Here’s how to tell whether your marriage is salvageable—or not
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First things first: Divorce is not something to be taken lightly. The emotional and financial fallout from ending a marriage can be tremendous and traumatic for all involved. “I think that divorce should be the last option,” says Eris Huemer Winans, PsyD, LMFT, cofounder of Divorce Doctor, a service that assists couples through every aspect of their divorce, and coauthor of Break Up Emergency: A Guide to Transform Your Break Up Into a Break Through.
That said, there are some instances in which divorce is truly the best option for everyone, including any children who might be in the picture. There aren’t hard-and-fast rules, but if you find yourself in any of these circumstances, it might be time to end things. (Looking to take back control of your health? Prevention magazine has smart answers—get 2 FREE gifts when you subscribe today.)
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1. Your partner is an addict.
Gambling. Sex. Alcohol. Drugs. Unless he’s truly ready to get help or is solidly in recovery—and you’re in a program for partners of addicts, such as Al-Anon—it’s usually best to leave. Being married to an addict can lead to legal and financial problems, as well as emotional abuse, says Huemer Winans. Growing up in an addictive household can also cause severe damage to children, who may falsely believe that they’re responsible for their parent’s bad behavior.
Kay,* 49, married a man who had been sober for 5 years by the time they met. But after they’d been married for about a year, he fell off the wagon. She describes him as two entirely different people, vacillating between being charismatic, creative, and productive when he was sober to moody and volatile when he was drinking. “He’d blame me for everything,” she says. “I realized that my husband loved one thing, and it wasn’t me, it wasn’t our dog, it wasn’t our life together. The one thing that my husband truly loved to do is drink.”
Kay ultimately decided to get divorced, and says that her life is now better in every way. “I went through a period of sadness and grief and almost shock,” she says. “But almost immediately it was blended with a profound sense of relief that I could live my life as I wanted to: with a sense of grace and peace, and without something destructive and volatile in my path every day.”
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2. You’re being physically or verbally abused.
This one’s non-negotiable. “Abusive relationships for the most part do not stop because the cycle of violence continues to repeat itself,” says Huemer Winans. Even if you aren’t in physical danger, verbal abuse can be extremely harmful, as it can take a serious toll on your self-esteem and mental and emotional well-being.
As with addiction, living in a household where there’s abuse puts children at risk, even if they aren’t the ones being physically harmed. “When a child has been a victim of domestic violence or they see domestic violence, he grows up with a really low sense of self-worth and self-esteem,” says Huemer Winans. “It’s very toxic to grow up in that sort of environment.”
Before you pack your bags, it’s crucial to have a plan in place to ensure your safety and that of your children. Start by seeking out counseling services at a local shelter or contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
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3. One of you wants children and the other doesn’t.
“If you want to have a child and your spouse doesn’t, then neither one of you is going to be happy in that marriage,” says Huemer Winans. “The only way a marriage can really work is if you both have a similar vision of who you are as a family.”
Before they got married, Tim,* 39, and his partner discussed having children and decided that neither of them wanted to. That wound up changing for her—but not for him. They danced around the issue for years, but never came to agreement, and this issue and others slowly drove a deep wedge between them. Because having children is a time-sensitive issue, Tim’s main regret is that they didn’t split sooner.
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4. There’s infidelity without remorse.
Cheating doesn’t have to be an automatic marriage-ender, says Rachel A. Sussman, LCSW, a New York City–based psychotherapist who specializes in relationships and author of The Breakup Bible: The Smart Woman’s Guide to Healing from a Breakup or Divorce. The specifics matter a lot: Was it a one-night stand or a secret love affair that lasted years? Was it purely physical, or did one of you forge an intimate bond with someone new?
Just as important—or perhaps even more so—is how the partner who strayed approaches the aftermath. When evaluating if infidelity is cause for divorce, Huemer Winans advises looking at the six Rs: “The person who cheated should be showing remorse, taking responsibility, relinquishing the affair partner, giving reassurance, and acting reliably and be willing to repair the marriage,” she says. If that checklist isn’t looking so good, it’s probably time to move on.
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5. You’ve grown apart.
It doesn’t sound very dramatic, but sometimes a marriage subtly and quietly dissolves over the course of many years and there’s simply no going back. That’s sometimes a problem for couples who pair up very young. “If they marry in their mid-20s, by the time they’re in their mid-30s, one of them might have changed or have decided they like a different type of person than their partner,” Sussman says.
Tim and his ex-wife met in college and got married soon after. One of the things they initially treasured about their relationship was their independence, but over time the way they wanted to lead their lives diverged so much it taxed their marriage beyond repair. For a while they tried to run on parallel paths—pursuing their interests separately while remaining a couple—but it ultimately wasn’t sustainable.
Tim says he felt a crushing sadness when he realized how much of an “emotional gap” had developed between himself and his then-wife, and in the end the best thing they could do was to separate.
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6. You’ve exhausted all the other options.
If you’ve gone to counseling; sought out advice from family, friends, and/or clergy; and have done just about everything you can think of to save your marriage, and the situation is still lousy, chances are you’d be better off solo, says Sussman.
Once you’ve made the decision to divorce, Huemer Winans stresses the importance of communicating with your partner and continuing to work on yourself. “Because if you don’t face your issues,” she says, “you’re probably going to end up attracting the same kind of person again.”
And while you might not expect anything good to come out of divorce, there are definitely upsides, says Huemer Winans. Many divorcees develop greater self-confidence and self-awareness—not to mention the fact that they’re often happier single than when they were married. “But these positive outcomes don’t just come easily once you’ve signed those papers,” she says. “They come after you’ve worked on yourself.”
*Names have been changed.