How To Know If It's Truly Time To Get A Divorce, According To Marriage Experts
The decision of whether to get a divorce is never an easy one to make, and there are a lot of things to consider before broaching the topic with your spouse. If you've been thinking about getting a divorce, we rounded up signs it might be time, plus how to move forward, according to relationship experts.
What to know when considering divorce.
Every marriage is different, so every couple is going to have different factors at play when it comes to considering divorce. That said, according to Margaret Paul, Ph.D., relationship psychologist and co-founder of Inner Bonding, one thing every person considering divorce should do is ensure you're addressing your own inner challenges and not focusing solely on what you believe is wrong with the other person.
"So many people base whether they leave on what's going on with the other person rather than what's going on with themselves," she explains. "I recommend people not to leave until they have done their own inner work and have learned to make themselves happy."
In other words, it may be necessary to consider the ways that you're contributing both to the relationship's troubles and to your own unhappiness. Paul notes she's seen many people leave too soon and "miss the opportunity to learn to take care of themselves within the relationship—and then, of course, the same issues come up again in the next relationship."
Beyond doing your own inner work, it's also sometimes possible to revive an unhappy marriage. As licensed therapist Jor-El Caraballo, LMHC, previously explained to mbg, "Reviving an unhappy or unfulfilling marriage starts first and foremost with a desire to have things change." Are you both interested in working on this marriage and willing to take concrete steps necessary to do it? If the answer is no, then it might be time to leave.
And according to licensed marriage and family therapist Weena Cullins, LCMFT, you'll also want to consider whether you're dealing with a temporary or long-term problem. "Some circumstances strain marriages to the point of breaking, while your feelings for your spouse remain intact. Consider how you might feel about the marriage if it were possible to change certain circumstances down the line," she explains.
Wherever you are in your decision-making process, below are some signs it might be time to consider divorce or separation.
15 signs it may be time to separate from your spouse:
1. There have been instances of abuse.
Instances of abuse are a nonnegotiable when it comes to divorce, without question. Cullins and Paul both say this is one sign that you should absolutely never ignore, whether it's physical, emotional, or verbal abuse.
(Here's exactly how to leave an abusive relationship, by the way. The process may need to be a little different from your average divorce, to protect your safety.)
2. You want different things.
From having children to choosing where you want to live, if you and your spouse aren't on the same page about what you want out of life, Paul says it can make sense to split up. Sometimes people say things in the beginning of a relationship when they're in the honeymoon phase, she adds, such as saying you want kids even though you're not really sure—then, the time comes to have kids, and one person backs out.
Things like that can be a real deal-breaker for a lot of couples, so understand what your own nonnegotiables are. From there, if your partner can't align with your deep needs and wants (such as having kids), the marriage likely won't be fulfilling to you.
3. The marriage causes you significant distress.
Sometimes, your reason for getting divorced can be very simple and straightforward: The relationship feels bad for you. Cullins tells mbg that if your marriage is causing significant and ongoing distress to you (or your children), that's a good enough reason to leave.
People don't always take stress seriously, but Cullins notes that marital stress can even be associated with medical illness. Research has shown, in fact, that couples with more marital strain tend to experience an accelerated decline in health compared to people in happy marriages.
Your health—mental and physical—matter, so if protecting it means you may need to leave your marriage, so be it.
4. The marriage has not improved despite your efforts.
Have you already tried to improve the marriage, whether through couples' therapy or simply openly talking about the issues your marriage is facing? According to Cullins, if you've "legitimately exhausted all of the possibilities of making it work" and nothing has improved, the marriage will likely continue to drain you.
5. There's a lack of intimacy.
A lack of intimacy in a marriage is not irreparable, but it is often a big reason couples get divorced. In fact, one study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy found that lack of love or intimacy was the most cited reason for divorce, with nearly 50% of participants noting that core love was lacking from their marriage.
Notably, this isn't just about sexless relationships. There are many types of intimacy, which, at the core, are about feeling truly close to each other. If you can't (or don't want to) feel close to each other, it'll be difficult to make the marriage work. Paul adds that missing a sense of excitement and passion in your relationship is typically not a great sign.
6. You're unable to communicate effectively.
If you're curious what else the above research found, about 44% of the participants said communication problems were a primary factor in their decision to separate. If you're constantly arguing and unable to connect verbally in an effective way (or to even have good conversations at the end of the day), that's not something to ignore.
Communication skills can absolutely be improved, but pay attention to whether your efforts to do this as a couple have consistently failed—or if one or both of you just refuses to put in the effort anymore.
7. There's a lack of respect.
Having an understanding, respectful, and trusting relationship with your spouse is vital. If one or both partners is simply disrespecting the other on a frequent basis, that may very well be grounds for divorce.
In the world of couples' therapy, there's something called the "four horsemen" that predict divorce. According to research by The Gottman Institute, the one behavior out of the four that is the biggest indicator of divorce is contempt.
According to licensed marriage and family therapist Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, contempt is often a symptom of long-standing resentment or disapproval toward your partner, which then comes out in arguments in the form of condescension and mean-spirited communication. "At minimum, it is very mean, and at worst, it becomes emotional abuse. It also has been connected to health issues for the partner the contempt is directed toward, including a lower immune system," she notes.
Contempt can be addressed, but if it's pervasive and partners are unable to change the way they view and treat each other, the relationship may not be healthy to remain in.
