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To Stay or Go?

If you’re in the throes of a decision about divorce, or your spouse is threatening divorce, What each of you do and say now is of urgent importance to the fate of your union.

We want to help right now with this monumentally hard place in your private and public life with information for both of you, whether you’re leaning towards divorce or really want to save your marriage. The information we’re about to share isn’t made up by us – it’s real information from thousands of couples who have walked in your shoes.

Before we begin, understand you’re in uncharted territory when it comes to what clergy, lawyers, mediators, and even marriage therapists know.

Little research has been done on people in the middle of a divorce decision, so the professionals around you have only their own experience and intuition to go on. The decision to end a marriage is a huge one that nobody takes lightly.
Your friends and family are often too upset and biased to help as much as they would like.

We feel strongly that there is probably more bad advice about whether to divorce than any other serious decision in life. None of this is anyone’s fault.

It’s like the old  practice of doing surgical procedures on infants without using anesthesia because they were assumed to not feel pain—something that occurred up to the 1980s.

Here’s what we’ve learned from our experience and research by our professional partners from nearly a decade of focused attention to working with couples on the brink of divorce. We hope it helps you see your situation in a new light and gain a new understanding of what your next step may be. We now know that newborns and infants feel pain acutely and need pain relief!

Of course you don’t need research to know that you are in pain right now if divorce is looming. But there are myths out there, among professionals and the public alike, that are as toxic to couples on the brink of divorce as surgery without anesthesia.

Our professional partners have been gathering data, with research in scientific publications. It was inspired by a very curious family court judge who sometimes saw couples so respectful and compatible in divorce proceedings that he wondered why they needed to divorce.

Why not put that good energy into reconciling? This family court judge realised there are no “exit ramps” and “rest stops” on the divorce super highway once couples enter the divorce system. Someone forgot to install a visible pause button in the system.

The judge knew what we all know: an unnecessary divorce is one of life’s greatest tragedies, with upheaval and harm for children and adults that go down through generations. But he didn’t know how many people in his court were really open to seeing if their marriage could be pulled out of the fire and restored to health. Was it just his wish for them, or their wish for themselves? So our professional partners decided to do the research. The findings were stunning: a lot of people yearn for reconciliation even after the divorce paperwork has been filed.

Reality #1

If you’re reading this post, chances are you’re in the throes of a decision about divorce, or someone close to you is.

One of the spouses gets there first—the one who first brings up divorce, usually after a long time thinking about it. We call these people the “leaning-out” spouse. If this is you, it’s likely painful and complex. You may or may not have felt safe enough to confide in anyone, and by the time you utter the “d-word,” you may feel worse—or, just the opposite: a sense of relief that your inner thoughts are now out there, and divorce might be a realistic option.

If your spouse is angry, sad, or defensive, or is trying to dramatically change based on your announcement, this may seem like more “proof” that you need to get out. You’re tired. Why did your spouse not really hear you when there was a chance to turn things around? Can you trust pleas and promises to make things better? The “leaning-in” spouse is often taken aback by the idea of divorce – maybe even devastated at the idea – and wants to hold on and preserve the marriage. If this is you, you may be on an emotional roller coaster between anger, crying, begging, scolding, and feeling defensive. Maybe you are trying to reach out and make changes your spouse is asking for. But you are met with coldness or more criticism.

What’s going on?

The two of you are citizens of different emotional worlds right now and you’re unable to communicate accurately.
The chances for misunderstanding each other are high. And if your friends and family weigh in with their inevitably one-sided advice and opinions, you spin down the hole even further. Sometimes each spouse has their own Greek Chorus speaking in their ear, leading to tragic endings for the marriage. In sum, there are always two divorces coming out of one marriage. And just one of the spouses takes the lead on the divorce.

Reality #2

A lot of people hold hope for the marriage well into the divorce process. The door does not slam shut once people file.

When someone files for divorce and starts the legal process, everyone wrongly accepts the idea that the marriage is over. Move on, get it over with—that’s the universal advice from professionals and support people. The truth is that a lot of people remain ambivalent about whether divorce is the right solution for their problems. In the research on divorcing parents, about one third are not sure the marriage has to end. They say they are open to whether reconciliation is possible for their marriage—even after the legal divorce process is well underway.

My experience has shown me that that there is lots of ambivalence in divorce land. People who are earlier in the divorce process, including the first contact with a lawyer or mediator, are even more hopeful for their marriage. Unfortunately, most professionals aren’t aware of the alternative options and are bias towards following through to divorce. Your therapist, mediator, or lawyer may steer you to get moving on the divorce on the assumption that once someone files, you might as well get it over with as constructively as possible.

Traditional marriage counselling often fails when the two of you can’t agree on the goal of therapy. The leaning-out spouse is uncertain about whether it’s worth trying to work on the marriage in counselling, and the leaning-in spouse is desperate to make the counseling work.

This is a recipe for unproductive, even frustrating marriage counselling. The leaning-out spouse looks like Cold-Hearted Cathy who rejects help. The leaning-in spouse looks like Desperate Dan who pivots rapidly between anger and romantic pursuit. All totally normal and understandable, but problematic for traditional marriage counselling that assumes both people are there to work on their relationship. One or both of you believe you’re getting help but often leave a session wondering what is helpful or making things worse.

Even worse, many marriage counsellors are neutral about whether your marriage endures or ends, which means that they too-easily accept the idea that the marriage is probably over. They give up without seeing what’s possible for your marriage.

Fortunately, there is a little known but hight effective alternative to traditional couples counselling, mediation and divorce that’s called Discernment Counselling.

Discernment Counseling is a specialised way to work with what we call “mixed-agenda” couples—again, one leaning out and the other leaning in. It’s brief—no more than five sessions—and has the goal not of solving marital problems but helping the couple develop clarity and confidence about a direction for their marriage based on a deeper understanding of what’s happened to their relationship and each person’s contributions to the problems. 

Couples come out with a decision either to divorce or give the marriage a full-out, six-month effort in marriage counselling to see if they can right the ship and have a strong relationship again. We’re pleased to say that discernment counselling is taking off among couples therapists as a way to help couples who we’ve failed before. Couples are finding enormous relief in the process of Discernment Counseling, whether they end up divorcing (hopefully in a much healthier way) or saving a marriage one thought was doomed.

Right now then, we suggest you find a trained and certified discernment counsellor to help you navigate through the challenges.

If you’re a husband whose wife is considering divorce (we started with leaning-in husbands because women initiate 2/3 of divorcees) we have a lot of resources in our resources section that will give you immediate and actionable steps for what to do right now in your marriage.

And if you’re a wife leaning out, we have a lot of information for you in our resources area for you too.

However, if you’re like most people, you might have already read many books, browsed many blogs, watched hours of videos on how to deal with this challenging time but none of them have really worked well or only worked temporarily.

Maybe it’s time to take a serious step forward to resolving this issue once and for all. If you’re ready to take the next serious step forward, then we’d like to invite you to apply for a complimentary consultation with us to work out whether discernment counselling is the right path for you.

Trudy Jacobsen

Trudy Jacobsen is a caring, highly competent relationship and marriage counsellor with over 17 years’ professional experience. She is an accredited mental health social worker professionally registered with the Australian Association of Social Workers. Trudy has provided counselling services in a number of organisations and counselling settings, including private practice.