexual infidelity for the first time, you may decide you want to divorce, or that you want to forgive and stay married. This is entirely a personal choice. If you decide to forgive, think about what actions you could take to help repair your marriage.
- Is your partner sorry and willing to be sexually faithful to you in the future?
- If your partner is again sexually unfaithful after you have addressed the first instance, will you forgive again, or will that be the last straw that prompts you to seek a divorce?
- Emotional infidelity – one partner developing and exhibiting marked romantic or sexual feelings for a third party, despite the absence of a sexual relationship with that party, can often be sufficient for the other partner to feel jealous and emotionally excluded, and then to withdraw emotionally in turn from the originally emotionally unfaithful partner.
- Although emotional infidelity is not a formal ground for divorce, it can precipitate the breakdown of the emotional relationship that a marriage is founded upon, leading to the excluded partner desiring divorce.
- Desertion – where one partner leaves the other to live elsewhere for a sustained period, without the agreement of the spouse.
- Desertion is a legitimate ground for divorce, even in the absence of adultery or unreasonable behaviour.
- In cases where couples live and work apart for long periods, it often happens that at least one partner feels that the pair has been living such separate lives that the marriage has broken down.
- Sometimes it is only when a couple returns to living together after a long period of living and working apart that the strains show and precipitate divorce.
- Loss of love, sex, shared activities, or communication
- Relationships can sometimes break down while a couple is still living together, without any third party involvement, owing to the dissipation and loss of key factors that bonded the couple in the first place – love, sexual attraction and physical intimacy, activities and outings together, or friendly communication.
- In such circumstances, creeping unhappiness will develop in one or both partners, and there can be a realisation that they have drifted apart and that the relationship is no longer meaningful enough to continue.
- Loss of love, sex or communication is not a formal ground for divorce in itself, but it can be claimed as unreasonable behaviour if one partner avoids interacting with the other in an affectionate way, withholding love and physical intimacy, over a prolonged period of time.
- Arguments and disagreements
- Where a couple gets into a repeated pattern of arguing and disagreeing heatedly over matters of importance or even the minutiae of daily living, it can gradually wear down feelings of affection between them, becoming a barrier to their intimacy. It may even be a sign of a pre-existing underlying loss of affection, or some other more serious difference in the relationship.
- If one partner always insists on his / her preference being implemented, the other one is likely to become very unhappy, since a power imbalance has developed whereby the latter must be the follower in order to placate and maintain the affection of the leader.
- It is important for couples to be able to calmly address differences of opinion and compromise, finding mutually agreeable solutions.
- Arguments and disagreements are not a formal ground for divorce, but can precipitate loss of love, sex and communication, or desertion, or other serious causes of divorce such as eventual infidelity.
- Physical violence or threat – if one partner exercises or threatens physical force or restraint against the other, this is a form of abuse constituting unreasonable behaviour and as such, a ground for divorce.
- Violence or threat within marriage is also highly likely to be a breach of the law. Married couples have the right to report their spouses to the police for violence (including rape) or threat.
- Where victims of marital violence and threats (most commonly women) feel in danger for their safety, they may be best advised to move out of the marital home altogether. If women’s safety cannot be assured by relatives or friends at any known address, accommodation at secret secure addresses known as women’s refuges or shelters should be applied for. Murders and serious assaults of spouses and former spouses are sadly not especially uncommon.
- Verbal abuse and denigration – if one partner has a habit of making insulting, rude, mean and unkind remarks to and about the other, or humiliating the other, this can make the other partner feel unhappy and unloved.
- Verbal abuse and denigration may be part of a pattern of controlling behaviour, whereby the verbally abusive partner keeps his / her victim feeling inadequate unless the latter amends her / his own behaviour in line with the demands of the former. Controlling behaviour is a common cause of unhappiness in marriage, and should flag up danger signals.
- A prolonged pattern of verbal abuse and denigration constitutes unreasonable behaviour, and as such, is a formal ground for divorce.
