Experts say certain behaviors can predict a split.
You already know that breaking up is hard to do. That’s why there are a million songs about breakups and divorces. Even amicable divorces still hurt. That inevitable heartbreak and complexity can lead a lot of us to drag our feet when calling off a marriage, despite knowing that it’s the best move. Instead, you stay, asking yourself (maybe even daily), "Should I get a divorce?"
Boomers and the Greatest Generation love to tell younger generations that when something is broken, you fix it — you don’t just give up on it. That can be solid advice (minus the condescension) because relationships, even good ones, require a ton of work and effort. But sometimes, things aren’t "fixable." And even then, the decision to leave can be agonizing. So, how do you really know when to walk away from your marriage?
There’s no easy answer. Life can be complicated like that. Our partners don’t always react to life’s trials and tribulations like we wish or think they should. Communication can break down, eroding trust between the two of you. You might need a professional to help you talk things through and come out stronger. At times, though, the effort just doesn’t seem worth it — the problems you’re facing as a couple are too big to set aside expectations or find a compromise. Then, it’s time to take a step back and figure out how to, well, detangle your lives.
Deciding to divorce your partner or end your marriage is an unspeakably difficult, highly individualized decision you have to make for yourself. However, experts say there are signs your relationship may be beyond saving. Here are a few of those factors to consider if you’ve been wondering "When is it time to get a divorce?" more often than not recently.
You avoid or reject your partner.
Professional counselor, dating, and relationship expert Michelle Shivers says a strong indicator of divorce is your mind and body’s response to your partner. She explains, "You psychologically reject the presence of your partner. When you do not feel the closeness in your relationship or do not like the presence of your partner, your mind and body will give you some hints."
Shivers says you can tell you’re rejecting their presence if you:
While a lack of intimacy in marriage doesn’t always spell doom — some people are less reliant on intimacy than others — it does seem to be a dealbreaker for many. A 2020 study in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy found that nearly 50% of couples polled cited lack of intimacy as a reason for their divorce. An important note: Emotional intimacy is just as vital, if not more, than sexual intimacy.
You’ve stopped making an effort.
Relationships require all kinds of effort (this goes way beyond not shaving your legs). Making an effort means trying to appease your partner sometimes. Most importantly, it means looking within yourself when examining your relationship issues instead of immediately placing blame on your spouse.
"Marriage is a two-way street, and both spouses must put in the equal effort," says Shivers. "Nevertheless, if you continue to put in the effort and do not see any results, you may lose interest in improving your relationship, at which point you will decide to split. It’s also conceivable that you’re not putting in effort because you don’t believe you’re at blame. Sometimes we may tend to assume that most of the fault in our relationships is with our spouse. If you’re unwilling to admit your shortcomings in marriage, it’s time."
It’s also possible one or both parties are no longer putting forth effort because you’ve grown in different directions. If you’re essentially living separate lives under the same roof, you may have reached a point where you want different things in life. And that separate togetherness can lead to indifference or lack of effort.
Everything turns into a giant ordeal.
"There are always going to be ups and downs in every relationship. It’s not always rainbows and butterflies, and that is completely normal — and probably healthy because we tend to grow as people and partners when we work through difficult times," says award-winning attorney Elizabeth Rozin-Golinder. "However, this is certainly a difference between a rough patch and a relationship that deteriorated beyond repair. I tend to find that when ‘bad’ times are more of a constant than the ‘good’ times, instead of vice versa, it may be time to take a step back and evaluate what is going on. If simple disagreements turn into huge blowouts and most days end in an argument, it is obvious that something is wrong."
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fight. As a matter of fact, many experts, including Shivers, suggest that a lack of fighting points to apathy or a lack of caring. If you’re not arguing, you might have given up. It’s when those arguments turn into end-of-the-world wars every single time that Rozin-Golinder says you should be concerned. When you constantly argue, it indicates you’ve lost your ability to communicate with each other effectively.
You’re being abused or controlled.
Every expert Scary Mommy spoke to brought up abuse and controlling behavior as a non-negotiable for divorce, whether physical, emotional, or verbal abuse. And while the first of those types of abuse is often discussed, recognizing the others can be challenging. If your partner makes you feel stupid, gaslights you, or in any way tries to damage your self-esteem, that is emotional abuse. And even if you’re married, you can still be a victim of sexual abuse if your partner ignores your resistance to sex.
Controlling behaviors can also be a giant red flag. If your partner tries to limit who you can hang out with or wants to know everything you spend money on, they’re looking to control and isolate you. These are signs your relationship is unhealthy.
There’s been infidelity, and one (or both) parties can’t get past it.
Regarding unfaithfulness in a marriage, relationship counselors and family attorneys seem to see both sides of the argument. Some feel as though, in their experience, infidelity is practically a guaranteed relationship-ender. Other relationship experts and family attorneys have found that some couples can recover from infidelity.
It often boils down to self-preservation and self-knowledge. If partners can look past the physical act of cheating and examine the reasons behind the infidelity, some marriages can come out stronger. It’s up to you if you’ll choose to stay with a cheating spouse, but marriage counseling should probably be in your future if infidelity is involved.
You tried therapy; it didn’t work.
For many couples in trouble, a marital therapist or relationship counselor can help them get back on the right track. But what if you can’t even get your partner to go to couples counseling with you? Or if your therapist has suggested the healthiest path is finding a way to peaceably separate? When the trust has deteriorated, the communication has broken down, and the intimacy is non-existent, marital counseling may be your last resort. And if it doesn’t seem to be helping, it’s probably time to face the hard reality that your marriage may already be over.
You and your partner can’t agree on money management
Finances are the most common reason for splits when it comes to marriage. Each family has a different way of managing finances and while some couples are OK with one person being the breadwinner, for others, it could be a situation that wasn’t necessarily agreed upon or planned for. This can put a strain on marriage when it comes to budgeting and spending.
Relationship experts and couples’ therapists often cite the "four horsemen" as predictors of divorce. What does that even mean? Well, according to research by psychologist and renowned marriage expert John Gottman, Ph.D., the four horsemen are communication habits that increase the odds of divorce:
While everyone resorts to these behaviors occasionally, even in otherwise healthy relationships, they point toward a failing marriage when a couple can’t work together to move away from the "four horsemen."
Deciding to end your marriage is one of the biggest decisions you’ll make in your life, and one with far-reaching emotional implications. It will take time (lots of it) to process how you feel and the ways in which your life is about to change. Once you feel confident in your decision to move forward, research what you’ll need to do before reaching out to a divorce attorney and how the divorce will proceed after you’ve reached out.
Professional counselor, dating, and relationship expert Michelle Shivers
Award-winning attorney Elizabeth Rozin-Golinder
This article was originally published on 4.20.2022