How to Stop a Divorce and Save Your Marriage
“I want a divorce.”
It’s one of the most alarming sentences a married person can hear. And — in one way or another — it means that your marriage is about to change.
But it doesn’t always mean that your marriage is about to end.
In my experience as a couples counselor and discernment counselor, I’ve learned that when your spouse asks you for a divorce, it breaks one of two ways: it either leads to a “transformational crisis” where couples make positive and often long-overdue changes to their relationship, or it’s the beginning of the end.
The good news is that you’re here, looking for answers. That’s a sign that you’re trying to achieve positive change. Now all you need are the tools to do it.
I wrote this article to give you some guidance for navigating this incredibly scary situation, based on my work with countless couples over the years who pulled their marriages back from the brink of divorce. I know from experience that it is often possible to stop a divorce and save your marriage, but only if you manage this relationship crisis effectively.
I’ve also created an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on this topic. My guest is Rich Harris, a family law attorney in the Denver area who knows a lot about the other side of this issue. Rich is offering advice about where to begin if you aren’t able to save your marriage (although his team at the Harris Law Firm has seen many couples reconcile, even after their divorce cases were well underway).
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How to Stop a Divorce and Save a Marriage
How you handle yourself in the hours, days and weeks after your partner has asked for a divorce can make all the difference as to how things unfold.
I believe that you often can stop a divorce from happening if you are able to stay in control of yourself and rise above the immediate emotions of the situation.
(Particularly if your partner asked for a divorce as a “cry for help,” and not as a serious, premeditated action.)
Read on for some insight into why divorce happens, and to get practical advice on how to handle yourself if you want the best shot at saving your marriage.
Why Divorce Happens
Relationships fail when one person stops believing that the relationship can get better, and can no longer tolerate the way things are.
This pretty much never happens out of the blue. If your partner is considering divorce, they may have been trying (and failing) to change your relationship for quite awhile, and gradually losing hope that change was possible.
Your partner’s efforts may have made them look like they were the source of the problems between you, since they were the one agitating for change (which can look like criticizing, complaining, or “always” being upset). Their way of trying to create change may have even added some relationship-damaging ingredients to the mix (which marriage counselors call “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”). But neither one of you is “the problem” in your marriage — your partner’s distress was simply a symptom of the problem.
Other times, relationships end after something dramatically horrible happens that both partners don’t know how to repair. It could be the discovery of an affair — including emotional affairs, Facebook affairs, financial infidelity, or sexual affairs. You may have had a fight so terrible that you feel like you can never go back to the way things were. Or, there may have been a time in your relationship when your partner really needed you and you weren’t there, which led them to feel abandoned and alone in your relationship.
These “big bad events” can be silent sleepers. The terrible thing may have happened months or even years ago, and you may have believed you were moving past it. But if that hurt wasn’t repaired properly at the time, it won’t just go away, even if you and your spouse are getting along and things seem normal. The unrepaired injury can make it impossible for your partner to trust and rely on you, causing them to withdraw from the relationship until they no longer feel emotionally invested in it.
Finally, sometimes people ask for a divorce because they’ve formed an attachment to someone else. Long-term monogamous relationships are difficult, and new relationships feel exciting and easy. When you’re married with a crush on someone else, it’s easy to start believing that a new relationship is the answer to all your problems.
People who are cheating often start to believe negative narratives about their partner. This helps them feel less guilt and shame about what they’re doing. Your partner may be telling you that they cheated because there’s something wrong with you or with your relationship — which is a mind-blowinglingly painful thing to hear. It’s also not the truth. In reality, many people cheat for no good reason whatsoever. If your partner ended the affair and released their attachment to the affair partner, they would most likely realize their marriage is worth saving. Working with an affair recovery expert who understands this common dynamic can be really helpful here.
How Did Your Partner Ask for a Divorce?
What was your partner’s emotional state when they told you they wanted a divorce? Were they crying? Raising their voice? Did it happen in the midst of a bad fight?
Or, was your partner calm and collected? Did they tell you they wanted to discuss something with you and then ask you to take a seat?
There’s a world of difference between these two approaches. If your partner was flooded with emotions when they told you they wanted to call it quits in your marriage, it’s possible that it was a cry for help. They may have needed you to understand how overwhelmed and hopeless they were feeling, and brought up divorce because they didn’t know how else to make you see.
Even though it was no doubt a scary moment, this is actually the best case scenario. Your partner would not be so upset if they didn’t still have an emotional stake in your relationship. It’s not that they want to get divorced (no one really wants to get divorced), it’s that they don’t know how else to resolve the problems in your relationship, and they don’t believe they can continue on much longer.
No matter how emotional your partner was during this conversation, you should take what they said very seriously (more on that later). They just emitted a five-alarm distress signal. If you ignore it, there’s a very real possibility your marriage will end in divorce.
If your partner communicates wanting a divorce calmly, that can be more serious. It may mean that they’ve reached this decision after a long period of deliberation and months or even years of detaching from the relationship. If this is the case, there may still be hope.