- Loss of trust – trust in a relationship may be eroded by all kinds of factors, including ones featured under separate headings (such as infidelity), but also others such as:
- The divulging of private, personal information to others that are not equally trusted by both partners
- Negative comments and allegations made about one partner to friends or relatives, or in public
- A pattern of unreliability – where one partner frequently or consistently does not do what he / she is supposed or expected to at the right time, the other may feel that he / she cannot be relied on.
- Alcohol or substance abuse – a pattern of either alcohol abuse or the abuse of illegal or pharmaceutical drugs can constitute unreasonable behaviour and as such, a formal ground for divorce.
- The excessive consumption of alcohol can change people’s behaviour in upsetting ways, sometimes bringing out aggressiveness and an inclination to verbal or physical abuse. Even if such behaviour is directed at someone other than the spouse, it can make the partner exhibiting it difficult to live with.
- In more severe cases, heavy alcohol users can develop a condition known as alcoholism, a serious addiction to alcohol, which typically manifests in a raft of behavioural changes including deception of the partner and the telling of lies about the partner to others. Alcoholics need professional treatment, but not all are willing to admit and address their problem. Being married to an alcoholic can make for chronic unhappiness and worry.
- The abuse of either illegal drugs such as cannabis, cocaine and heroin, or pharmaceutical drugs such as barbiturates, benzodiazepines, opioids and amphetamines, can alter behaviour in upsetting ways, lead to addiction, and exert a serious drain on finances. Being married to a drug addict can feel very precarious because of the constant risk of a fatal overdose.
- If you are married to a drug addict, you may feel you have to be a carer to the one you love, but have you become an enabler, facilitating your partner’s continuing unhealthy and dangerous lifestyle of addiction? Drug addicts need professional help and treatment.
- Mental disorders – where one partner is exhibiting signs of, or has been diagnosed with, mental illness such as schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, neuroticism, developmental disorders, behavioural disorders or personality disorders
- Mental illness can contribute a serious strain to a marriage, often making it impossible to maintain calm, rational communication and mutual understanding where it is needed.
- Mental disorders are not a formal ground for divorce, but may lead to the other partner feeling that the marriage is not working, and may manifest in various forms of unreasonable behaviour.
- Financial misconduct – this may take a wide range of forms. A sustained pattern of financial misconduct or even a single instance of gross financial misconduct constitutes unreasonable behaviour, and may be cited as a formal ground for divorce. Examples of financial misconduct include:
- Reckless gambling – gambling with money that results in substantial losses of assets, without the partner’s express prior permission, may be grounds for divorce. This may take the form of a small number of large gambles or many small gambles.
- Reckless expenditure – expenditure beyond means that results in either the accumulation of unsustainable debt, or in the frittering away of financial assets on purchases whose value cannot be recouped by later sale, without the permission of the spouse
- Wilful destruction of assets – for example by burning or giving away to others, without the permission of the spouse
- Failure to contribute in fair measure – where one partner refuses to pay a fair share of common costs.
- Due consideration should be given to each partner’s respective means (savings and income) in assessing what constitutes fair measure.
- Time spent on unpaid labour for housekeeping and childcare may be considered a contribution-in-kind to common costs, if one partner undertakes a disproportionate share of this.
Advantages and disadvantages of divorce
- When someone is unhappy in a marriage to the point of wishing to end the relationship, for whatever reason, divorce allows that person to break free from being legally bound to the other, decisively and permanently, conferring a feeling of liberation.
- When a relationship exists only in name and not in actuality, with love or trust having faded away and physical intimacy having ended or become emotionally false, then being married can come to feel like living a lie.
- Divorce is public and permanent. Are you sure it is what you want? Think carefully before going ahead at the risk of regretting it.
- Divorce can be especially upsetting to children for whom both partners have a responsibility. If you have children, are they going to be badly affected by your divorce? If so, is it worth trying to keep your marriage going while they are still young?
- All relationships have some weaknesses and points of disagreement. Are you allowing them to take centre stage and losing sight of the more positive aspects of your marriage? Be wary of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Think about what brought you together in the first place. Do you still love each other? Can your relationship be repaired? Is it worth a try?
