"I Want a Divorce!"     

For fifteen years Barry and Barbara had traveled the Marriage Highway in a journey that was mixed with periods of contented happiness and episodes of painful conflict. In recent years life had become much more complicated and stressful for each of them as roles and responsibilities increased. They began arguing more and more about issues related to managing the finances, parenting their two children, and coping with personal stresses. During one such argument Barbara’s frustration reached an all-time high, and she blurted out, “I want a divorce!” Initially her statement shocked Barry, but he knew that the same thought had also crossed his mind. Out of his own deep frustration he responded, “Perhaps you’re right. Maybe divorce would be the thing for us to do.”

Can you connect with Barry and Barbara? Have you considered an exit from your marriage through a divorce? If you have, you can identify with many married couples who choose to divorce. The prevalence of divorce in our culture is corroborated by the fact that 50% of first marriages and over 60% of subsequent marriages end in divorce. Public media and persuasive movies seem to encourage the choice of divorce at whatever point a spouse becomes unhappy in the marriage relationship. The signs along the Marriage Highway tempt us to consider the divorce exit. The billboards portray divorce as an attractive option, and the exit to Divorce City promises “greener grass” ahead. As the marital journey becomes more stressful the temptation to exit becomes more appealing. Many couples succumb to the temptation and later see their divorces included in the local newspaper’s Relationship Obituaries column (also known as the Divorces Granted column).

However, contrary to the portrayals and promises highlighted in the exit signs and digital billboards recent research suggests that divorce has greater negative fallout features than previously thought. Many people approach divorce with unrealistic expectations, such as “I’ll be happier” or “Life will be easier” or “I’ll find someone else.” The harsh realities of the negative fallout cause many people to question their decision to divorce, and many divorced people wish that they had worked harder to resolve their marital issues and thereby prevent the breakup. Divorce is not an “easy way out”; in fact, life beyond divorce is often much more difficult than was the marriage before divorce.
One Couple’s Marital Journey . . .

Let’s go back to our couple in conflict. Following his wife’s “I want a divorce!” statement Barry did some serious thinking about his relationship with Barbara. Admittedly, he had entertained a similar thought about divorce, but deep down he did not want to lose his marriage. He knew that he still loved Barbara, even though he had “fallen out of love” with her some time ago. From somewhere within his heart he felt hopeful that they could find a way to rekindle their love if only they would really invest themselves in the process. He shared his thoughts with Barbara and was disappointed to learn that she was leaning heavily toward a divorce. He also learned that she had already consulted a divorce attorney in recent weeks. Furthermore, she declined his invitation to get marriage counseling, stating that the effort would be “too little, too late.” Barry’s hopes were sinking fast as he envisioned the loss of his fifteen-year marriage.

In desperation Barry decided to reach out to Bob Jackson, the minister of the church he and his family had attended for several years. During the telephone conversation Bob listened patiently as Barry summarized his situation, and then he made a suggestion. “Barry, I always recommend that couples in conflict get involved in some good marriage counseling. However, you said that Barbara is leaning out of the marriage and is refusing to go to marriage counseling with you. If you try to push her into marriage counseling she will probably distance herself further from you. You might want to consider Discernment Counseling.”

Barry replied that he did not understand what Discernment Counseling was and asked Bob for more information. As quickly as he could Bob described the key components of the counseling model. “Discernment Counseling is a brief model of therapy designed for mixed-agenda couples, that is, when one spouse is leaning in to save the marriage and the other one is leaning out toward a divorce. The sessions contain both individual and couple discussion time. The goal is to gain greater clarity and confidence in the decision-making process. Each spouse is encouraged to explore the strengths and weaknesses of the relationship. They examine three basic paths: maintain the status quo, pursue a divorce, or invest seriously in a reconciliation process that includes marriage counseling. The Discernment Counseling may or may not lead to marriage counseling, but the process allows each spouse to examine the situation in some detail with less pressure.” Bob told Barry about an Internet website that described the counseling model developed by researchers at the University of Minnesota. According to Bob, the program was referred to as the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project. Barry thanked the minister for his time, ended the phone call, and returned to his ponderings.