8. There's no spiritual or emotional connection.
According to Paul, there are cases when one partner may "outgrow" the other, so to speak. This is a painful one, but it's important to acknowledge when it's happening.
"If the person is on an emotional and spiritual growth path, and their partner just isn't interested at all, there's not going to be much of an emotional connection," she explains.
When this happens, there likely also won't be much of a spiritual or sexual connection either, Paul says. "They're not at the same place they may have been when they got together, and it may be time to move on if that connection isn't there, or if the other person just isn't interested in learning and growing."
9. One person is bearing all the physical and emotional labor.
If one person in the marriage is more avoidant, the other will often bear the brunt of the relationship's physical and emotional labor. As Paul explains, if one person keeps reaching out and trying to connect, and they've done their inner work but can't connect to their partner because their partner is not available, that is a valid reason for divorce.
And that goes for physical labor too, she adds. "If one person does most of the work around the house, and then earns money and takes care of kids, and the other person is just not interested in doing anything, yes, that's a good reason to leave," she says.
After all, no one wants to feel like they're carrying the entire relationship on their back. Give and take is necessary, and if it hasn't improved even after being addressed, it's only going to cause more problems and resentment down the line.
Paul tells mbg she commonly sees partnerships where one person is a narcissist while the other is a caretaker, which is not a healthy dynamic to be in. "The caretaker is a fairly sensitive person and has learned to be a people-pleaser or take responsibility for other people's feelings, and the more narcissistic person is on the taker end," she explains.
10. There's an imbalance in finances (that wasn't agreed upon).
There's a reason why finances are an underlying cause of so many divorces.
Every family's finances are different, and some couples may be perfectly content with one person being the breadwinner. But if this happens and it wasn't agreed upon, Paul says it can become a fast track to resentment for the person making ends meet. In addition to that, problems with budgeting, spending, and even gambling can come up and cause a lot of issues and strain in a marriage, she says.
If these issues are present in your marriage and haven't improved even after you've brought it up and really tried to troubleshoot this together, it could be time to leave.
11. You don't feel like yourself in the partnership.
According to Cullins, another sign it might be time to separate is if your marriage causes you to frequently step outside your character. Maybe you feel like they're always bringing out the worst in you, or you feel the need to shrink yourself when they're around.
Your spouse should bring out the best in you, not the worst, and if you don't like yourself when they're around, that's not a marriage worth staying in.
12. You can't imagine being with your spouse for the rest of your life.
If you can see that things aren't improving, Cullins says, "Consider if it would be possible to remain in your marriage if nothing changed for the rest of your life."
If the thought of nothing changing scares you more than the thought of leaving, that's a sign it's in your best interest to move toward divorce.
13. You've finally moved out of denial.
And last but not least, licensed marriage and family therapist Shane Birkel, LMFT, previously told mbg that many couples will experience denial surrounding their relationship as they grapple with their issues.
This can look like an "inability to recognize negative patterns," Birkel says, adding, "if you don't recognize it, it's going to be very difficult to improve on your relationship."
So, when you do get to a point that there's no denying it anymore, the choice will likely be clear to move on from the marriage.
Trial separation vs. divorce.
If you've come to the conclusion that the marriage definitely cannot carry on in the same way, but you're not sure if you're ready for a full-blown divorce, Paul says taking some time apart through a trial separation can be a good option.
A trial separation is essentially an informal agreement to take some time apart and specifically live separately. There is no written or legal agreement involved, making it a relatively easier option than divorce. Some couples may come back together after a period of separation, while some may move forward with divorce. It's also not unheard of for couples to stay separated for a prolonged period of time without legally divorcing.
Either way, Paul says, separation is an especially good idea if you're dealing with a narcissist or someone who acts out emotionally. "It's better to say, 'Let's separate, and we'll work on it,' which makes the other person calm down, and [then] to get a complete legal separation," she says, adding that this allows you to separate your assets and transition to divorce more smoothly, should that turn out to be the end game.
A separation also allows you to "leave the door open," in case you both decide to try again after some time, Paul notes. But remember, a separation isn't always the way to go, with Paul explaining that if you know it's never going to work, or you're experiencing abuse of any kind, you should go for the divorce.
Tips for once you feel confident in your decision.
If you've decided that a divorce is your best bet, there are a few things to keep in mind, according to Paul. For one thing, working with a couples' therapist through the separation and divorce can help you both stay civil, emotionally process this monumental life change, and figure out the best ways to approach things like splitting up assets and telling friends and family (particularly children).
She adds that if your partner is, in any way, an angry, punishing, violent, and/or narcissistic type person, you're going to want to set yourself up legally with a good attorney. This is especially true if there are children involved.
But if you're both willing to approach the divorce in a caring and empathetic way, the process will be much smoother. "They can get mediation, they can work it out with a good mediator who does this kind of work, and it doesn't have to be so hard," Paul explains.
And if you're worried or upset about breaking the news to your children, rest assured, Paul tells mbg a bad marriage is actually worse on kids than divorced parents. In the end, it will be better for them to not grow up around the dysfunction an unhappy marriage can create.
The bottom line.
Divorce isn't easy, but in many cases, it's worth it—and in the long run, you'll both be better off.
If you made it this far and your gut is telling you it's time, stay strong and keep your head up. It may not be what you wanted, but now it's what you need, and when it's all said and done, there is both life and love after divorce when you give yourself the chance to find it.