On Love: Thinking about divorce?

Apr 20, 2011

Are you contemplating a divorce? Join author Susan Pease Gadoua and On Love's Ellen McCarthy as they answer your questions about divorce, offer survival tips and more.

Susan Pease Gadoua is the author of Contemplating Divorce, A Step-by-Step Guide to Deciding Whether to Stay or Go (August 2008), and Stronger Day by Day: Reflections for Healing and Rebuilding After Divorce (July 2010). Susan is a licensed therapist based in the San Francisco Bay Area with an expertise in marriage and divorce. She has appeared on  The CBS Early Show and publications such as The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and Divorce Magazine.

Ellen:  Hi everyone, and happy Wednesday. I'm so excited to have Susan Pease Gadoua with us today.  She's dedicated her life to helping people making thoughtful decisions regarding marriage and divorce.  I know you'll have lots of questions, so let's get to it.

I'm not currently considering divorce, but have thought about it in the past (everybody at least thinks about it at some point, don't they?). How do you know when you've really reached the end of the line and it's time to move forward and separate?

I do think that many people have thought about or imagined leaving their marriage at least in passing and, while I think this is normal to some degree, if it is a regular and persistent thought, this may be more than just a bad patch in the marriage.

Making the decision to leave a marriage is almost never an easy one (nor should it be). In my work with people, I generally have them look at two things to help them make their decision. The first is asking if the decision to stay in the marriage is “fear-based” or “faith based?” What this means is are you trying to avoid pain or are you going toward a goal?

For example, if people stay “for the kids” are they really hiding behind the kids so they don’t have to be a single parent, or are they staying as a way to provide more for their children (more classes, sports, etc. that they might not get if there were a divorce). That question can sometimes make things clear but not always since you might be doing both.

The other aspect of the marriage I have people look at is whether or not the marriage is “workable.” By this, I mean, for example BOTH people need to be invested in making the marriage work. If one isn’t, there really isn’t anything to work on.

There are also what I call “Workability Factors” that address specific issues in the marriage such as communication, trust, respect, addiction issues, infidelity, common goals and shared interests and much more. 


Ellen:  Susan,  maybe you could start by telling us a little bit about what drew you to this line of work. 

Hi Ellen, this work came to me in 2000 when I starting working with people in transition. I quickly learned that it was the divorcing population that needed a great deal of support and virtually nothing but legal services existed to help people. 

I began running groups and programs for divorcing men and women and  have really enjoyed this work because I know there is another side to this difficult transition.

My parents divorced when I was 19 so I also have a personal interest in the subject.

(I am a grown married woman and) I am worried that my parents are going to get divorced because my mom won't go to counseling. My parents were very happy until my sister was maybe 8, but have become increasingly less so ever since. My dad used to be (when my sister (now senior in college) and I were growing up) rather brusque and inflexible and insensitive hasn't always been the easiest person to deal with. My mom is very sensitive and is a very reluctant communicator. She would never say anything when he hurt her feelings or our feelings (which doubly hurt her feelings). My dad became aware several years ago that he was, at times, a jerk, and has been trying his best to become a better, more understanding, person. My dad even went to counseling on his own volition, and asked my mom to go with him about a year ago. But, my mom refused. I think my mom has held on to a lot of the hurt that she has felt over the past 15 years or so and now has hardness of heart. She is snappish with my dad about everything and takes offense at pretty much everything he does, and doesn't tell him anything that she is planning or would like to do. On the other hand, my mom is friendly and cheery and happy with everyone else in her life, even if I call right after she has snapped at my dad. I think it must be exhausting for her to have two such different sides of her personality. I think she won't go to counseling because she is worried that a counselor would blame her for the problems in their marriage and because she is scared to voice any negative feelings (ex - if I call her and am mad at my sister, she won't say anything at all and will purposely change the subject as soon as I am done talking). My dad is at his wit's end. He wants to ask her to go to counseling again. I am worried that she will say no, and then he will tell her that he wants a divorce. They used to love each other a lot and I know they can again if my mom would get some help learning how to communicate. I have tried mentioning to her in casual conversations that her that my husband and I have gone to counseling, and that several friends have gone and it's been very helpful. I offered to try to break the ice for my dad, and he is thinking about my offer. If I said directly to her - Mom, I think you and Dad need to go to counseling, she would snap at me, not talk, or change the subject. I don't know what would happen if I pushed it with her. Do you have any ideas or advice?

