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Get a Divorce or Stay Married? How to Decide

Welcome. You’ve probably found this article because you’re asking the question, “Should I get a divorce?” This is a massive life decision that changes everything, and you’re likely seeking clarity, as you decide whether to separate and end a marriage, or stay together — or something in between.

While I certainly do not have all the answers, what I will share in this article are a series of steps that helped ME realize that it was time to divorce after ten years of marriage (plus two young kids). My hope is that these methods can help others move from being stuck, towards finding a way forward — whatever that way may be.

Reflecting on whether to divorce or stay married.
Reflecting on whether to divorce or stay married.

I want to be very clear here that I am not advocating for any specific course of action other than the one that is healthiest and best for YOUR individual situation and family. Every relationship is incredibly different, and thus I urge you to use thoughtful judgment in this entire inquiry. Please proceed carefully.

I will also add that if you are experiencing violence or abuse, skip this article, and make haste to get yourself safe, however possible. With that said, let’s move into it.

An epic sunset I saw in the first winter holidays after marriage separation.
An epic sunset I saw in the first winter holidays after marriage separation.

How To Decide, “Should I Get a Divorce?”

1. First, do as much as you possibly can to help the marriage.

The best advice I got, when starting the inquiry into whether or not to divorce, is that you need to try to do as much as possible to help the marriage first. Why? Divorce is EXPENSIVE, not to mention immensely emotionally and logistically difficult — especially when kids are involved. You do not want anyone (yourself included) regretting that you didn’t put a true effort into making things work first.

What does “putting in the effort” consist of? First and foremost, find a therapist for both individual and couples therapy, and work with them weekly for at least several months. Trained professionals are absolutely key in unpacking what is going on in a relationship, and illuminating how it can be improved, and many are just $10-$20 copays with insurance.

Second, be willing to look at and modify places where you, yourself, are causing issues in the relationship, and reflect: are those elements you’re willing to tackle if they’ll improve the marriage for all? If the answer is “No,” that’s valid and ok. It just becomes an important piece of the puzzle to know: “If I do X, our marriage will function better, but doing X does not make me happy or healthy, and so I don’t want to do it.”

Now here’s the key piece: “Doing everything possible to save the marriage first” does not mean that it will ultimately prove best to stay in the marriage. It just means that — again, unless violence or abuse is involved — you owe it to yourself and your family to make a true effort first. At the very least, this effort will unlock skills (like communication methods) and information (like what you each truly want) that will be pivotal to the next steps.

"The Embrace" -- Boston's new "monument to love" and MLK.
“The Embrace” — Boston’s new “monument to love” and MLK.

2. Understand that the decision to divorce takes time.

Looking back, I’m astonished at how long the mental journey took for me to fully realize, for certain, that I wanted to get divorced. Talking to other friends in similar situations, the general time frame for deciding to separate from marriage seems to be about three to five years, with a slow build-up over time that leads to a crescendo of certainty.

The reason it takes so long is that divorce is such a massive life shift that it goes through the same major emotional stages as grief. Just as with grief, the stages of divorce are usually: Denial, Fear, Anger, Bargaining, Guilt, Depression, and Acceptance. I most vividly remember the “Fear” stage — the paralyzing terror about what my life would look like without the stability of marriage. (I can happily report now that life is lovely on the other side of separation, but I didn’t know that then.)

One of the books about divorce that I found most helpful in navigating this process, Conscious Uncoupling, is fantastic resource for how to compassionately support yourself through each stage of divorce in order to move forward effectively. The profundity of the emotional impact of the marriage separation process cannot be underestimated or rushed, so you need to take your time.

One example of this from the book is the warning to be especially careful driving a car during this transition. As your brain readjusts, it is literally not operating at its full safe capacity. This means that you need to move forward slowly in everything from the literal act of driving, to the mental act of deciding how to proceed with the relationship. Those extra moments of care during the months, or even years, of this shift make all the difference.

Visiting New York City after separation.
Visiting New York City after separation.

3. Strategize supports for the children.

For parents with kids, the children are often a major factor in deciding whether or not to divorce. There can be mountains of fear around this aspect — but there is good news: scientific studies have now largely debunked the assertion that divorce harms kids. (See this “Scientific American” article and this “Slate” one for substantiation and references around this.) That said, disruption DOES impact kids, so it is indeed essential to weigh that into the equation, and to think through how that could be mitigated if separation does occur.

In our case, we worked with a couples therapist who specialized in child development (she was covered by insurance, so only $20 a session!) in order to first shield the kids from any whiff of marital conflict, then to create a script for how to tell the kids about divorce (click to see it), and finally to make a plan for how to transition into two houses, while keeping as much comforting, consistent routine for the kids as possible. Our kids have now transitioned well, thank goodness, though of course, it is an ongoing path that we will always strive to make better and better.

