What do you do when your marriage is absolutely at the end of the road? Is divorce your only option? Does separation ever help couples reconcile? And is there ever such a thing as a marriage that’s beyond recovery?
I’ve had a number of individuals reach out to me lately through our website saying that they are absolutely at the end of their rope as far as their marriage goes. They aren’t just whining or complaining. Some have been married for decades and the marriage has been very difficult for that entire time. They want out. But their value system tells them it’s wrong. If you are seriously considering ending your marriage there are some critical questions that you need to ask yourself first.
Is It Ever Too Late to Save the Marriage?
Let me start by saying that for our readers who are believers (born-again Christians), which is most of you, we don’t intend to get into the divorce and remarriage debate today. We just want to assert that God is pro-marriage, and so are we. That’s the core value that is driving the content of today’s post (and all of our content!). If you’re looking for someone who will justify the termination of your marriage for you, you’ll have to look to other resources.
Having said that we are not at all unsympathetic to the profound distress many of our listeners are experiencing in their marriage. We’re just pointing out that we want to take you in the direction of healing and recovery in your marriage.
So this is a great question. And there are a couple of things to look at.
One is the desire for reconciliation.
A study in 2011[i] interviewed divorcing couples and found that:
- 1 in 4 individuals indicated some belief that the marriage could be saved, even as they were going through the final stages of the divorce process
- Only for 1 in 9 couples (~11%) did both spouses have this belief
- 1/3 of couples were interested in external reconciliation services
This data seems to suggest that even as couples go through divorce, a reasonable minority still have some form of hope and belief that the marriage can be reconciled.
And so I think if you’re in the process of divorcing I hope you’ve taken the opportunity to ask your spouse this question: do you believe our marriage could be saved? If you get a flat “no” then you know where you’re at. If you get a “yes” it’ll probably be a “Yes, if…” or a “Yes, but…” and then a list of demands or things that need to change. And I would say for that discussion: don’t spiral off into an argument about what was said after the “Yes”. If you want to save your marriage and both you and your spouse believe it is possible, then surely it’s worth a shot?
Why not ask them if you can both take that “Yes” and then get some outside help to work on the “if” or “but” conditions. All those grievances and things that need to change are much easier to face if both of you want to get through them and both of you believe that it’s within the realms of possibility.
Another study from 2012[ii] interviewed couples going through a divorce. The most common reasons for divorce were “growing apart” (55% of couples) and not being able to talk together (53%). These factors decreased participant’s interest in the idea of reconciliation, as did differences in tastes and financial issues.
But there were other reasons cited for divorce that actually increased the interest in the possibility of reconciliation:
- “Not getting enough attention” is an example. Presumably because in this situation you still want your spouse’s attention, you just feel you aren’t getting enough of it.
- “Problems with the in-laws” also predicted higher interest in the possibility of reconciliation.
Finally, being involved in abuse did not affect the desire to reconcile.
It’s interesting that these are all couples going through a divorce but the interest in the possibility of reconciliation is tied to some of the reasons why they were going for a divorce. It is really complex to try to tease all these apart. For abuse I’d refer you back to episode 125 about when to stay or leave an abusive marriage.
For the others, it may be more about the difference between major hurdles (like an affair) vs. long-standing differences in values or vision (like financial goals). Single events like infidelity or abuse, however difficult to go through, don’t seem to color your impression of your marriage’s prospects as badly as a long-standing inability to connect.
But this study also showed that 26% of couples believed their marriage could still be saved, even as they were going through the divorce process.
I think what is worth noting is that all of these issues are ‘treatable’. They respond to therapy. You can learn communication skills. You can learn to deal with in-laws. You can go deep on those financial issues to find the core values driving each of you and then find ways to honor each other in despite differences. We did a five-part series on debt and budgeting for marriage which you could definitely use as a starting point.
Is it ever too late to save the marriage? Dr. Gottman says that when the fondness and admiration system in the marriage is completely dead—not just veiled by long-standing conflict—then you should help the couple figure out how to separate amicably. I’m not sure I’d be ready to give up even at this point, however.
In my opinion it’s only definitely too late to save the marriage when one spouse is dead or remarried.
Having said that, I want to acknowledge those of you who are married to a spouse with a personality disorder or to a sex addict who will not seek treatment or to an abusive husband. I would not in any way force you to stay married: who am I to ask you to do something that has no consequences for me, and profound ones for you?
