Here’s our first installment of the Jewish Divorce Panel, run by Sarah Tuttle-Singer, Jennifer Mittelman, Jordana Horn, and Jesse Bacon. Remember, if you have questions of your own, send them into firstname.lastname@example.org.
How do you know? How do you know when it’s not just a rough patch, a lull, a temporary thing but something more? How do you know when it is time to consider separation or divorce?
You just know.
(Oh gee Sarah, thanks for the helpful response. I could have done better asking Miss Cleo from the Psychic Whatever,or even just flipping a damn coin.)
Seriously. This is one of the hardest questions ever, and one I (still) ask myself during moments of stillness when I (masochistically) look through old photo albums, or when the kids do something especially sweet or funny and I know there is only one other person in the whole wide world who will smile as wide as I do at the latest anecdote.
And part of what makes this such a complex question to answer is that there is no “right” answer. Ask anyone who is going through a separation or a divorce, and their answer will be based on their limits and their perception of what they need in a marriage. For some, infidelity is a deal breaker. For others, any kind of abuse is the absolute limit. And for others still, an intuitive sense that the marriage simply “isn’t working” is reason enough.
I wish there were a clear-cut answer. I would have saved a boatload of money on therapy.
Marriage is not the amazing, all-bluebirds-and-happiness thing you see in the movies. Well, fine, my second marriage is. But I know from experience that that isn’t always the case and it is much more a rarity than the norm.
You’re basically asking the flip side of the Whitney Houston standard, “How Will I Know?” In that song (think hair scrunchies and 80s) she inquires, “How will I know if he really loves me/I try to phone but I’m too shy (can’t speak!).” You’re asking, how will I know when enough is enough?
Unfortunately, there is no cut-and-dried litmus test. I agree with Sarah that it’s an intimately personal touchstone. I don’t feel particularly comfortable discussing my own experience, in fact (and as queen of overshare on the Internet, that’s something). But I do feel comfortable saying that I don’t think divorce is the answer unless all other options have been exhausted.
What do I mean by that? Marriage is a commitment not to be taken lightly. And it is hard work–all kidding aside about my perfect union–that requires digging into unheretofore-tapped wells of empathy, support, patience, and fortitude.
If you’re having problems of whatever stripe, you need to look honestly at the reasons behind them. Were your financial expectations different when you married? Then you and your spouse may need to sit down and do a real overhaul of your family lifestyle. Has your conversational style devolved into a quid-pro-quo of childcare and demands? Then you and your spouse may need to make the time to go to a marriage counselor together (I highly recommend this route). Is one of you suffering from depression? A psychologist, psychiatrist, or treatment program could be in the cards for one party with the full support and blessing of the other. Maybe someone has a bad self-image. Maybe someone lost their job. Maybe you’re in a new place that you don’t want to be in, literally or metaphorically. I believe in the power of counseling–whether official marriage counseling or perhaps your rabbi– to help you either out of the marriage or out of your rut.
Perhaps incongruously, I see divorce as the last possible resort. Not because it’s bad for the children–we can discuss this another time, but in many cases, I feel strongly that divorce can be better for kids than making them bystanders to your gladiator-esque battles. No, I see divorce as a last resort because I genuinely believe that when you marry someone, you pledge your life to them. And when you married them, you pledged yourself to them not only as you were in the nice dress with him in the tux, but also under less favorable circumstances. A marriage counselor or mediator third party can be the outside set of eyes that can see things in a different light and can help you see things differently as well. Of course, when they hand you a list of divorce attorneys, then you have your answer right there.
[DISCLAIMER: what you are getting here should not be construed as legal advice. In no way does what I'm about to write create an attorney-client relationship between you and I.]
I am going to assume there are no major red flags, like domestic violence in any form–physical, emotional, financial, sexual–or dangerous addiction on the part of your significant other that render it unsafe for you to continue to reside with your partner, and which indicate that it’s time to exit your current marital situation quickly, if not immediately. If there are no red flags, use any tools at your disposal to make a thoughtful decision. I recommend an excellent book which I suggest to many of my clients: Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay by Mira Kirshenbaum. It is a workbook of sorts that asks very thought-provoking questions which can help answer yours about your marriage.
Have you and your significant other tried couples counseling? Sometimes a couples counselor can help save your marriage or help you determine that continuing in the marriage would not be healthy for one or both of you. Generally speaking, coaches, therapists, rabbis, or other professionals can also help you focus on what is troubling you about the marriage and help guide you to make the right decision for you. Good luck.
The reality is you’ve probably known for a while. Maybe some part of you has always known. But the real milestone is when you are ready to take action, when you can no longer ignore your own feelings. For most of us, that means having tried everything: counseling, arguing, ignoring, romantic getaways. The best sign I can think of that might be drawing near is that virtues of the relationship have flipped like cancers, turning your own cells against you: that which was enticing is now fatal to the relationship.