Now, here’s a possibly surprising concept to bear in mind when thinking through the decision to divorce as it pertains to kids: Joint custody in two different homes can actually be a structure that works better for some families than the nuclear family in one home! Read this NYTimes article for a fantastic explanation of why.

And finally, a reminder for those who wish to divorce but are NOT doing so “because of the kids.” Nearly every adult I’ve spoken to who had parents in this situation when they were growing up wished that their parents had just separated. In the words of one of them: “I wanted my mom and dad to be happy, but they were so obviously miserable together. I’m not sure how them staying together was supposed to help me, but it sure didn’t.” Model for your kids the kind of relationships you wish for them.

Build a community of people to help you through the decision process.
Build a community of people to help you through the decision process.

4. Look at the money and assets.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Divorce is INSANELY expensive — both in money and time. If you’re trying to decide whether or not to separate from marriage, take an honest look at your financial landscape, and begin taking actions now to open options.

For example, heed this marriage credit card warning to avoid the mistake I made of not having credit cards under my individual name. Also, assess your savings, earning and borrowing potential, and safety net. A safety net example: I lost our shared car in the divorce, but I’ve had several friends and family members let me borrow their wheels since then.

At the end of the day, your health and happiness may well be worth some financial strain. Here’s some food for thought from a friend who divorced many years ago, at great expense. She reflected: “I realized that my choice was to pay a vast amount of money, or to stay married. Ultimately, it was worth it for me to pay every cent of that money to be able to launch this new life that I love!”

Of course, her experience may not match yours, but it’s one useful perspective. Over and over, I’ve seen that once people clearly decide whether or not they want to get divorced (looking deeply in their heart to find what will truly make them happy), they make the money and logistics work. But how does one do this “deep look into the heart?” Read on…

Loved how the sky looked that day! Many important conversations happened then.
Many important conversations happened the day I took this beautiful sky photo.

5. Meditate, do Reiki, get acupuncture, and try hypnosis.

Let’s move now from logistical considerations to internal, emotional ones. In order to decide whether to get divorced or stay married, you truly need to tap into your inner-most knowing. There are a number of methods to do this, so let’s explore each one.

First, meditation is key, because it allows you to quiet the noise (and society’s pressures) around you, in order to truly listen to what your heart wants and needs. I found the Insight Timer app immensely helpful in this journey. Some of the courses on relationships brought me absolutely to tears — in a productive way.

Second, I may be biased because I run a studio for Reiki in Boston, but I HIGHLY recommend energy work such as Reiki, acupuncture, or massage in order to access your true flow. Of the three options, I find Reiki the best for thinking through about relationships, because you have more of an opportunity to talk with the practitioner during the session. (If you’re around Boston and interested in this, do reach out.)

Finally, hypnotherapy is a remarkable and under-used tool in life decisions such as this. I had several excellent sessions by Zoom with a practitioner I highly recommend, and am happy to connect you with her if you message me. And don’t worry — hypnosis is not scary… it’s just a deep guided meditation that brings you into a state of relaxation in which truth and clarity are easier to access.

Boston's Embrace sculpture is a heart at certain angles.
Boston’s Embrace sculpture is a heart at certain angles.

6. Quit drinking and start exercise.

Though the inclination for many when times get hard is to imbibe more, I HIGHLY recommend learning how to stop drinking alcohol for as much of the decision process as possible. The reason is that you need a clear head and as much strength and health as possible to make your choice well. In fact, you may find after you quit booze that drinking had been numbing you to certain important pieces of information, or causing other problems.

But how to find an outlet for the stress without alcohol? Enter: exercise. Stress is great workout motivation, and the endorphins make everything in life clearer and more manageable.

Also, I highly recommend assessing what you’re putting in your body for food and drink, and how each element is making you feel. For example, drinking more water and eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains makes a world of difference in boosting optimal brain function for life decisions. Sleep, too! Bottom line: Healthy self-care is essential to being able to make sage choices.

7. Listen to what your body is telling you.

As the saying goes, “The body keeps score.” Notice the sensations that are happening in every part of your physical self, and assess: Are there patterns? What are the feelings, where, and why might they be occurring?

Do you feel a tightness in your chest — perhaps from a certain kind of stress? Does this tightness increase or decrease in specific situations or places, or with particular combinations of people? As this tightness builds and continues, do you ever have the thought, “I don’t want to feel this way anymore?”

Are you experiencing odd “clumsiness” where you’re bumping into things, stubbing toes, or accidentally hurting yourself? What are the places and circumstances in which this happens? What might this be saying about the ways you’ve disassociated from your body, ignoring its messages? Could your whole self be shouting out, “Hear me, please!?”

All of these sensations happened to me for many years, and it was not until I quit drinking and started meditating regularly — plus talking to therapists and trusted loved ones — that I finally put the pieces together of what my body was trying to tell me.

