On the Brink

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

We want to help right now with this monumentally hard place in your private and public life by sharing new (yes, literally new) information not out there in Google land.

Before we begin, understand you’re in unchartered territory when it comes to what professionals know. Little research has been done on people in the middle of a divorce decision, so the professionals around you (therapists, divorce attorneys, mediators, clergy) have only their own experience and intuition to go on. 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 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 research and 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.

Are you a wife considering divorce?

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.

We’ve 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 realized 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 we decided to do the research. The findings were stunning: a lot of people yearn for reconciliation even after the divorce paperwork has been filed.

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?

Is your wife considering divorce?

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-side 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.

Are you a wife uncertain about divorce?

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 our 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 under way.

Which attitude below fits for you?

Our divorce professionals in the DRI Alliance for Marriage and Divorce Professionals use this assessment in their initial consultation with an individual or couple, as a way to determine how closed the door is for the possibility of an “off ramp” to explore where the marriage has gone awry and whether there is any hope to pursue a path of healing.

  • I’m done with this marriage; it’s too late now even if my spouse were to make major changes (66% of divorcing parents choose this attitude, but 13% of them are still open to reconciliation options!)
  • I have mixed feelings about the divorce; sometimes I think it’s a good idea and sometimes I’m not sure (17% of divorcing parents choose this attitude, and 74% of this group are open to reconciliation services)
  • I would consider reconciling if my spouse got serious about making major changes (10% choose this attitude and 92% of this group are open to reconciliation services)
  • I don’t want this divorce, and I would work hard to get us back together.” (8% choose this attitude 90% of them are open to reconciliation services

Our research over the last decade has shown us that that there is lots of ambivalence in divorce land. And keep in mind that the parents in our research were well into the legal divorce process; many of them completed our survey as their divorce was reaching its final stages. 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 this research. 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.

We had to do something with this research (which, by the way, shows the same findings in different parts of the country). One solution is this website, which will grow and offer a lot of free resources and information to help you or someone you love in this rough patch.

The most robust result of this research is a new couples counseling approach for ambivalent couples on the brink of divorce. Or more precisely: for couples where one spouse is leaning-out but has not made a final decision and the other spouse is leaning in and wants to save the marriage. =Does this sound like your marriage or that of someone you know?

You see, traditional marriage counseling 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 counseling, and the leaning-in spouse is desperate to make the counseling work.

This is a recipe for unproductive, even frustrating marriage counseling. 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 counseling 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 counselors 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.

Our approach is taking the couples therapy field by storm and we’re thrilled to introduce you to a brand new approach to dealing with your marital crisis.

This new service is called “Discernment Counseling,” a specialized 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 counseling to see if they can right the ship and have a strong relationship again. We’re pleased to say that discernment counseling 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 either find one of our discernment counselors (click on the banner below) to find a trained professional near you. 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 First Step Guide that will give you immediate, therapeutic 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 members area. Start with the Ambivalence quiz.

Is your wife considering divorce?
Are you a wife uncertain about divorce?