Source: Photograph by Neoloky. Copyright free. Pixabay
If you’ve ever been in the position of deciding whether you should separate or divorce, you know the extraordinary stress and the flood of emotions that accompany the question. Humans are generally averse to change—we prefer the known, even if it makes us unhappy, to the unknown future—and that’s especially true if we’re talking not just about entwined lives, but children, friends, finances, and possessions, and we don’t know what’s going to happen next. Obviously, if you have a lover-in-waiting, this part is slightly easier. But even so, should you just walk away from a connection in which you’ve invested years? What if this is just a rough patch? (Thinking about your investment of time, energy, or anything else has a name: the sunk cost fallacy. It’s a thought process that keeps you stuck.)
You are asking because you’re worried about your own perceptions and you desperately want some litmus test that will guarantee that you’re not making the mistake of your life. So, how do you know when to throw in the towel on a real commitment? After all, we all know people whose marriage came back from the brink. You think of Hillary and Bill Clinton or maybe those neighbors of yours who reconciled after the husband left for another woman and are now in their 60s, thriving and grandparenting together.
Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. If I or anyone else had it in hand, there’d be justifiable fame and riches. Nope, the misery of deciding whether this is the moment lies on individual shoulders.
That said, there’s a ton of research out there, and you should consider whether these particulars apply to your situation. Since I’m neither a therapist nor a psychologist, I’ll offer up some research findings.
Is there a tipping point when divorce becomes inevitable?
Needless to say, both researchers and therapists have long been interested in why some couples make it through a crisis such as infidelity while others founder. A 2003 study by Paul R. Amato and Denise Previti showed that the top cause for divorce was cheating, responsible for 21.6% percent of divorces the team studied, followed closely by incompatibility (19.2%), drinking or drug use (10.6%), growing apart (9.6%), personality problems (9.1%), and lack of communication (8.7 %). Physical or mental abuse, and loss of love, were singled out much less frequently—5.8% and 4.3%, respectively.
An interesting study by Shelby Scott and others looked at 52 divorced couples who had, in fact, been part of a program meant to strengthen relationship skills and avoid marital dissolution (PREP) while they were engaged; their goal was to see what about the program could be changed or strengthened to avoid the outcome. This second study was conducted 14 years after the premarital program. Their results showed that the most common factor was lack of commitment (75%), infidelity (59.6%), and too much conflict and arguing (57.7%). They also asked if there were a “final straw” or single event that doomed the marriage and 68% responded that there was. Once again, infidelity came out on top (24%), followed by domestic violence and abuse (21.2%) and substance abuse (12.1 %).
So infidelity, not surprisingly, seems to be a real tipping point. But another study, this one by Alan J. Hawkins, Brian Willoughby, and William J. Doherty, looked at both the reasons for divorce and the individual’s openness to reconciliation, even at a late stage of divorce. (The individuals were in the parenting classes required by Minnesota law.) The top reasons for divorce were growing apart (55%), not able to talk together (53%), how my spouse handles money (40%) with infidelity coming in at 37%. Other reasons included personal problems of my spouse (37%), not getting enough attention (34%), my spouse’s personal habits (29%), and sexual problems (24%). Not surprisingly, differences in tastes and preferences, drug and alcohol problems, division of household duties, and conflicts over raising children were also factors in about a fifth of the respondents. Interestingly, the broader and softer issues—growing apart, not communicating, handling money—were negatively associated with a possibility of reconciliation, and the researchers surmised that people see these as indicative of a basic lack of compatibility.
Signs of the crash-and-burn
Couple counseling, it appears, is a mixed bag because most people don’t go into therapy until things have gotten terrible; it’s not unlike seeking a doctor’s help after you’re no longer able to walk, having ignored the problem for ages. This last-minute kind of counseling also, alas, may not really be about trying to fix the relationship but going so that you can reassure yourself that you’ve tried “everything.” And, yes, if you are breaking up a long-term marriage, interested parties will ask whether you sought counseling so there’s that.
Alas, many of us will only be able to recognize the downward trajectory in hindsight and it’s then that some will be able to see what they contributed to this doomed pas-de-deux. The missed opportunities for actually confronting what was going on because you decided to keep the peace instead. Your own unwillingness to take responsibility for your part or your partner’s refusal to own his or hers. Your fear of being alone at this stage of life which kept you quiet. And more.
So what are the signs that a relationship has passed the point of no return? Here are nine, drawn from personal experience, interviews, and research.
1. Discussion has become impossible
There’s a total breakdown in communication, and perhaps civility. The minute you open your mouth, he or she is on the defensive, and that gets you going; every discussion becomes either a shouting match or a recitation of your every flaw and misstep (or his). Alternatively, stonewalling has become the norm—and one of you simply walks away. Studies show that men are most likely to stonewall, but that doesn’t mean that women don’t do it. In my case, my ex-husband deflected every one of my statements, marginalizing each as the “same old tattoo,” and simply shut me down by throwing down the gauntlet: “If you’re so unhappy, why don’t you leave and stop bitching.” What I did—which was not to respond to his threat—was equally destructive, by the way. I should have answered; my withdrawal only gave him permission to continue to stonewall and manipulate.