It sounds to me like your mom was raised in a "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all," environment.  This is not a sustainable model for people in long term love relationships (or even friendships, for that matter).

Studies have shown that it is actually couples who don't fight that have a higher divorce rate than couples who do for the simple fact that they deal with problems as they come up. It sounds like your mother has a great deal of stored up anger and this is toxic to everyone involved.

It's possible that if your mom knew that your father were seriously thinking of leaving, she might be more willing to speak her truth but he should not use divorce as an ultimatum. 

I would suggest that he continue to go to counseling and model good communication skills. You can also do some modeling of expressing your feelings in general and letting her know it's safe to do so. 

I  recommend that NOT you get involved in your parents communication about their marriage. This is something your father needs to learn to do with the help of his therapist. It's not really your place, although I know your intentions are good.

I wish you all the best. This is difficult to witness.

How can couples figure out which counselor is right for them, assuming they want to go that route?

Finding the right counselor (or any professional, for that matter) is a very subjective matter. What is important is that you both feel comfortable with the person but also that you feel the therapist is effective in helping you change a dynamic that isn't working.

I tell people they may need to go "therapist shopping." Interview several therapists until you feel you've found someone you can work with.

How do you know if it's just unhappiness or an actual end to a relationship? Is there anything specific that warrants a divorce if cheating or other bad behaviors aren't a part of what's making you unhappy?

I have to say that I don't think people always know for sure or ever get rid of some level of ambivalence in making this big life decision. However, there are certain things you can look at to help you get clear . 1) How long have you been thinking about leaving the marriage? 2) How often do you think about leaving the marriage? 3) Is your reason for wanting to leave something that can be fixed? This is a tricky question because if it's something like addiction, you think the answer is "yes," however, if the addiction is in your spouse, YOU can't fix it. If your spouse isn't willing to get some help to get into recovery, there really isn't anything you can do.

I think people wait for a sign or some answer to come. It doesn't necessarily happen that way. People can wait for years! Sometimes, taking a time-out (a long vacation away from your spouse or a housesitting job) can help you get perspective.

Ellen: I'm wondering if you've noticed any change in the way younger couples, in their 20's and 30's, think about divorce.  This is the generation that was raised with epic numbers of divorced parents and I'm wondering how that will impact their own marriages. 

This is a great question. Last year, TIME Magazine published a cover story entitled, "Who Needs Marriage?" This story revealed the results of the Pew Study showing that nearly 40% of people under the age of 25 believe that marriage is obsolete. That said, many of these same young people still aspired to marry some day. A bit of understandable confusion on the subject!

I had an intern last year who, at the age of 27, finally decided to get engaged after being with her boyfriend for several years. What finally made her say "yes" was that she realized she could get divorced at any time if things didn't work out. It was easier for her to make the "commitment" knowing she had an exit plan. 

I believe that we all see marriage as less rigid these days and I don't necessarily think that's all negative. As with anything, you will have some people who don't take the idea of marriage seriously enough, you will have those who are completely rigid about it, and the majority of the population is somewhere in between.

Young people are putting off marriage these days for a number of reasons. An obvious one is the economy, however, another big reason is that "marriage" just may be an outdated construct. We don't need to marry the way we once did. 

It will certainly be interesting to follow.

I have a great job that I love that takes us all over the world, great lifestyle, pay and benefits Now, after 15 years, my wife says she has always hated to travel and wants me to quit. An alternative is that she will go back to her home and stay and I can continue working. If I quit, even if I could find a job, it would be for less than half of what I now make. Her salary would not help, since my company has always found her a job as a secretary within the branch I am managing, but she has a high school diploma and has no desire to go back to school to learn a skill or get a better job. If you hate to travel, why marry someone who loves to travel? Plus, she lied about this, since at first she always said how much she loved it and now says that she lied because she loved me and thought I would stop. Stop doing what I love for a liar? I don't see a way out of this.