An hour or so later Barry decided to check out the website about Discernment Counseling. After reading the description of the counseling model he decided to present the idea to his wife. Knowing that she was leaning out of the marriage Barry did not want to present something that she would likely interpret as “high pressure.” He printed out some of the website’s material and approached Barbara with the hope that she would at least consider the basic information. She reacted positively to the description that Discernment Counseling was not marriage counseling and that the process usually contained only one-to-five sessions. She agreed to look at the website for herself and promised to have an open mind. Barry felt encouraged but was afraid to feel too hopeful. The next morning he was pleased to find a note from his wife written before she left for work. She had looked over the material about Discernment Counseling and was willing to go with Barry, assuming that they could find a local counselor trained in that model. Thankfully, Barry had already completed a search on the website and a nearby Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist was listed as a provider.

Two weeks later Barry and Barbara attended their initial Discernment Counseling session. The therapist clarified for them that they were not in marriage counseling but were there to explore three possible paths their relationship could take. In the joint and individual discussions they examined the strengths and weaknesses of their marriage, and they considered the implications and consequences of each of the three paths. Neither spouse wanted Path #1, that is, to maintain the status quo. Barbara was leaning toward Path #2, a divorce. Barry preferred Path #3 that would involve a six-to-twelve month process of reconciliation in which both of them would take divorce off the table and would make their best effort to resolve their issues and rebuild their relationship. The work would include active participation in marriage counseling along with consistent effort in everyday life. The therapist suggested that they read an article available online that might help them in their decision about the three paths. The article was entitled "Should I Keep Trying to Work It Out?" (A Guidebook for Individuals and Couples at the Crossroads of Divorce (And Before). Both spouses agreed to look at the recommended material prior to the next session.

As she read the article Barbara began having second thoughts about her original decision to pursue a divorce. She had not thought through the predictable negative fallout of a divorce on their children on both a short-term and long-term basis. She also began to reconsider her expectations that a divorce would somehow bring her the happiness she longed to have. It seemed more and more that a divorce was simply a matter of swapping one set of problems for another set that was even more difficult. She felt grateful that their marriage had not been further complicated by an extramarital affair, spousal abuse, or various addictions. Perhaps she could work through her resentment and find a way to reconnect with her husband. As she considered the price tag of divorce Barbara re-examined her personal faith. As a Christian she knew that a divorce in her situation would violate clear Biblical teachings, and she had always wanted to maintain her personal relationship with God. She knew that “doing right” in God’s sight was a much higher priority than was “being happy” here on earth. After studying the Scriptures that dealt specifically with divorce Barbara concluded that the spiritual price tag of divorce was more than she was willing to risk. She prayed for wisdom and asked God to help her choose the best path. After several more days of serious thought Barbara informed Barry that she had reconsidered a lot of things and was now ready for marriage counseling. She promised him that she would try very hard to put her best self forward in their efforts to rebuild. She emphasized to him that they both had some big changes to make to insure healthy reconciliation. Barry was delighted at the good news and promised his best effort as well. At the next Discernment Counseling session they told the therapist about their decision, and he gave them the names of several therapists they could use for their marriage counseling.

Following a number of marriage counseling sessions and after six months of hard work were completed Barry and Barbara were well on their way in the revitalization of their marriage. They were pleased enough with their progress that they decided to take an ocean cruise to celebrate their sixteenth wedding anniversary. Clearly, they had made significant progress and both were very thankful that they had chosen the path for rebuilding their relationship.
Your Marital Journey . . .

What about your marital journey? How frequently and how seriously have you been tempted to take the next divorce exit from your Marriage Highway? Perhaps the pressures of life have challenged your marriage to the point where you feel overwhelmed and hopeless. Perhaps a decision to divorce seems to be the only option left for you. If you really want a divorce, you can probably get one, especially if you’re willing to pay the price tag. In “no-fault” states a legal divorce can usually be obtained by the spouse who wants it regardless of what the other spouse prefers. However, the price tag is often extremely high since most divorces usually result in additional problems and issues to be resolved, particularly when children are a part of the divorce equation. One divorced man described the high cost of divorce with the statement, “I feel like I’ve just jumped out of the frying pan into the fire.” It’s no wonder that many divorced individuals look back on their decision-making and wish that they had worked harder to save their marriages.

