No one enters a marriage with the expectation of getting a divorce. Whether you're experiencing a rocky patch in your relationship, working through a betrayal, or can't shake the feeling that you'd be happier on your own, how can you know for sure when it's time to go your separate ways?
It can be mentally and emotionally draining to keep asking yourself whether you should get a divorce without coming to the answer. What follows is guidance, including from marriage experts and research studies, that can help you work toward a decision.
The common reasons for divorce range from poor communication and incompatibility to substance abuse and money troubles. Every relationship is different. Problems that lead to a breakup for one couple might be worth working through for another.
When it comes to deciding if you should get a divorce, it's important to know about some of the behaviors that many experts agree should be marriage deal breakers.
Cherie Morris, J.D. is a certified divorce coach who works with individuals and couples who are considering ending a marriage. Her experience suggests that any form of emotional or physical abuse that isn't addressed or remedied shouldn't be tolerated.
"It may seem obvious but it isn't," Morris says. "Especially when you have children or when your financial position may get much worse." She adds, "If the abuser is not willing to do their work, divorce should be the only answer."
When one spouse physically, sexually, or emotionally abandons a marriage, it obviously puts the relationship in limbo. The abandoned spouse sometimes chooses to stay married for reasons such as financial stability or social pressures. But divorce might be the fairest outcome for all.
"You really need to think about how abandonment impacts you and your children in the long run," advises Morris. "It's empowering to move forward, not in relation to your spouse, but in relation to what's next and best for you and your kids."
Estimates on how many married couples experience sexual infidelity (adultery) vary widely. In a 2018 NORC General Social Survey, more than 22% of men and almost 12% of women reported having extramarital sex.
An affair doesn't always lead to the end of a marriage. There are, however, times when cheating might mean you should get a divorce.
"If somebody's having an affair and has no intention of stopping it, believes they're entitled to have more than one affair, or continues to engage in betrayal, deception, lies, and manipulation, then it makes sense to give up on that relationship," says Dr. Vagdevi Meunier, a licensed psychologist who has provided couples counseling for more than three decades.
Deciding to divorce is one of the most gut-wrenching decisions a person might ever need to make. In the context of life events, divorce and marital separation rank as the second and third most stressful of all, according to the benchmark Holmes and Rahe Social Readjustment Rating Scale. With that in mind, how can you make this life-changing decision with confidence?
If you're physically safe, give yourself time to mentally work through all the emotions and issues you're experiencing to figure out whether you should get a divorce. While there's no quick and easy way to decide to divorce, support is available to help you get to the answer that's right for you.
Marriage counseling, while not something you can do alone, helps focus attention on relationship issues that matter most to you and your spouse. It may lead to the breakthrough that revives the marriage or one that gives you the certainty to end it.
Discernment counseling is a specialized type of therapy developed for spouses who are considering divorce. Couples sometimes turn to it when one partner wants out of the marriage and the other wants to stay together.
The duration is typically short—from one to five sessions. It explores three options for the relationship:
There are a variety of couples therapy styles to choose from, so consider doing some research to figure out which type might work best for you.
Coaching is different from therapy in that it is primarily focused on providing the tools and support to create an action plan for meeting a specific aim. Relationship and divorce coaches are often skilled in helping clients decide whether or not to end a marriage.
In her discernment coaching sessions, Morris helps spouses take into account the financial, practical, and emotional implications of both staying in and leaving a marriage. The goal for couples is to put together what she calls an agenda for success.
"Success can look many different ways," Morris says. "It can mean trying to dig in with practical tools to stay together, or it can mean deciding to separate with respect."
Morris puts communication front and center for spouses who've made the decision to divorce. "I try to help them talk about anything—kids, property, future relationships—whatever they need," Morris says. "I coach them to express themselves in a cooperative and empathetic way."
Morris also works with individual clients looking to make a divorce decision or who want to focus on proactive ways to move through the process.
It's important to note that relationship and divorce coaches typically don't recommend their services for people dealing with trauma or other serious mental health issues.
Keep in mind that individual therapy can be a good support option for people considering divorce, regardless of their specific experiences. It can be especially useful to help manage anxiety, depression, and other conditions that can come about or worsen before, during, and after the divorce process.
It's impossible to talk about the decision to divorce without discussing its effects on children. While every child handles it differently, witnessing the breakup of their parents' marriage can have negative consequences psychologically, physically, and academically. On the other hand, children of high-conflict or abusive marriages often do better after a split.
There are steps divorcing parents can take to reduce stress and uncertainty for their kids. In recent years, collaborative practices that support amicable divorce such as conscious uncoupling, positive co-parenting, and "good divorce" behaviors have made their way into the mainstream. The result has been a positive shift in the way many couples approach this transition with their children.
Research has shown that several factors contribute to a child's well-being after divorce. They include economic security, access to healthcare, and a strong, supportive relationship with both parents.
If you have kids and are deciding whether you should get a divorce, take some time to think about issues like child custody and child support that might affect co-parenting.
If you've made the decision to move forward with a divorce, where should you begin?
"It may sound obvious, but the important thing is to make sure you have decided in a really clear way with your spouse what's going to happen—before you start talking to friends, family, and especially the children," says Morris.
"You can express your emotions, you can show your children that you have sadness, but then you need to be able to take care of them and take care of yourself separately," she adds.
Whether or not children are in the picture, there are practical and legal steps you should take to prepare for a divorce. It might not be easy, but it's possible to start over after divorce in a positive way that allows you to not only survive but to thrive.