This sounds like a tricky situation given that your wife led you to believe she enjoyed traveling only to say now that she doesn't and wants it to stop. There may not be a simple compromise in this situation. You may need to continue traveling but do it alone or she may need to do more than she's comfortable with.

I would suggest that you two get into some counseling to see what is going on and get to the truth. 

I heard a wonderful saying once that "you can't have a real relationship until you're willing to not have the relationship."

This means that, until both parties are willing and able to speak their truth, you will only have a superficial and perhaps tenuous relationship.

I wish you well.

How do I go about dealing with a jealous spouse, besides divorcing her?Yes, she is jealous of the fact that I tend to help my elderly mother with doctors' appointments, taking her to the hospital, and running other minor chores for her. The problem revolves around the fact that my wife chose to stay here in the metropolitan area and her own elderly, widowed mother lives in another State. Although she has a large number of relatives who live nearby, they generally refuse to help her or ignore her. Now that my mom is getting older (she is basically healthy, for now), I get too much grief for helping her, and this is affecting my marriage.

It may be that your wife is feeling a lack of connection with you. I've worked with many couples like this and what I've found is it's not so much how much time couples spend together but what kind of time.

If, for example, you took your wife away on a nice romantic weekend where you could feel a deep sense of connection, she might not be so upset the next time you need to go see your mother.

If nothing can calm her jealousy, I would think this is something inside of her that needs healing. I would recommend that she go to her own counseling for a while and then the two of you might do some work after that.

I hope this helps.

Thank you so much for this topic. I feel that my husband disrespects my role as a stay-at-home mom, and yet expects me to do everything when it comes to the kids and daily household responsibilities. We have three children under the age of three. When I ask for help in the AM, he states that he has to get ready for work (he's the last to wake up). When I ask for help in the PM, he states that he needs time to decompress. As for help in the middle of the night (e.g., with sick kids), forget about it. I can't continue like this. Is there hope? I already feel like a single parent. Thank you for your thoughts.

Three children under the age of three is a huge undertaking (as you know!). Your husband may not know how much it entails because you have continued to do everything.

I'm not suggesting that  you ignore your children in the middle of the night or have them fend for themselves to get their own food. What I mean is that it may be time to hire someone to help you. He needs to get the message that you can't do it all.

Getting a divorce would likely not be the answer for a number of reasons. If you think it's tough now, managing these kids on half of the resources would probably be a worse nightmare.

There are many books on coparenting and I suggest that you read some with him. If he refuses and acts like that is beneath him, I would strongly encourage you to seek some couples therapy. 

My fiance and I will be getting married later this year and would like to spend some time in pre-martial counseling. Both of us come from families with a lot of divorce, including our parents, so it's really important for us to identify and learn to deal with big problems before they become deal breakers. Do you have any suggestions of how to find a pre-martial counselor that fits our needs or what topics we should look to discuss in our sessions?

Interestingly enough, you might want to start out in an attorney's office getting a prenuptial agreement. The reason I say this is that many couples go in to marriage with different expectations of what they want out of the marriage. 

Just the other day, a woman told me a story of her husband telling her just after they married that he "never said he wanted children." 

Whether or not to have kids, how to deal with money and housing and family issues can be fleshed out to a large degree by implementing a prenup. At the very least, it would get you talking about some of the tough issues before you tie the know.

When the issues come up, you would know what needed addressing in sessions. As far as finding the right therapist, you may ask the attorney if they know of someone who can work with you but you may also simply have to interview a few. 

All the best to you both.

So after many years of being very unhappy I finally have made the decision to divorce. Kids are involved as well as a very expensive mortgage so I certainly can't just pack up my suitcase and go. And I want to be able to remain friendly and fair during this process. I don't want a lengthy expensive legal battle and I think that between us we can work out something amicable - but what is the next step once you've made the decision? How do you move forward in separating?