Alternatives to divorce
If you are unsure whether or not you are ready for divorce, then consider whether or not you have explored all available approaches to saving your marriage.
- Calm discussion – address the issues that are making you unhappy calmly with your partner, in an attempt to forge a new understanding and resolve the problems. Make agreements together and see if you can both stick to them.
- Renewal of affection – make an effort to restore the flow of affectionate speech and action between you and your partner. Accentuate the positive so that love takes centre stage and dominates your time together.
- Medical support – in cases of alcohol abuse, drug abuse or mental illness, make sure that the affected partner makes use of appropriate professional support services such as psychiatrists, counsellors and addiction clinics, to manage the condition as well as can be and minimise its problematic impact on your marriage.
- Couples counselling – if you are past the point at which calm discussion together seems productive or even possible, or if you have run out of ideas for resolution, consider booking structured counselling sessions together with a professional marriage or couples counsellor, who will try to identify the problems in your marriage and their causes, and suggest a plan of action towards their possible resolution.
- Relate (formerly the Marriage Guidance Council until its rebranding in 1988) is a leading provider of such services in the UK, also offering family counselling. Its counsellors must have completed a recognised programme of training.
- Family therapy – this is psychotherapy focused on the needs of whole families, and tends to be carried out by trained professional psychologists . Family therapists may be consulted privately or via referral from general practitioners of medicine. Whether or not family therapy can help avert divorce may vary on a case-by-case basis.
Emotional Effects of Divorce
For almost everyone, divorce is much more than just a change in legal status. It is a harrowing emotional process that is ultimately codified in law.
Researchers have identified that the process of emotional divorce in at least one partner typically begins years before legal divorce papers are first filed. It is common for only one partner to want a divorce at first. The other may try to persuade the first to change his or her mind, at the same time as withdrawing emotionally to some degree, in the interest of emotional self-protection in view of the revealed intentions of the first to obtain a divorce.
The emotional effects of divorce may take on a variety of forms. Here are some of the commonly occurring types:
- Anger, bitterness, resentment, blame, vindictiveness or vengefulness, occasionally even feelings of violence, directed towards the other party and / or towards others close to the latter who may have influenced him or her
- Distortion, exaggeration and misrepresentation in a negative direction of the essential nature or identity of the other party
- Sadness; discontent; dissatisfaction; anguish; self-pity; brooding; sulking
- Loneliness; abandonment; broken-heartedness; grief; emptiness; feeling unloved;
- Disbelief; denial; failure to acknowledge and come to terms with the new reality; yearning for the other party; searching for ways to win her / him back
- Longing for and sometimes the impetuous seeking out of a new relationship or other emotional attachment to fill the void left by the divorce
- Personal defeat and failure
- Self-doubt; self-loathing; inadequacy; questioning of own identity; diminished self-worth
- Unworthiness of love or of another relationship; fear of remaining alone for the rest of life
- Loss of trust in others and in love relationships generally
- Loss of purpose in or valuing of life; despair; sometimes to the point of feeling suicidal
- Guilt; shame and humiliation in front of children, family, friends, and work colleagues; public disgrace
- Insecurity; disempowerment; loss of control of the course of one’s own life;
- Shock; confusion; distortion of own perspective, sometimes leading to the temporary loss of contact with reality;
- Anxiety about the effects on children and on one’s relationship to them; uncertainty of how best to handle them in the circumstances
- Fear about the future and about managing navigating through the transitional period between married life and independent life
- Frustration at delays, at being unable to speed to a resolution and to the concretisation of a new satisfactory form and structure of life after divorce.
- Inclination to withdraw from people and relationships generally, including friendships and family relationships; seeking of privacy and solitude in which to heal
- Escapism; seeking out of powerful experiences and stimuli (e.g. alcohol, drugs) to distract from sadness and from the loss of relationship
- Relief; liberation from burdens, conflicts and tensions
- A positive, optimistic outlook towards the post-divorce future and the opportunities it may present
For more information on the emotional effects of divorce, see for example the carefully researched article The Psychology of Divorce by clinical psychologist Dr. Donald T. Saposnek and family law specialist Chip Rose.