As a psychologist, I meet with couples and individuals who often come to me to work harder on their relationships. For many, this is a healthy desire that their partners reciprocate, and together they begin the journey to a healthier happier union. Others, however, find themselves stuck—unable to improve their connection and unable to leave. These folks usually find themselves not wanting to leave because they fear, understandably, the uncertainty of change.
For married couples, it’s a good idea to keep working on your marriage when both you and your partner are invested and committed. Otherwise, if you find yourself stuck in the same old dispiriting patterns, you may wish to tackle your fear of change.
Here are 5 reasons why, in some cases, divorce may be the right decision:
1. It is not always better for the kids to stay married.
It is heart-wrenching for many who are chronically unhappy in a marriage to even consider the idea of divorce because of fear that it will forever harm their children. It is important to take children’s feelings about divorce seriously, to empathize and help them to talk about how it impacts them (not you). However, the notion that staying in a bad marriage is somehow better for kids is dubious. What is more harmful and even traumatizing to children is spending a great deal of time in a home filled with negative emotion, tension, and chronic conflict. Children tend to absorb these feelings and even believe they are responsible for them in some way. If you are in a chronically unhappy union and eventually make a thoughtful decision to end it, you are modeling for your children that they do not have to be passive participants in their own unhappiness.
2. You’ll improve your physical health and emotional wellbeing.
Healthy couples are able to resolve disagreements, where both people feel better about the issue at hand and sometimes the couple can even feel closer and more understood as a result of the disagreement. However, when negative relationship dynamics chronically play out between partners, resentment grows. Before you know it, not picking up milk on the way home becomes a knock-down, drag-out fight. When there is no resolution to chronic marital distress, both partners live in a fight-or-flight state. They may have difficulty sleeping or eating healthfully, or trouble with short-term memory; they may gain weight and fail to go to the doctor or nurture themselves emotionally. Their cup is so full between work, children, and the chronic negative emotion they experience, there is no room for self-care. The toll negative relationships take on physical health should not be underestimated. There is even some research to suggest that chronically negative or abusive relationships can shorten one’s lifespan. Ending a toxic union is the first step in a chain of events that leads to taking better care of one’s self.
3. You’ll open the door to find a more fulfilling love.
Sometimes working through a difficult marriage and developing greater self-awareness around what your role may have been in the demise can open the door to a path that leads to a happier union. If after thoughtful work on yourself and your own weaknesses and consideration of your partner, you do not notice progress in your marriage, then the longer you stay, the longer you deny yourself the right to romantic happiness. Instead of fearing facing the world alone, fear spending a lifetime with someone with whom you are unhappy. Fear of being alone is not an adequate reason to stay in a marriage and actually increases the misery, as one feels trapped and powerless.
4. The grief will pass.
For some who know they need and want a divorce, the fear of unbearable pain keeps them stuck in an unhappy or even unhealthy union. As hard as ending a relationship can be, many find that they learn something from the heartache—they find they grow in some unexpected and meaningful way. For example, they become more connected with family and friends, they pull more meaning from the relationships they do have, they connect with feelings of gratitude, or they have an easier time not sweating the small stuff. The problem comes not for those who experience grief, which is a natural and necessary stage in processing a divorce, but for those who do not allow themselves to take time to grieve. Make sure you give yourself space to experience the loss and to process your feelings around ending such a significant relationship. Working through it for many is a way to self-rediscovery.
5. Giving up the fantasy that things will improve is ultimately liberating.
Many have lived for years with a hope and expectation that things will improve. Hope is important but without noticeable action, it is misguided. If you have been in a long-term relationship that has been filled with discontent for a long period, you have probably tried to tell yourself, “Things will get better.” Although in the moment this thought can be relieving, in the long run it sets people up for defeat and disappointment when things don’t get better. If you and your partner are not taking active steps to improve the marriage; not noticing small improvements; and not both equally committed to this work, then hoping things will get better could keep you stuck in a no-win-situation.