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Should you stay married?

The gift that married couples taught me when I was a divorce mediator

I was privileged to hear the stories of separating couples for over 10 years. In heterosexual marriages, it is women who initiate the majority of separations. This is true in most developed countries. Contrary to what people may think, it is financial distress that causes breakdown not infidelity (although this is increasing with technology providing easy temptation) 

Another major stress on marriage?  Secrets. Secrets blanket us with shame. Shame stops people from sharing their private thoughts with the person lying next to them at night. Secrets can begin long before a marriage but the birth of the first child is where most couples start to experience isolation and are reluctant to share negative feelings. 

We are told that this should be the most joyous time in a couple’s lives. And it is. But life is not black and white; even if we wish it was so. It can start with difficulties conceiving (the IVF route can be traumatic for many couples) and then once baby comes along, the changes are profound. The freedom to do what you want, whenever abruptly ends. There is an extra mouth to feed, care for and love. A bigger house and car may be needed. 

Women are more educated now and are likely to have been in the workforce before baby came along. But despite these changes, women are still overwhelming the primary care giver and men the primary income earner. And although stress of any kind can take its toll in a marriage, the true psychological driver of separation is identity.

The “Who am I question?” 

“I was a successful business woman, now I’m doing 5 loads of washing a day” 

“I’ve travelled the world with my husband, now I travel to the shops” 

Women are more likely to question their role as mother and wife. For many, they decide it would be easier to be mother, rather than mother andwife.  Women would tell me they questioned whether to stay in their marriage long before they talked to their partners about how they were feeling. They were ashamed to share their feelings with anyone –particularly other married women. 

Most men describe the experience of her making the final decision to leave as devastating.

 “I didn’t see it coming”, is the common response from men. 

What would women say to this? 

“I’ve been telling him for years”. 

What we say is not how the other person may hear it. This is true of any communication with another human being. The assumption that the other person can interpret our feelings, thoughts and emotions from what we say can spark conflict in homes, workplaces – even countries. This is how war starts. 

To soothe emotional pain you need to speak your truth. Speaking your truth is easier when you see it as the final ‘destination’.  So plan your journey.   Start with being aware of your ‘self-talk’. Is there a pattern of behaviour that triggers you? Can you find the underlying theme of the discontent?  Does you partner’s behaviour bring out your worst behaviour? 

A journal for your reflections can be helpful. Writing your thoughts first before you speak is a great tool in preventing conflict. What I learnt most as a mediator was the power of words. Name-calling, sarcastic comments and pulling apart someone’s personality rather than behaviour could derail an entire mediation.  Don’t be afraid to seek help –professionally or informally through a trusted friend or family member. 

When you have some key points of reflection, share them with your partner.  You won’t know what their response will be but you can choose your response from the ‘homework’ you have done. If you are sure that there is no chance of reconciliation, tell your partner that. You only delay the pain if you give hope where there is none. If there is still love and you are willing to give it one last shot, make it clear what you need from your partner and set a time to check in and review how you are feeling. 

Divorce is painful – you can’t escape that. But there are strategies that can make the transition into a new life less stressful. Seek help – the time for secrets is over.

(Note: My advice here is not appropriate in abusive relationships – if you fear for your safety, seek assistance from a domestic violence support group in your local area) 

Photo Credit : Kate Binnie Photography

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