So at the end of the day, this is your decision. And one to be made very carefully, with much prayer and seeking of God’s will, and advice from trusted people in your life who care more about you than themselves.
At Your Breaking Point?
To help you out, we have three book recommendations to choose from. These are books that are specifically written for people whose marriages are at a breaking point, and yet these books are all pro-marriage. So if you’re at that breaking point and you’re not sure what books might be helpful, you’ll definitely want to grab this guide.
Does Divorce/Separation Ever Help?
Our next question looks at whether divorce or separation are really the solutions you’re expecting them to be. You may recall back in Episode 125 we talked about leaving an abusive marriage. One of the interesting observations is that wives who come and go, and are in and out of living with an abusive spouse, fare worse than spouses who make a firm decision to stay or make a firm decision to go.
Similarly, a study from 1984[iii] noted that couples who file for divorce, but whose petitions are withdrawn or dismissed, report higher rates of psychological distress than control group samples of divorced and married people. Reconciled couples experience high levels of domestic violence and have more serious marital complaints than those who divorce, but are not especially likely to seek professional help.
I think that waving divorce around as a stick is not always helpful — that’s what could be concluded from this. I hate to say you need to finish what you start because I don’t want people to finish their divorce if there’s hope of saving the marriage. So what I hope comes across is that you should not go down the divorce road if you don’t have the intention to complete what you start.
What about separation?
Here’s a quote from a study in the 80’s:[iv] “The limbo of separation is associated with physical and psychological health problems. In fact, even higher rates of physical and psychological distress are reported for the separated than for the divorced or widowed.”
So it seems that separation is a very distressing state to be in. Being apart from your spouse, probably with your last argument still ringing in your ears, and with your future incredibly uncertain is bound to take its toll on your wellbeing. From what I’ve observed in my own practice I do see this to be the case too. But, here’s some data to think about:
Data from the 2009 Census in USA: 87% of couples going through a “trial separation” or living apart end up divorcing. Most are divorced by 3 years from the separation. So most separations end in divorce. 1 in 8 or so do not, however, which is notable.
Let’s look at some more research on separation. A study in 1994[v] examined info from national surveys. They reported that one third of women who attempted to reconcile the marriage were still married 1 year later.
So that’s a relatively high success rate. Religion has the strongest relationship to successful reconciliation, followed by cohabiting before marriage, and similarity in age between partners. Socioeconomic factors like race, income, etc were not related to the success of reconciliation. Having some grounding in faith helped your marriage reconnect even at this late stage, while other seemingly prominent factors like your financial situation did not.
Around 1 in 10 couples who were married reported having separated for some length of time during their marriage.
Another study from 1985[vi] interviewed 1101 married/separated individuals. They found that separations of 48 hours or more resulting from arguments/discord were found in 1 in 6 marriages, suggesting that shorter separations resulting from arguments are not uncommon and do not always spell disaster for the marriage. However, marriages that ended in divorce were 4 or 5 times more likely to have had a separation at some point. So separations due to arguments ending in one of you leaving are not a sign of a healthy marriage and don’t seem to help.
Another study found that the likelihood of any married couple experiencing a separation was found to be nearly 5 percent in one year[vii]. Most separations (77%), after lasting about one year, end in divorce.
Binstock & Thornton (2003)[viii] examined relationship trajectories in marriage (and cohabitation) based on national survey results and looked at the effect of both separating due to discord and separating for other reasons (such as jobs or other practical reasons). “Overall, our results also indicate that even accounting for reconciliations and living apart for reasons other than discord, for the majority of young adults in cohabiting and marital unions the first separation due to discord signals the permanent dissolution of the relationship”.
So all of this does not paint a particularly great picture of separation as an effective way of dealing with marital difficulties. The odds are low that you can save the marriage once you reach the separation stage, but it does happen. Some reasons suggested for the low reconciliation rates in couples who separate include:
- Many couples actually just use separation as a “softer” way of splitting up and divorcing
- Time apart makes you more likely to grow apart rather than try to work collaboratively on your differences
- Couples sometimes use it as a “punishment” or as a “threat” rather than actually thinking it will work
So if you think that some time apart may help you get some clarity on your marriage and come back to things with a new perspective, be aware that the research shows this leads to permanent separation and divorce in the majority of marriages. Of course, your marriage and your circumstances are unique so you shouldn’t take this as a prediction of how things will go for you, but just be aware.