There is no obvious order of how to proceed when you have made the decision to leave. Some couples sit and do what's known as a "Kitchen Table Divorce" where you discuss together how you would like to see assets divided, kids cared for.etc. If you can do this calmly and in a productive manner, that's great. Not everyone can but keep in mind that you don't need to pay professionals to do for you what you can do for yourselves.

Divorce does create a great deal of tension in each person due to the fact that you are being knocked down into a lower level of living - sometimes into survival mode. It is natural to become more aggressive but it can quickly get out of control for some. These are the cases in which professionals can be invaluable. Lawyers, accountants and real estate agents don't have the emotional charge you do and can be more level headed in getting decisions made.

I think you will need to test the waters to determine how much of it can be done on your own and how much of it you will need professional support for.

By the way, "fair" does not usually come into play with divorce. It's a very subjective term!

The bottom line - if things are calm and you can divvy up assets and childcare, start there. If things are tense, I would start with an attorney.

The hardest part is watching friends who should get a divorce don't get one. Then the years past and your friends are miserable for compromising their lives when their spouses keep making the same choices. Five years turn to seven then 10 and still won't leave and bury the marriage that stop existing or never existed. I have talked to men and women who have friends of both sexes in this situation. It's so sad. Life is too short to be miserable and unhappy. It is hard to watch people you love lose their joy for life and their self-respect because they can't see themselves without a spouse.

I agree. If it's too difficult to witness, you may have to distance yourself from these people or simply tell them your feelings and ask them not to talk to you about it any more.

who refuses to go to counseling. I hate offering ultimatums but I have a young daughter and step-daughter. For my sake and theirs, I feel I need to put my foot down. Instead of defending myself in colorful shouting matches, I choose to walk. How do you confront a bully with the final straw? He's the father of my child and I love him but I can't live this way or watch my child(ren) grow up reflecting these qualities.

Rather than trying harder to get your husband to see your point, why don't you start by trying harder to get his point.  I know this is counterintuitive, but neither of you is feeling heard and so when that happens, it makes people more entrenched in their argument. You can break the cycle by going toward him rather than away from him. 

Generally speaking, this tool can work wonders in breaking gridlock. 

If it has no impact, you may be dealing with someone who is unreasonable or possibly narcissistic in which case, there are no good or easy solutions. Even leaving won't solve this issue. 

I recommend that you seek some professional guidance to navigate. Good luck

Susan, thank you so much for being with us today.  Your insights are greatly appreciated. 

My divorce left both my girls devastated (then 10 & 13) and created serious reverb for the younger one. She is today in an in-patient facility and telling therapists about the "grieving" she is still doing - six years later. An extreme example? Well, I would have said that also - before. The big D sets off a cascade of events, emotions and situations that will rock your kids harder than you can imagine. Try every other alternative - twice.

Thank you for sharing your story. I'm sorry this was the case for your daughter.

I do want to point out that, it's not divorce per se that harms children, it's parents fighting that harms children. 

Living with a great deal of tension is difficult for any human being, let alone a child. 

I hope she comes through this in a better place.

I thought about leaving my marriage for years and years, even before my daughter was born. Once she was born I decided to stay and be a good dad which I was. So my daughter is now 17, about 9 months ago I got the courage up and said I was unhappy for years. We went to a couple counseling sessions but eventually I moved out. I see my daughter a lot and I live in walking distance even. However, I am still haunted and plagued by guilt and remorse for "breaking" a family. I can't imagine going back but staying apart is making me feel so guilty. How can I move forward?

Your decision to stay would have pain and your decision to leave will have pain. There is no path at this juncture without some level of discomfort. 

What I write about in Contemplating Divorce is that there is generally a path wherein the pain will dissipate over time. Think about when you get a physical injury - even the healing time will bring pain but this pain has an end.

All the best to you and do continue to get some emotional support.

"What finally made her say "yes" was that she realized she could get divorced at any time if things didn't work out. It was easier for her to make the "commitment" knowing she had an exit plan. " But ... This makes divorce too simple and painless. The financial details and costs regarding assets, future social security benefits, etc. can be killers. Prenups may not supersede state laws about estate distribution and prenups can be expensively disputed in court. Divorce tends to be more appealing to the less financially well off of the partners. As "golden years" are reached, a surviving spouse is often bankrupt or without assets as a result of the costs of the final illness. Marriage is a high financial risk endeavor.

