Case study: Rubric for decision-making about divorce

Someone emailed me at to ask if I could help her figure out whether or not to get a divorce.

For anyone who doesn’t know me already, I’ve been a blogger since 2003 and have written a parenting advice blog since 2005. I got a divorce in 2008. Since then, I’ve been a little like Wallis Simpson, in that I’m famous for being divorced*. That means that people who are considering divorce sometimes think of me as non-scary divorced person**. As I’m a generally happy person with a decent relationship with my ex-husband, I think sometimes I’m the only person people “know” who isn’t living some horrible post-divorce bitter regretful scenario***.

So I get a lot of questions from people that usually boil down to “Should I get a divorce?” Now, there’s no way for me to answer that. I’m biased toward NOT getting a divorce (divorce is a horrible process that teaches you things you might not want to know), but I’m more biased toward emotional and mental health for everyone. And I can’t see the future. If you’re in a bad relationship, maybe it can become good again. If you get divorced, maybe being free of the bonds of that bad relationship will let you work on all the other problems you have. There’s no way to know.

But I do think there are some constants, some things that are always true. About marriage and divorce, and kids inside marriage and divorce. So that’s what I laid out for the anonymous person who asked for my help. What she told me of her story: She and her husband had been married for ten years. They had two elementary-aged kids. She was happy in her job and so was he. For the past 3+ years things had been painful between them. Unresolvable fights, lack of common viewpoint, disconnection, lack of trust, lack of sexual interest. They’d done individual and couples counseling for several years, and had understood each other’s positions, but didn’t like each other any more than before counseling. She was clearly in pain in the relationship, but was afraid of splitting up her kids’ family when there wasn’t something obviously horrible in the marriage (addiction, cheating, abuse). And she was very concerned that the level of pain she was feeling was “normal” and that she didn’t have a right to complain about it or consider leaving her marriage, because what if everyone else had it just as bad and they stayed?

She was spinning and spinning, caught between the things she knew about herself, her husband, and her kids, and what she’d always thought was true about marriage and family, without knowing how much of that actually was true objectively or specifically to her. She was trying to fly without being able to see the horizon. And her husband wasn’t actively participating in making a decision. She asked if I could help.

I told her that I could tell her what decision to make, but that wouldn’t actually be a solution. So I proposed instead that I come up with a rubric of sorts that led her through questions to find a path that made sense.

I asked her questions, about what the relationship had been like, what made them get married, what her husband thought about their marriage, what her core values were, what relationships/marriages she admired, what she wanted her kids to know about marriage and family. And then I came up with questions to help her use those answers as yardsticks so she could measure how the marriage she could create realistically compared to her own values and needs as a mother and person. I prefaced those questions with several things that are true about marriage and divorce that we don’t always understand (but that Louis CK talks a lot about) but that frame the decision as creating healthy function and peace for everyone in the situation instead of as Bad vs. Good. I asked her to think about the work she’d need to do if she decided to get a divorce.

I sent her the write-up and she replied that the questions were “spot on” for her situation, and were a “valuable framework” for her to make decisions.

I don’t know what she’ll decide. It’s not my life and not my decision. I could only help her recognize things that were important to her and use those to help her sort through things. I hope she reports back in once she’s decided.

* I would NEVER have let Edward abdicate for me.
** As opposed to Wallis Simpson, who I think was a little scary.
*** Most of the people I know who are divorced are pretty happy and well-adjusted, and their problems are normal problems. But I don’t think regular, content people get a lot of media time.

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