Another interesting observation from the research is that a high willingness to forgive increases the likelihood of successful reconciliation. Ross (2010)[ix] examined three couples who had divorced and then re-married. Results indicate that forgiveness is a primary factor that indicates high marital satisfaction after separation. High willingness to forgive differentiates couples who choose to reconcile following separation or divorce and those who do not reconcile.
What about divorce?
So separation as an intervention for end of the road marriages isn’t a successful strategy for the majority of couples. In fact, it often leads to a lot of emotional distress. But what about the alternative? Does calling it quits and ending the marriage increase your happiness? A study from 2009[x] examined the emotional wellbeing of couples going through divorce over a five year period. They found:
- In no conditions did divorce improve emotional wellbeing, even if you were unhappy with the marriage.
- On some measures of wellbeing, divorcing actually decreased your overall wellbeing.
- Couples who divorced and then remarried show no improvement in emotional wellbeing.
So even if your marriage is unhappy, divorce and even finding another partner doesn’t seem to improve your happiness/wellbeing very much. Don’t drink the kool-aid that says divorce is a quick ride back to happiness.
It’s also worth noting that divorce rates in second marriages are higher than in first marriages. I think this is where the idea of no-fault divorce has really failed society. The idea that I don’t like my car so I’m gonna get a new one works for cars but it doesn’t work nearly as well for spouses. Of course, I’m sure everyone thinks they are the exception but the truth is that 3 out of 5 second marriages end in divorce. That’s really high.
If your marriage is distressed and you’re toying with the idea of divorce then that’s a good signal that now is the time to get help. By the time you’re separated or even in the process of divorce it’s really hard to turn around.
On the other hand, if you are in the divorce process: note that there are some couples that are able to reconcile. Being willing to forgive and really keeping God at the center of what you want to rebuild is key.
What helps is good marriage counseling. Reading books. Going to marriage seminars. There are just so many ways to get help. If you have any belief in the importance of marriage and you think there’s even the faintest chance that yours can still be saved, then you’ve gotta fight tooth and nail for your marriage using whatever help you can get. Even when you’re absolutely at the end of the line, there’s still hope.
[i] William J. Doherty, Brian J. Willoughby, and Bruce Peterson, ‘Interest In Marital Reconciliation Among Divorcing Parents: Interest In Marital Reconciliation Among Divorcing Parents’, Family Court Review, 49.2 (2011), 313–21 <https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-1617.2011.01373.x>.
[ii] Alan J. Hawkins, Brian J. Willoughby, and William J. Doherty, ‘Reasons for Divorce and Openness to Marital Reconciliation’, Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 53.6 (2012), 453–63 <https://doi.org/10.1080/10502556.2012.682898>.
[iii] G. C. Kitson and J. K. Langlie, ‘Couples Who File for Divorce but Change Their Minds’, The American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 54.3 (1984), 469–89.
[iv] Gay C. Kitson, ‘Marital Discord and Marital Separation: A County Survey’, Journal of Marriage and Family, 47.3 (1985), 693–700 <https://doi.org/10.2307/352270>.
[v] Howard Wineberg, ‘Marital Reconciliation in the United States: Which Couples Are Successful?’, Journal of Marriage and Family, 56.1 (1994), 80–88 <https://doi.org/10.2307/352703>.
[vii] Bernard L. Bloom and others, ‘Marital Separation’, Journal of Divorce, 1.1 (1977), 7–19 <https://doi.org/10.1300/J279v01n01_02>.
[viii] Georgina Binstock and Arland Thornton, ‘Separations, Reconciliations, and Living Apart in Cohabiting and Marital Unions’, Journal of Marriage and Family, 65.2 (2003), 432–43.
[ix] Carla S. Ross, Henri Nouwen, and Carla S. Ross, Reconciling Irreconcilable Differences Through Forgiveness.
[x] Linda J. Waite, Ye Luo, and Alisa C. Lewin, ‘Marital Happiness and Marital Stability: Consequences for Psychological Well-Being’, Social Science Research, 38.1 (2009), 201–12 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssresearch.2008.07.001>.