Do your best to stop “numbing out” and really look at what’s there. Your body’s messages do not necessarily mean that a divorce is necessary, but feeling sensations like chest tightness from stress, day in and day out, is not normal, healthy, or pleasant. SOME action is needed to care for your one precious self. You deserve to feel better — and it is possible.

Self-care can help you crack through the ice of confusion.
Self-care can help you crack through the ice of confusion.

8. Discuss with people who know what they’re talking about.

Take the risk of being vulnerable and reaching out to talk to people on all sides of the marriage vs. divorce spectrum. Learn to listen well and consider others’ experiences — while ultimately knowing that your situation may be different from theirs, and your choice is yours alone.

For example, talking to people who are married, the advice will almost always be to stick things out, no matter what. In some scenarios this advice may be helpful; in others, it may not fit, and is ok to consider, mull over, and move on from.

Talking to people who are divorced, it may seem terrifying to listen to all of the financial, logistical, and emotional hurdles they had to go through to get there, but also assess: are they now happier? In their case, did they make a choice that fit them? How did they reach the conclusion?

An ideal confidant may be someone who is in that same liminal space as you: trying to decide between the options of staying or going. I made some incredibly close friends with others going through the same journey over the years, because vulnerability and shared experiences are mighty bonding forces! However, just beware of being swayed by peer pressure in any of the people you talk to. Community is essential in decisions like this, but ultimately it’s YOUR life.

What will your next chapter look like?
What will your next chapter look like?

9. Attempt trial separations, or try solo travel.

Marriage creates logistical, emotional, and mental “entanglements” that make it hard to think beyond them. Given this, it can be instrumental to do any form of trial separation, just to begin to assess how it feels. When you’re in a different space than your partner, are you happier? Are you able to access parts of yourself that had become dormant or squashed? Or are you scared and miserable? Any combinations of these reactions are worth noting, and don’t necessarily lead to a clear answer right away; they are just data to gather for your inquiry.

To start with, you can do a mini trial separation like a 24-hour “Momcation” in which you visit a family member in the next town over — nothing fancy, just an opportunity for space and thinking. If you can’t get childcare, you might try travel with just one child, which can provide a surprising amount of mental relaxation if you’re used to the bustle of two or three kids.

Moving forward, if finances allow (laughable in Boston’s crazy housing market!), having a second living space can do wonders for giving breathing and thinking room while deciding whether to divorce or stay married. Whether or not this is possible, the key point in this “trial separation” piece is to begin to disentangle enough that you can plainly see what is working and what is not. This brings us to…

The Embrace sculpture at night.
The Embrace sculpture at night.

10. Consider out-of-the-box alternatives.

There are other alternatives besides simply marriage or divorce. We’re now in the 21st century, and people have come up with all sorts of wonderful alternative arrangements in what works best for their family. Once you do steps 1 through 9 of this list and can more clearly see what works and what doesn’t, you could invent a whole new configuration!

It may be that you decide to continue living together, but as platonic co-parents who stay married. It may be that you decide to divorce, but remain extremely close friends who live next door. The permutations are endless, and all that matters is what works for YOU and your kids and partner. Don’t worry what society thinks! They’re just jealous if you come up with a fabulous configuration they wish they had.

The one warning I’d give for hybrid structures is this: Watch out for the financial and legal ramifications of remaining married if you are no longer together. In Massachusetts, for example, your spouse is entitled to HALF of all the assets you accrue while married — and liable for half the debts. If you don’t have rock-solid trust and commitment with the other person, it may be wiser to legally separate.

11. Take heart: YOU WILL KNOW.

Here’s the hopeful conclusion: Though you may be in turmoil now about deciding whether to divorce or stay married, you WILL ultimately figure it out. There may be a single moment that’s a catalyst, or the revelation may come after a very slow and steady build-up of hundreds of moments — but if you give it enough time and enough effort, you will know what to do.

Can you see the way forward? Bit by bit you will!
Can you see the way forward? Bit by bit you will!

Deciding Whether to Divorce or Stay Married

As explained in my article about what to say to someone getting a divorce, ending a marriage does not necessarily need to be sad. For many people, there is actually a great deal of joy in the opportunity to start a new chapter — and to do it in a way that supports the children and one’s partner.

On the flip side, for many who have Googled, “Should I get a divorce?” they were ultimately able to work through their relationship issues and stick it out, and now delight in their marriage. The only person who can figure out the correct answer to the marriage vs. divorce question for your relationship is YOU — and I hope the methods above assist you in that process.

I’d now love to hear from you. If you decided to divorce or stay married, what helped you make the choice? If you’re still in the middle, what concerns do you have? Do share.

Want to keep reading? See all of my divorce stories here…

 

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