All marriages have peaks of joy, and valleys of pain. Even the happiest, time-tested marriages have been fraught with periods that could have ended in divorce. The difference that sets these marriages apart comes down to two things: commitment and an unwillingness to settle for mediocre.
People entering marriage often think they are committed. How bad can it get, right? It’s very difficult to anticipate the challenges and your response to them, especially when your relationship becomes more complicated with kids, health issues, job stress, aging, marriage troubles, financial woes or a million other things. When those challenges smack you in the face and leave you reeling, you may start to question: did I choose the right person? Was I really in love? Would things be better if I were alone or with someone else?
Your first marriage is your best chance for happiness
Here’s a bit of sticker shock for you. While 50% of first marriages end in divorce, and whopping 75% of second marriages end in divorce! Why? Because with first marriages, we go into them with a lot of hope and a lot of ambition for success. And for some people, that desire to see it through gets them over the rough spots. For those who choose divorce, they enter a new relationship jaded. They have no grand illusions of happily-ever-after, and in the back of their minds, they know they always have an out. With each subsequent marriage, it gets easier and easier to just bale than to find a way to make it work. If both spouses are previously divorced, the risk of divorce is even greater.
So, if you are thinking about divorce, or wondering if it’s worth it to work on your marriage, just keep those divorce statistics in mind. You will have no greater opportunity for a lasting, meaningful relationship than with your first marriage. The odds are against you, if you think the grass might be greener in another person’s yard.
Divorce is not just the death of your marriage. It is the death of an entire family. And while you may think that kids are resilient and will get over it, or that you can somehow protect them from the shrapnel, you simply can’t. Think about it. If you and your spouse are having trouble with conflict resolution or maturely handling difficult circumstances, do you really think you can effectively co-parent as a team? If you say yes, you are fooling yourself. The pain and anger don’t go away once the divorce decree is signed. It sometimes lasts years, and and never really goes away. If you have children, you are effectively forcing them to grow up too quickly. They will be shunted back and forth between your homes, they will find themselves trying to act as moderators for your various disagreements, and they will constantly feel torn in two.
If step-parents are involved, the situation becomes even more complex. Think about the next 10-20 years from your kid’s perspective. Imagine your child at a high school senior night, facing the awkwardness of walking on the field with four parents instead of two, or facing a choice between only one set of parents. Imagine your daughter on her wedding day, refereeing a bickering mother and step-mother: the mother trying to protect her claim as mother of the bride, and the step-mother not wanting to be left out. Imagine your grown son and his own children, as he tries to decide which of the four sets of grandparents they should see on the holidays, knowing that no matter what decision he makes, someone is going to be hurt. Imagine the trauma should both you and your ex-wife need elder care, and the financial burden your children will face with two or four parents, two households, and separate needs.
Love is not static
Many couples in love can’t imagine a time when they won’t “love” their spouse. They think that love is an emotion that will carry them on that euphoric high until death do they part. If a time comes when it’s hard to love that other person, and they really have to work at it, then it must not have been love in the first place. Wrong.
Being “in love” and loving someone are two different things. The butterflies-in-the-stomach and the frantic passion are part of the mating dance. All creatures have a mating dance that draws them to a suitable mate and allows nature to take its course. Humans are no different, except that we have words and poetry and romance novels that tell us that this feeling is what you build a marriage upon. It’s not.
When the mating dance is over, the vows are said, and real life begins, dopamine and seratonin levels normalize, That passion and feeling of being in love will ebb and flow. Feelings change. They are mercurial in nature and not a good foundation to build a marriage upon.
The feeling of being in love draws you together, but what keeps you together is the commitment to love. Love, as in the action verb. You do love. You speak love. Selfish behavior, harsh words, withholding affection as punishment…these are not acts of love, and will harm a relationship. They will sever the connections that hold you together, while loving actions create stronger connections. If you have lost that loving feeling, it’s not a a reason to divorce. It’s a reason to change the conversation and look for better ways to love your spouse.
Tough times don’t last forever
When you are in the midst of one of those challenging valleys that affect all relationships, it may make it difficult to see an end to the tough times. You may even start to question if the good times were really all that good. But for couples who come through the tough times, they almost always admit that they are stronger after weathering those tough times. Their marriages were better than ever, because they used the tough times to learn how to love each other better, how to support each other, and how to lift each other up.
It’s very easy to commit to someone when life is easy. Tough times tend to bring out the worst in people, and loving them means acting out of love even when the other person is not particularly lovable. The tough times are a test of the marriage commitment, not a reason to throw it away. It is often during these tough times that couples begin to ponder and obsess over the fact that they don’t feel the same as they did on their wedding day. It’s much easier to blame a change of feeling, over which you have no control, than to look in the mirror and own your own failings and fix them.
The problem is, you will face those failings eventually, anyway. You can either own it and fix it, or you can end your marriage and look for that passionate high with someone else. The problem with the latter scenario is that whatever failings brought an end to your first marriage will also mean the end of your next marriage. Unless you fix yourself. If you are going to have to do the work anyway, why not fix what’s broken in the marriage that has the best chance of success?
Divorce isn’t an answer, it’s avoiding the answer
For struggling couples, divorce may seem like a potential relief. Relief of not knowing how/when it’s going to end. Relief from the pain of facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It’s easy to see divorce as an open door to a new life. The problem is, you tend to take your baggage with you through that door.
The healing process from divorce is long and painful. And if you have children, you’ll be trying to work through the healing, while also helping them heal. It’s incredibly difficult. For every problem divorce solves, it creates other problems that still need resolution. It may seem easier than trying to fight for your marriage, but it really isn’t.
Divorce is an act of avoidance. Resolving the issues in a marriage and finding a way to grow closer together means facing demons, accepting responsibility for unloving or selfish behavior, and committing to doing whatever it takes to be a better spouse. If you are the spouse seeking the divorce, you are basically either blaming your spouse, or seeking an agreement from your spouse to absolve you of responsibility. Either way, you are avoiding your own culpability and looking for a way out. A failed marriage is rarely the fault of only one person.
Don’t settle for mediocre
Couples facing divorce see only two options: divorce or living in a bad marriage out of obligation. This is a misconception. You can recommit to your marriage, but that doesn’t mean you have to settle for mediocre. A bad marriage doesn’t have to stay that way. As mentioned at the top of this article, the happiest marriages are the result of couples who refuse to give up on their commitment AND refuse to accept mediocrity. You and your spouse may not currently be on the same page, or your spouse may not wish to seek counseling at this point. But there are still steps you can take, alone if need be, to begin improving your connections with your spouse. Maintaining the status quo isn’t working, and one of you has to make a move. Seek help if you need it, but don’t resign yourself to more of the same. As your marriage begins to improve, your spouse may become more open to sharing the load of saving your marriage. Just take the first step, and seek help from a coach or counselor if you need it.