If you’re currently considering a divorce and you’re heading toward the Divorce Highway, let me encourage you to slow things down and think things through. You may indeed have a legal right to pursue a divorce, but that “right” does not require you to pursue that path. A hasty, impulsive decision would probably result in a lifetime of personal regret and additional stress. Participation in several Discernment Counseling sessions could prove to be very helpful as you and your spouse explore and consider which of the three basic paths is best for you. Clearly, it is to your benefit to examine the price tag of divorce very carefully. Let me encourage you to consider the material that Barry and Barbara read about the pros and cons of divorce. (A link to the online article entitled “Should I Keep Trying to Work It Out?” is provided at the end of this article.) After studying the material you might still choose the path of divorce, but at least you’ll know afterwards that your decision to divorce was made deliberately and carefully. As you know, you’ll have to live with yourself and the consequences of your decisions for the rest of your life.

Most people who choose divorce give up too quickly on their marriages. If both spouses are willing to take divorce off the table and to work hard on reconciliation, marriages can almost always be salvaged and strengthened. The presence of ongoing affairs, abuses, and addictions will obviously complicate and hinder the resolution process, but with enough effort sometimes even these marriages can be saved. This effort requires both the cessation of the affair, abuse, or addiction, and also active participation in an appropriate personal recovery program. Meaningful progress can be made when pride, ego, and selfishness are cast aside for the sake of growth and improvement. The tough challenges of resentment and bitterness can be resolved through positive change, sincere forgiveness, and consistent healing. The reconciliation process could be achieved without marriage counseling, but the assistance of a well-trained marital therapist would most likely increase the chances of a good outcome. As stated earlier, for any reconciliation process to succeed both spouses must take divorce off the table, put their best selves forward, and work extremely hard for an extended period of time. Clearly, the price tag of this level of marital work is high, but compared to the “fallout cost” of a divorce the marital work turns out to be a good deal that is worth the effort.  
Concluding Thoughts . . .

Did you get married with the specific expectation of getting a divorce at some point along the Relationship Highway? Of course not! Your plan was to stay together for the duration of your life journey together. The best plan of action for a successful journey is to work hard to keep your marriage alive and vibrant while safeguarding the relationship from unresolved, destructive conflict. This plan could be thought of as your “Marital DPP” (that is, your Marital Divorce Prevention Plan). Tragically, however, the journey can become so stressful and the emotional pain so intense that the original plan is often obscured and the next exit to the Divorce Highway can become an appealing move to take. The challenge is to practice wise discernment in the decision-making process in terms of which highway to travel.
Discernment is a vital part of all major life decisions, including the decision to stay in your marriage or to take the divorce exit. The term “discern” suggests that we identify accurately the key issues involved in our decision and to consider those issues with great care and deliberation. Wise discernment requires that the head rather than the “heart” is in charge of the process. Too many decisions for divorce are driven by intense emotionality rather than clear thinking. We need to be aware of our heart-felt emotions, but let’s make certain that our “head” is in control. An emotion-driven, undiscerned decision is the equivalent of simply flipping the proverbial coin:  “heads” we stay married, “tails” we divorce. Predictably, the undiscerned decision will probably turn out to be an unwise decision. The choice to stay married or to pursue a divorce is your personal decision to make. Taking time and working hard for “discerning the decision” will enable you to make a better choice as you travel along your Relationship Highway.
I wish you well as you struggle with important decisions about your marriage relationship. As always, I wish you the very best in all of your relationship journeys. 

Recommended Resource:  Hawkins, Alan J. and Fackrell, Tamara A. (2009). "Should I Keep Trying to Work it Out?" (A Guidebook for Individuals and Couples at the Crossroads of Divorce (And Before). Salt Lake City, UT:  Utah Commission on Marriage.
This guidebook contains information and worksheets that can assist you in you decision-making about staying in your marriage or pursuing a divorce. The material was developed in conjunction with the Utah Healthy Marriage Initiative program.
To access this guidebook (in PDF format) please click on the image to the right or click on the listing below.
                                 Guidebook: Crossroads of Divorce



Discernment Counseling:
 In the article above Dr. Baker referred to the Discernment Counseling model developed by the “Couples on the Brink Project” at the University of Minnesota. If you would like to read more about this helpful resource you can click on the link below.
                              “Discernment Counseling:  Couples on the Brink”

Suggested Reading:  

Rosberg, Gary and Barbara (2002). Divorce Proof Your Marriage. Wheaton, IL:  Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
Weiner-Davis, Michele (2002). The Divorce Remedy. New York:  Simon and Schuster.
      (A good resource for couples who are trying to prevent divorce.)
Weiner-Davis, Michele (1992). Divorce-Busting. New York: Summit Books. 
     (Helpful information about divorce and how to prevent an unwanted divorce)

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         (Marriage and Family #302)


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