Nearly everyone who asks for a divorce feels some degree of ambivalence. A special form of couples counseling called discernment counseling can help you both resolve your ambivalence, and get clear about the problems in your marriage and what it would take to repair them.
Through the discernment process, most couples decide that they do want to work on their relationships. Then and only then can marriage counseling be successful, because you’ll both have clarity about what you want and commitment to the process of creating it.
Some couples who go through discernment counseling decide that they do want to divorce. The process is still incredibly valuable, because it
1) helps you grieve the end of your marriage, so you can heal and move forward.
2) lays the foundation for an amicable divorce, and
3) helps you establish a positive co-parenting relationship, if you have children.
What to Do When Your Partner Asks for a Divorce
Now that you’ve learned about your partner’s state of mind, let’s talk about how to stop a divorce and save your marriage.
If your partner asks for a divorce and you don’t want one, your one immediate goal is to restore their hope that your marriage can get better.
Your goal is not to win the argument. It’s not to defend yourself against their complaints, even the ones that feel totally unfair. And it’s definitely not to convince them that things aren’t as bad as they’re telling you they are. Your only goal right now is to restore hope.
You’re doing this because you have every reason to be hopeful — if you weren’t someone who was capable of tremendous growth, you wouldn’t be reading this article or listening to this podcast. But we all fall into bad relationship patterns, and it can be hard to see your way out of them. With the right support, you can create positive change in your marriage — and you should.
The problem is that your partner is starting to doubt that it’s possible. They are close to giving up. Maybe because they’ve tried and failed to make things better for so long. Maybe because neither one of you knew how bad things were until you reached this point of crisis. Maybe you did know, but you didn’t know what to do about it.
And why would you know what to do? No one teaches us how to remove an appendix, and no one teaches us how to save a floundering marriage. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. There are professionals who know exactly how to help you — your job right now is to perform relationship CPR until you and your partner can make it to the hospital.
- Listen — Let your partner get it out. All of it. All of the hurt, anger, desperation, and confusion. Don’t challenge the way they see things, offer easy solutions, or minimize their feelings. Listen to your partner like what they’re telling you is the most important thing you’ve ever heard. Because it might be.
- Ask open-ended questions — Do more than listen passively. When it’s your turn to speak, ask your partner open-ended questions about their experience in your relationship. This will help them see that you truly care about what they think and how they feel, so much that you want to make sure that you understand them fully.
- Validate — This is where most of us get tripped up. When your partner is telling you something that hurts to hear — like the list of reasons they don’t want to be married to you any more — it’s the most natural thing in the world to push that pain far away by telling them their perspective is distorted or unfair. You might even be right about that; it doesn’t matter one bit right now. If you’re lucky, there will be time in the future for both of you to gain understanding about how you’re each contributing to the problems in your marriage. You’ll never get that opportunity if you emotionally invalidate your partner when you’re supposed to be performing CPR.
Validating your partner doesn’t require seeing everything exactly the way they see it. Even if you have a different point of view, you can show them that their thoughts and feelings are valid to you with a statement like “Thank you for telling me this. I think it’s really important for me to hear. I love you and I want you to be happy. Can you tell me more about how you’ve been feeling?”
- Empathize — If your partner has reached this place, they’re feeling terrible, and they have been for a while. Reflect their feelings back to them and let them know that you care. This is your partner and their pain is your pain. Tell them how sad you are that they’re feeling so hurt and so unhappy.
- Show them you’re serious — This is not the time for empty promises. Telling your partner things will change and then failing to follow through will create greater trust issues in your relationship, and reinforce their belief that divorce is the only option. Tell your partner you recognize how serious the problems in your relationship are, that you’re committed to doing whatever it takes to fix them, and that you will make an appointment with a good marriage counselor (or discernment counselor) today. Then, do it.
When Divorce Can’t Be Stopped
If you handle this situation well, I believe it is very likely that you will have an opportunity to work on your marriage, and to save it. Couples who get help for their relationships before things are awful usually have the best outcomes, but I have also seen many couples tip-toe right up to the last stages of a dying marriage, only to turn their relationships around in powerful ways through marriage counseling. Sometimes, a brush with disaster is what it takes to make positive change.
But, it’s also true that some relationships cannot be saved. If your partner has reached the emotional “point of no return,” you might not be able to fix your relationship, even with the best marriage counselor in the world.
If this is the case, it’s really important that you get connected with a good family law attorney who can help you divorce in the most amicable way possible. Mediation may be a good option for you, and is often a way to navigate this difficult process in a way that’s healthier for everyone involved, especially your children.
Whether you’re seeking a divorce lawyer, an online marriage counselor, a discernment counselor, or a divorce recovery counselor, the people you choose to work with at a pivotal moment like this will have a big impact on the trajectory of your life. Make sure you choose an experienced professional who you trust, who can answer your questions, and who shares your goals.
Finally, take good care of yourself during this difficult time. It might not feel like it right now, but you will get through this and it will all be ok.
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How to Stop a Divorce and Save Your Marriage
Music in this episode is by Nice as F*ck with their song “Door.” You can support them and their work at jennylewis.com. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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