2. Both of you are quick to find fault and to pounce on it
Marital expert John Gotteman calls this “kitchen-sinking” and he makes a helpful distinction between complaint and criticism. Let’s say you are concerned about how much money your spouse is spending or, alternatively, how he or she is handling the crisis of your middle child’s failing grades. A complaint focuses on the problem at hand and is very specific; a criticism takes aim and makes it personal. So if you say, “I’m concerned about money and I think we should cut back our spending a bit,” you are registering a complaint; on the other hand, if you say, “You are spending way too much on stuff as usual, trying to keep up with Joneses. You are so damn irresponsible and selfish,” you’re criticizing.
If your marriage has devolved to the point that every misstep or mistake gets called out as an example of your larger flaws—that is “kitchen sinking”—you are deep in negative territory, especially if almost every sentence out of your mouth or your spouse’s begins with the words, “You always…” or “You never…,”
3. You walk on eggshells or duck contact (or your partner does)
You may think of it as “keeping the peace” but what you’re really doing is treading water and reinforcing the status quo of broken lines of communication. If this is a strategy for trying to sort out your thoughts and feelings, that’s one thing and you need to put a time limit on it; if it’s avoidance, that’s another. Women (and men) who grew up in toxic households are much more likely to adopt an avoidant stance because they learned to quash their feelings and tiptoe in childhood; for more on that, see my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
But avoiding the issue, especially if there are children in your household, only serves to heighten tension and further erode what little connection is left between you. It’s really not a long-term game plan.
4. His or her familiar ways of acting now irritate you (or worse)
The second of John Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” his predictors of marital failure, is contempt. (Criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling are the other three.) There’s a subtle line at which criticism—no matter how nasty or pointed—becomes contempt or disgust and it’s at this point that your partner’s habits or foibles become the focal point of your reactivity. It could be his table manners—you’d noticed this when you met, of course, but now his wolfing his food is a flash-point—or how he never loads the dishwasher properly or just about anything else. Ditto for the wife whose singlemindedness you used to find charming or whose habit of laughing when she’s nervous now drives you nuts.
Contempt makes it pretty much impossible for you to remember why you once loved this person to begin with; it is truly corrosive, as the following point makes clear.
5. Subtle and not-so-subtle verbal abuse has become habitual
Verbal abuse goes hand-in-hand with feeling contempt or disgust for your partner, along with kitchen sinking and criticism, or his feeling contempt for you. The problem is that once you make scorn your bedfellow, civility and boundaries go out the window. Many adults, especially those whose own families of origins used verbal abuse to marginalize or control children, are often slow to recognize verbal abuse because they grew up normalizing it; the cultural stance about “sticks and stones” and the philosophy that “words are just words” also aid and abet individual tolerance.
6. Your spouse isn’t the person you turn to when you’re stressed
This can happen so gradually that you don’t even register it, especially if you’re a woman and in the habit of consulting with close friends; still, it’s a clear indication of the growing rift between you as well as a barometer of how you truly feel about your spouse. Do you no longer turn to him or her because you no longer trust your spouse? Do you think that he or she doesn’t have your best interests at heart? Do you want to deny him or her possible fodder for criticizing you more? The reasons you no longer confide in your spouse are as important as the fact that you don’t.
7. You spend most of your time thinking or functioning like someone who’s single
How estranged you already are from your spouse is underscored by how you think about and plan for the future, and by that I mean both the immediate future and the long-term. Are you making financial and other decisions on the assumption that you’ll be on your own? Do you rarely, if ever, think about what were once your mutual goals but think instead of your needs and wants? Do you fantasize about what life would be like if you weren’t married? This is closely connected to not confiding in the person who’s supposed to be your close other but speaks volumes, even if you’re still undecided about whether you’re staying or leaving the relationship.
8. There’s no eye or physical contact between you
Yes, this is partly about sex but also about feeling any connection to your partner. Do you remember the last time you held hands or put your arms around him or her? Do you find yourself exiting any space he or she is in? Do you avoid each other? Or are you having sex to keep the peace?
9. You’re no longer acting like yourself
You’ve begun to notice that all your finer qualities are getting covered over by your constant worry and anxiety. Or perhaps your defensive posture has begun to leak out into all of your relationships as you grow more and more unhappy. Feeling trapped or stuck can wreak havoc on your sense of self and really looking at the changes in you and your behavior may be another sign that perhaps this marriage shouldn’t be saved.
Sometimes, we spend way too much time treading and staying afloat when we really should be getting out of the water. Do seek counsel if you’re miserable and totally stuck. Talking it through with a professional can be a game changer.
Copyright ©2018 Peg Streep
Gottman, John. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. New York: Fireside, 1994.
Amato, Paul R. and Denise Previti, “People’s Reasons for Divorcing: Gender, Social Class, the Life Course, and Adjustment. Journal of Family Issues (2003), vol. 24 (5), 602-626.
Scott, Shelby B., Galena K, Rhoades, Scott M. Stanley et.al., “Reasons for Divorce and Recollections of Premarital Intervention: Implications for Improving Relationship Education,” Couple Family Psychology (2013), vol.2 (2), 131-145.
Hawkins, Alan J., Brian J, Willoughby, and William J. Doherty, “Reasons for Divorce and Openness to Marital Reconciliation,” Journal of Divorce and Remarriage (2012), vol. 53 (6), 453-463.