There's no question but that marriage is a financial partnership and, as such, will come with risks. I think your perspective is a bit simplistic but there is some truth there as well. 

new boyfriend of five months announced that he had gotten a previously discussed offer from our grad school to come back for a PHD. He had said he wouldn't do it for less financial aid than X (he got Y) and that starting a family was more important to him. Guess what he's doing? Is it worth it to try and stick with it? Even after his year of residency, he'll still be working on a thesis and working full time, so starting a family is questionable (I make more than he does so money is not the issue)...it's emotional support and focus on the relationship...which he says he'll be able to do. Having gone through the same program (different years) I don't find that likely. Possible, but likely... How do I organize my pros and cons to make a decision?

It sounds like you both could use some support together in coming up with a list of priorities and a long term life plan. You have some great options and I encourage you to work together on creating your future.

I am married to a very sweet man, super intelligent and would bend over backwards to do anything to keep me happy...almost. He grew up in a house where stray animals were taken in on a regular basis, usually pregnant, and the whole "kitten" caboodle became one big happy family. His mother had 22 cats when I met him. Before I agreed to date him, I was very clear, that I could not live that way and maybe the most I could tolerate, would be 3 cats. He agreed it was no way to live and indicated it was his mothers issue. Fast foward 7 years, he has little recollection of that conversation, and the biggest point of contention in our relationship is the stray cat he took in 2 years ago and her 5 kittens he refuses to find homes for. He kept them all in a spare room in our house for 2 years until another cat (we've had up to 10 in the house), had to be put down from luekemia, because the disease is contagious among cats. The cats have recently been "released" from the room they grew up in, so now they aren't out of site, out of mind anymore (not that I didn't voice my opinion regularly and often on finding other homes for them). They haven't been terribly destructive, but I have noticed my house is a little more "fragrant" than it had been in the past. The cats have urinated on my throw pillows and my laptop bag, which have been tossed and replaced, respectively. My husband is apologetic, but blames them not being spayed (how lucky they all were female), as the cause, and has since scheduled appointments for all of them. I don't think I can take it anymore. I don't want to share my home with that many cats. He is not dilligent about keeping after them, with hair and litter, although he does make some effort. He indicated that he would choose the cats over me, because he couldn't be with anyone that would make him choose....How do you get past that type of logic? He also feeds the wild life in our yard (we live in a wooded area). I have convinced him to put the food he provides to the outdoor critters further away from the back door, since I don't like racoons knocking on my door when he hasn't put anything out for them. he also won't kill bugs in the house. He catches and releases and we "can't" use insecticide, because of the cats. Did I mention, I lived in the woods? I always fancied myself an animal person, but recent experience has changed that. I don't want any pets now and feel guilty about wanting to leave him over this. I think about divorce almost daily because of this. I've talked to him about that and he thinks I should give it more time for the cats to mature....Advice?

Sounds like you need to put your foot down about this. Perhaps some couples counseling would be the right support for you.

That's all I have time for today. Many of your questions would be answered in Contemplating Divorce so I encourage you to take a look at it.  Thank you.

I've appreciated all your thoughtful questions. It's questions like these that prompted me to write, Contemplating Divorce, so I encourage participants to go to your local bookstore, library or kindle to get a copy to read things such as "The Workability Factors" and how to know if you or your spouse are REALLY committed to staying in the marriage.

In This Chat
Susan Pease Gadoua
Susan Pease Gadoua is the founder and Executive Director of the Transition Institute of Marin, based in San Rafael, California specializing in meeting the needs of separating and divorcing men and women.

As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with more than twenty years of experience, Susan has an extensive professional background in dealing with inter-personal relationships and divorce.

Susan 's first book, Contemplating Divorce: A Step-by-Step Guide to Deciding Whether to Stay or Go (New Harbinger Publications, Inc), came out in August 2008.
Ellen McCarthy
Recent Chats
  • Next: