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How to tell if you're in a bad marriage

How Do You Know You’re in a Bad Marriage?

So, you had a fight. All couples fight now and then. So, you can’t remember the last time you had sex. You have young kids and a full-time job, and you’re exhausted. So, you don’t talk about anything but work and the kids. What is there to say that hasn’t been said already? Is all this normal, or does it mean you might be in a bad marriage?

For all the bliss and pixie dust that locked you into saying “yes,” you know that marriage isn’t a fairy tale. It’s hard work—boring at times, lonely at times, even briefly regretful at times.

But you’ve known enough couples happy in their lifetime marriages to know that the work is worth it. Marriage fulfills, heals, teaches, and gives life.

And yet, you’ve had this inner voice nagging you for a long time. Something’s not right. Why am I having doubts? And why am I so unhappy? Why do I feel so unloved? Who is this person I’m living with? How will I survive ‘forever’ like this?

You know better than to say anything to any of your friends and neighbors because all they see is a happy couple. Everything looks great from the outside, so saying anything would just rock the boat.

But they don’t see your life on the inside. They don’t feel the little blows of disrespect and sarcasm. They don’t see the physical and emotional distance that has become your norm.

Besides, your husband doesn’t even know that you’re struggling inside and wondering if you’re in a bad marriage. Would saying something make him angry, hurt him, make him not trust you?

Where to Turn for Support

If this is your first marriage, you have no prior experience for comparison.

If your parents were divorced or had a bad marriage, you have that negative modeling rooted in your psyche.


Should You or Shouldn’t You Divorce? Watch our free video class for ways to understand yourself.


How, then, are you supposed to figure out if your marriage is just going through a predictable phase or is actually a bad marriage?

Thankfully the internet has infinite choices for reading up on relationship problems and how to deal with them.

But, in the long run, it’s that same inner voice that’s making you question your feelings that’s also going to lead you to answers.

That’s not to say you have to find those answers on your own. At a time when your self-doubt is mounting, you need to have reliable sources of wisdom and guidance.

That may be your best friend who knows you better than you know yourself. It may be a therapist or divorce coach capable of listening for critical cues and giving you feedback on what’s “normal” and what’s not.

What’s important when you’re questioning yourself and your marriage is that you seek the help of someone with expertise and wisdom.

Can this person look beyond the veneer of your life and reach into the deeply planted seeds of discontent?

Can this person help you discern the difference between a bad marriage and a marriage that simply needs help?

A Word of Caution: Talking to Your Parents

One suggestion worth considering: You may have a close relationship with one or both of your parents. But unloading your marital concerns on them can actually work against you.

The fact that they’re from a different generation than you means they made decisions and life choices in a different context.

And the fact that you’re their daughter means they will instinctively side with you to protect you at all costs.

That alliance may feel good, but it won’t help you examine yourself and your marriage objectively. And it can also cause your parents to worry about you and/or view your spouse differently.

So how do you figure out if you’re just in a rut or actually in a bad marriage? Isn’t there a spectrum of “good and bad” for marriage? “Wonderful, great, good, OK, needs some work, all about the kids, unsatisfied, unhappy, miserable, afraid”?

There are definitely predictable signs to look out for. But no single sign is going to point to divorce. (You didn’t think it would be that simple, did you?)

You may want to start your query with a legitimate marriage quiz from a reputable source. Knowing the right questions to ask is a huge step toward satisfying that unsettled inner voice.

Below are several signs that your marriage may not be as happy as it should be.

(I’m being careful not to use the term “bad marriage” here because most marriages—even deeply happy ones—experience some of these symptoms.)

  • You’re not having sex anymore, or only infrequently. 

Physical intimacy is one of the exclusive gifts of marriage. It elevates your relationship above all others. And it’s an essential part of the connection between spouses.

Is one of you avoiding sex? If so, why? Are you exhausted from raising kids and working a full-time job? Do you not feel good about yourself and therefore don’t feel sexual?

Do you and your spouse discuss your sex life openly, or do you keep your desires and dissatisfaction to yourself?

Have you experienced sexual abuse, either from your spouse or from someone else?

There can be a lot of reasons for a decrease in sex. But an honest examination of and discussion about those reasons is essential to restoring this important part of your marriage.

  • There has been an infidelity.

Does having an affair mean you will divorce? Not necessarily.

Believe it or not, affairs can happen in a happy, “good” marriage just as they can happen in a bad marriage.

So, as heart-shattering as an affair is, it doesn’t necessarily point to divorce. It may be the impetus needed to learn the skills necessary for communicating needs, wants, complaints, and love in a healthy way.

  • You fight all the time. 

Living that way is exhausting. The volley of shouting, blame, and criticism can make you walk on eggshells and wonder why you’re even together.

  • You have stopped fighting altogether. 

Fighting, however, isn’t bad in and of itself.

It’s how you fight, when you fight, and especially why you fight that matter.

If you’ve muted your interactions in an effort to avoid the altercations, you may have decided you don’t have anything worth fighting for. 

  • You don’t feel heard. 

Marriage is supposed to be that safe haven where you can bare your soul and at least feel heard on a heart level.

Couples don’t have to agree on everything in order to listen from a place of love and concern for one another person’s highest good.

Not feeling heard—or feeling you just get “blah blah” lip service—is an important sign to pay attention to.

Likewise, are you listening to your spouse or shutting him out?

  • You don’t feel respected. 

Couples can go through tough times but still feel and demonstrate respect for one another.

When sarcasm, negative body language, interruption, control, and other disrespectful behaviors creep in, it’s time to pay attention.

  • You daydream about life without your spouse. 

Having the occasional thought of “What would my life be like if I hadn’t married?” isn’t unusual. Nor is wondering what it would be like to be one of your single friends.

But fantasizing about life without your spouse or with someone else points to deeper issues that need to be addressed.

Confiding in a therapist can help you determine if, for example, an underlying issue like depression may be affecting your perspectives.

  • One of you has an addiction. 

Addiction can’t survive without an enabling environment.

If one of you is an active addict, your marriage is inevitably riddled with codependency.

And, if your marriage is going to survive, you will both need to get help.

  • There is abuse. 

As with addiction, abuse can’t continue without an underlying dynamic to support it.

Domestic abuse is not something you can figure out or solve on your own.

If you and/or your children are being abused, it is imperative that you seek professional help and safety immediately.

  • The Four Horsemen come riding in. 

No one has done more research on the predictability of divorce than John Gottman.

If your marriage is being visited by what he calls The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling—pay attention. These are definite signs of an unhealthy marriage pointed in the wrong direction.

No one walks into a marriage with a perfect formula for making it work. But everyone who walks into marriage does so with a moving truck of history, experience, and learned behaviors.

Some issues, like addiction and abuse, demand immediate action and professional help.

Other issues, however, aren’t always so obvious.

If you and your spouse don’t have the communication skills to discuss them in a healthy way, that’s part of the issue. Communication is the issue.

You’re the only one who can decide if your marriage is worth saving. No one else can look at your life and tell you you’re in a “bad marriage.”

It’s your intuition, your desire, your choices, and your commitment that will ultimately direct you.

It really does come down to YOUR inner voice.

Listen to it.

Notes

Since 2012, SAS for Women is entirely dedicated to the unexpected challenges women face while considering a divorce and navigating the divorce experience and its confusing afterward. SAS offers women six FREE months of email coaching, action plans, checklists and support strategies for you, and your future. Join our tribe and stay connected.

*We support same-sex marriages. For the sake of simplicity in this article, however, we refer to your spouse as your “husband” or a “he.”

 

Best Divorce Help

The Best Divorce Help Centers on These 4 Things

The mere prospect of divorce can be overwhelming, lonely, isolating, and confusing. And figuring out where to get the best divorce help, regardless of whether and when you decide, can be daunting.

Sometimes the most difficult part of a task is simply getting started. And that’s especially true with something as life-altering as ending a marriage.

Where do you even begin?

How do you strategize the pragmatics while navigating all the messy emotions and relationship issues?

Do you explore the process of divorce on your own, or share your thoughts with your spouse?

Do you separate or stay in the same home?

What about the kids? What about income?

What about…? What if…? How? When? Who?

You may be nagged by your inner voice telling you that something isn’t right. Something hasn’t been right for a long time. You can’t live like this anymore, but you don’t know what to do about it.

And so the clock ticks and the calendar pages turn…

And then you finally reach a fork in the road. You realize you have been overthinking leaving your husband, but haven’t taken any action. And you can’t keep living this way.

At the very least, it’s time to get answers, even if those answers lead you to stay in your marriage.

No matter what the outcome of your exploration is, the only way to deal with your fears is to move through them.

There are so many aspects of divorce, and no one but a divorce attorney goes into marriage well-versed in them.

What’s important to remember from the start of your journey is that divorce is a whole-life, whole-person experience. The approach to it, therefore, needs to be just as holistic.

We frequently discuss the transactional nature of divorce on this site, primarily as a caution not to lead or make decisions from your emotional place. Too often, women will back down when it comes to finances and assets, or they don’t think ahead to the future. This is an area, for example, that warrants a compartmentalizing of thought, emotion, and action.

But emotions are a huge component of both marriage and divorce. And they need to be acknowledged, dealt with, and supported, too.

For purposes of this article, we’re going to focus on four main areas of your well-being as you think about or begin divorce.

The smartest approach is the village approach. It involves strategizing the various areas affected by divorce and finding the best help, advice, and support possible for each area.

In essence, your first job in thinking through divorce is to build your village, your trusted circle of experts, friends, and support.

There are four common categories of support that you may require:

1. Clarity and Encouragement

It’s important to remember to think in terms of the big picture. Who has the familiarity, expertise, personal experience, and resources to guide and support you through this?

Perhaps you have a sister or best friend who has gone through the divorce process. She can be a tremendous source of comfort and been-there-done-that support.

You will also want to include expert professional help that can bring objectivity and strategic guidance to the table.

There are therapists who specialize in marriage and divorce issues. Finding one early in the process can be an emotional and procedural anchor for you, even after a divorce.

Some of the best divorce help you will find is from a divorce coach.

You may not have even known that profession existed. However, a divorce coach could be your greatest asset while navigating a divorce or a legal separation.

A divorce coach knows the process from start to finish. And a big part of her job is pointing you in the right direction at each stage of the process, based on your specific story and needs.

She will have access to resources you may not otherwise know you need. She will have experience working with other professionals in the area of divorce. And she will be able to steer you toward quality divorce help.

Think of a divorce coach as the ultimate guide and concierge for your varied divorce needs. A divorce coach had perspective, knowledge, resources, guidance, and support, all bundled into one person.

If you can’t afford to work one-on-one with a professional at this time, consider joining a group coaching program. You will not only receive guidance, but also you’ll receive support in the context of camaraderie with others going through the same process.

2. Emotional Stability

Sometimes the best divorce help is right inside you.

Your emotions are messengers, loaded with information that can lend insight and direction to your decisions.

I mentioned earlier that we often talk about separating your emotions from certain decisions. In no way does that mean that you should disregard or sacrifice your emotions.

Finding emotional support during the divorce process is of paramount importance.

You will need a place to “let go”—to vent, cry, stomp, question, and speak freely. You will also need safety and the assurance of like-minded, compassionate people who can help you discern the messages in your emotions.

All that fear, self-doubt, anger, sadness, grief, worry, exhaustion—you’re not the first to experience that cauldron of emotion. And you won’t be the last.

Sometimes the people you turn to for clarity and support—fellow divorcees, a counselor, coach, or support group—can help prop you up emotionally.

There is also an element of emotional stability that is often overlooked.

Self-care and good survival skills have never been more important than at this time.

We hear certain advice so often that we become numb to it, but now is the time to listen. Get plenty of sleep. Eat nutritious foods. Have a self-care routine. Exercise. Get out into nature. Meditate. Pray. Have a hobby. Create. All of these bits of advice are common for an important reason: they work!

The divorce itself, involved and exhausting as it is, is just the beginning of your new life. We need you healthy, strong, and encouraged for the journey ahead!

3. Legal Options

The time to have a legal consultation with a divorce attorney is before you tell your husband you want a divorce. And, regardless of your intended style of divorce (e.g. DIY, mediation, uncontested, contested, collaborative, etc), it is always best to have a legal consultation first.

If, however, you find yourself on the receiving end of divorce papers, you will want to find an attorney immediately for an understanding of what you should and should not be doing. This is where a divorce coach can be a diamond on a rough path.

Every state has its own divorce laws and procedures, and a divorce attorney will spell those out for you.

He or she will also walk you through the best- and worst-case scenario so you can be prepared and put yourself at the best advantage.

Whatever you do, don’t rely on Google for your legal advice! Sure, you can do some cursory research to generate questions and gain general familiarity about divorce laws in your state (alimony or custody laws, for example). But learn what the law says about your circumstances, and what you should optimize, from a lawyer who is looking at the details of your marriage.

4. Financial Choices

Yes, your divorce attorney can walk you through all the legal steps and their possible outcomes. But a huge part of any divorce is the division of assets. And that can get messy, depending on the length of the marriage and its accumulated investments and assets. Having a smart financial expert as part of your “village” is absolutely essential.

As a woman, you can’t afford to not find out what would be the best LONG-TERM plays for you because research says it’s harder economically for women after divorce compared to men.

So, don’t rush to get through the negotiation just because you want to be done. Be sure to learn what your must-haves are.

A good financial advisor (meaning one who has been in the business for more than 15 years and has seen various markets come and go) will be able to tell you about what’s in your interest in the near and LONG run. For this, SAS for Women adores Ronit Rogoszinski at Women + Wealth Solutions because she speaks plainly, educates, and clearly understands what women go through when they divorce. (And no, SAS received no “kick backs” from Ronit. We share her name openly because she’s impressed us with her service to our diverse — both, economically and geographically — female clients.)

Divorce is something no one needs to tackle alone. There is help available in every area of this painful (but liberating) journey—emotional, legal, financial, parental, etc.

The best divorce help starts at the center and works its way out. Establish your core supporters and allow them to help you expand your village from there.

By making a few wise choices at the foot of your journey, you may very well create a support system that sees you through life.

Notes

Since 2012, SAS for Women has been entirely dedicated to the unexpected challenges women face while considering a divorce and navigating the divorce experience and its confusing afterward. SAS offers six FREE months of email coaching, action plans, checklists, and support strategies for you and your future. Join our tribe and stay connected.

Toxic marraige

27 Cautionary Signs You’re in a Toxic Marriage

Just like the proverbial frog in the pot, it’s nearly impossible to tell when you’re in the midst of marriage conflict that’s gone from warm to boiling, or when that humorous bite that initially makes for playful conversation begins to break the skin instead. There are the occasional stings of a partner who’s had a long day, and then there are the continual sniping, punitive remarks that spill over into damaging abuse, making your marriage toxic.

We’re hearing the term “toxic” a lot these days, referring to everything from environments to people to work places to marriages. Toxic simply means that something is poisonous, or has become so. Each of us can probably identify and add some of our own particular twists on what toxicity looks and feels like, or how it’s showing up in the people around us, or within ourselves. (We all have some toxic traits. No one is without a shadow side). It’s worth spending some time thinking about toxicity, because the more examples of it we identify, the more we can define this concept and see its insidious nuances and impact. When it comes to our relationship, understanding what constitutes a toxic marriage will help us decide if we’re going to leave the marriage or find a way to turn down the heat.

Check out the following 27 markers of a toxic marriage and consider their examples.  As you read, determine how present each one is in your life and what you will do  about it.

1. Excess Defensiveness

Perhaps you’ve tried to be patient: “Your husband is just acting this way because he’s* feeling vulnerable or stressed or working too hard these days,” you might say to yourself in the face of yet another snide comment. When your non-confrontational responses meet with repeated jabs, it’s hard not to get offended. And when you or your spouse hear criticism in even innocuous statements and questions, it becomes impossible to communicate. Moreover, constant defensiveness usually means your spouse has stopped taking responsibility for his behavior. It’s like trying to enter the flow of traffic next to a driver who only speeds up or slows down in order to block your efforts to merge.

2. Dismissiveness, Contempt, Condescension and Chronic Impatience

We can all get cranky, be less than tolerant, or even lose our tempers, especially under prolonged duress. But there is a demeaning quality to these communication styles, an implied attitude of superiority that suggests that the other person is beneath notice, not only not to be taken seriously but really seen as less important, less intelligent, and unworthy. Contempt diminishes—whether it is eye-rolling, smirking, sarcasm, or a blank stare followed by curt dismissiveness. Whatever the strategy is, the means of communicating these attitudes are myriad, and they are designed (consciously or not) to make the person on the receiving end feel stupid, worthless, or to undermine their confidence in their position.

Defensiveness and contempt are two of the four communication styles that the Gottman Institute identifies as the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” for a marriage. However, of the four, contempt is identified as the attitude most likely to lead to a divorce or split. The other two of the four horsemen are criticism and stonewalling.

3. Criticism

Criticism goes beyond just voicing a concern or complaint, which tends to happen on a case-by-case basis. It is more apt to be ongoing, and is directed at the other person’s character rather than at their behavior. It is often an assertion of an agenda and is generated in part by the same need for control that is at the root of contempt. Constant criticism is a practice of routinely finding something wrong with or in need of improvement in the other person. You might say that defensiveness and stonewalling are the toxic responses to contempt and criticism.

4. Projection

Projection is the result of anticipating criticism before it happens, or hearing it when it doesn’t exist. Defensive redirection is a version of the idea that the “best defense is a good offense”, but it occurs when there’s not actually a reason for it. Projection is one of the responses to childhood psychological trauma, where unpredictability and chronic undermining of confidence or other dysfunctional patterns create a running inner dialogue that is turned outward, like a song on repeat. A spouse may ask a perfectly benign, kindly intended question about how “a projector” is liking work these days, and hearing an echo of that inner critic, “the projector” might put some edge in her voice, or snap, or ask why they want to know or stonewall with a monosyllabic pout, thus putting an end to the conversation and alienating her spouse.

Projection is turning that negative inner voice outward. Instead of recognizing that the voice is our own, we unconsciously “hear it” coming from others. By making the “attack” come from someone else, we avoid the understanding that the person we actually need to confront is the one in the mirror.

5. Addiction

Addictions include dependencies on food, shopping, alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, exercise, gambling, sex, anger or even a belief system. It can be an attachment to status or social media. Addiction is a common reason for divorce and it really doesn’t matter what the addiction is. When an attachment to something overrides your ability to be constructively present to yourself and your partner, to the point that you or your spouse chronically and compulsively choose whatever that thing is over the marriage, it is a form of infidelity—an emotional affair.

An addict will face losing you and choose that thing over you anyway. They will usually find a way to justify it until they reach a point where they can’t cope with the consequences any more. At this point, they have to address their addiction and give it up, or keep doing it while giving up other parts of their life, from jobs and friends to spouses and children. Losing a spouse who you love is a consequence, but sadly, looking down the barrel of that loss is often not enough to keep the addict from engaging in the behavior. It’s never too late to give up an addiction, but it is sometimes too late to repair a relationship with a partner who came in second place to that addiction one too many times.

6. The Need to be Right

This tends to go beyond a partner who is just being a Know-it-All. There is a profound and constant need to be right, to be the “good guy” in the dynamic that seems to come from a deep-seated need to be in a position of authority, stemming from a need for control. It isn’t necessarily something the person is conscious of and can originate from trauma hangover, fear of loss, and/or a deep-seated, foundational insecurity, etc.

We might think of it as “White Hat” or “Podium Syndrome”, and it seems to incorporate everything from chronically talking over the other person in a conversation to condescension or maintaining an attitude that they know you better than you do. Inexorably analytical, the need to be right is defensiveness with a Ph.D. It is a polite war of attrition. It is scrutiny that’s done its homework.

7. The Power Differential

We live on a dualistic little planet: male-female, good-bad, dark-light, Republican-Democrat, God-Devil, happy-sad, yin-yang, dominant-passive, and on and on. We embrace shades in between; far more mainstream now are third and fourth gender assignments, the value of a multiple-party political system, the concept of many paths to “God” or however we define divinity, or don’t, and on we go. But we humans love our compare-and-contrast. In that vein, there may be a leader in a relationship, one partner who may be more alpha, or who has more influence in the ways we assign practical power. But unless that comes with an equal balance of power in the other partner somewhere else in the relationship, the scales are tipped to one side.

This hallmark of a toxic marriage leaves one person to stand and beat their chest, and the other to hobble along or be carried. If the more powerful partner seems to be actively engaged in maintaining a position of authority and keeping the power differential tipped toward them, this is where the marriage becomes toxic. Conversely, if the less dominant partner is engaging in learned helplessness or playing the victim–thereby wiggling out of carrying their share of the relationship’s workload, that is also toxic.


What action steps can you take (without risk of regret) if you are contemplating divorce? We’re so glad you asked. Consider our 36 Things to Do If You Are Thinking about Divorce.


8. Cross-Examination vs. Conversation

There are questions of interest and mutual understanding, and a give and take in an exchange of ideas, plans, thoughts, observations. Cross-examination on the part of a spouse, however, is not a sign of interest. Rather, it’s the mark of someone who not only has something to prove, but also who believes themselves to be in a position of authority. There’s room for rhetorical questions in the context of a philosophical debate or sharing of perspectives, but a constant barrage of “point-proving” questions—whether they are rhetorical or cross examining—has nothing to do with wanting to understand someone better. It’s an extension of the power differential, and another sign of a toxic marriage.

A cross-examination takes the fun out of relationship banter and backs a spouse into a corner. This disempowers and confuses. It creates self-doubt and only gratifies the ego of the questioner.

9. Insecurity

It doesn’t matter what form insecurity takes, and we all have a sense when we’re being insecure. Insecurity is the Wendy Whiner Within, it is the chronic need for reassurance. We all have insecurities; we all need occasional reassurance. Occasional. The trick in being healthy about our insecurities is to talk ourselves away from them rather than constantly asking our partner do it, or ask them to curtail any activity that “makes us feel” that way. (Keeping in mind that we are making ourselves feel that way more often than not). Sometimes we need a boost, yes, but the operative word there is sometimes. We are responsible for our own insecurities; our partner is not. And in fact, there is no way to make up for foundational insecurities.

For example, a husband’s insecurity shows up as a fear of his wife cheating. As a result, he insists that she is cheating, thinks about cheating, wants to cheat, used to cheat, and therefore will again… you get the picture. Sometimes, the more she tries to reassure him, the worse the insecurity becomes, because he then starts to wonder why she’s trying so hard to convince him and twists that into further “evidence.”

Trying to fill the hole of insecurity is like trying to dig quicksand out of a pit. If it’s a chronic issue, you just have to step out of the role of filling it and say, “I’m sorry you’re contending with this, but it is yours.”

10. Jealousy

Jealousy is a symptom of insecurity and can include jealousy of someone outside the relationship or inside it. Most of us can relate to the concept of jealousy, and if we’re not personally familiar with the scenarios that draw it forth, we can imagine them. Perhaps you may have a good male friend and confidante whom your husband doesn’t like you spending time with. Perhaps your husband has an attractive female boss or student he spends time with, both at work and in networking after hours, and you don’t like it. Or perhaps you are under-realized professionally and your husband lands a promotion or makes a creative move that ends up being wildly successful while you continue working in a job you barely tolerate.

You may do a fairly good job of showing enthusiasm on his behalf and pride in his accomplishment, which would be a healthier way of responding to your jealousy. On the other hand, perhaps you undermine his joy by pouting or drawing the conversation back to you by saying something like, “Well, I’m glad one of us is making it,” with a tremulous half-smile. That is a mark of toxic jealousy in a marriage. Also, it’s an act of putting a negative spin on your partner’s positive accomplishment and making the situation about you when it is not about you at all.

11. Manipulation

Manipulation is another off-shoot of insecurity or fear. Sometimes an abused wife may have to use subterfuge or manipulation to extract herself from the situation, which we might think of as justifiable manipulation. But other times, manipulation is dishonesty in a pink bow. For example, a wife might say, “Well, I just want you to think I’m pretty” when her husband asks why she spent $300 from their monthly budget on a pair of jeans. She wanted the jeans but made a desire to please him the reason for the purchase–and put a little dollop of guilt on it just for good measure.

Sometimes a manipulation is relatively benign and in fact managing people or personnel has an element of manipulation to it. The definition of manipulation is bending or shaping something to achieve a desired effect, which doesn’t have to have malignant intention. In a toxic marriage, however, manipulation often has malicious intent, such as controlling your partner physically or mentally, or prioritizing your own needs over theirs.

12. Testing

A form of manipulation, this is where one person—unconsciously or not—creates a highly charged scenario almost guaranteed to push a partner’s buttons. When the reaction occurs, the other person steps back and remarks on how uncalled for it was, even though they intentionally created the scenario. This is closely related to gaslighting, and is a form of emotional manipulation aimed at making a partner mistrust their own feelings so that they must rely on their partner’s version of reality.

13. Lying

If you have to lie to your spouse just to navigate the relationship, that’s a fairly good indication that, at the very least, there’s an imbalance. As with manipulation, a woman who is trying to extract herself from an abusive marriage may have to lie in order to achieve that. However, if you are lying to avoid day-to-day truths you don’t want your partner to know, such as flirting with an ex-boyfriend on Facebook or applying for a new credit card because you know you just maxed another one out, this is feature of a toxic marriage. Whether it has immediate negative consequences or a build-up of disrespect for yourself and your partner over time, this level of toxicity can become very destructive.

14. Walking on Eggshells

You avoid talking about something, meaningful or otherwise, simply because you fear your partner’s reaction. Perhaps you went to lunch with that male friend of yours who your husband is jealous of and you decide on your way home not to tell him, but he sees the restaurant receipt in your purse, and now you’re holding your breath in anticipation of a tantrum or an accusation that you’re attracted to your friend, or worse, cheating.

Or perhaps your husband doesn’t tell you about getting passed over at work for a promotion because he knows you will spend the next two hours taking it personally, and then the next few years nagging him about why he didn’t get it. Those are eggshells.

Either way, this withholding of information is a sign that your marriage may have become toxic, perhaps with other factors playing into this dynamic.

15. Anger

It’s one thing to get angry at something your partner does that hurts you or is unfair. This may include getting mad over the disregarding of a boundary you’ve established in your relationship, or something that has a detrimental impact on your children or your household. We all get angry from time to time. But if anger is your go-to emotion, if that’s your regular modus operandi, then you will have a corrosive effect on everyone around you. It’s also an element that can quickly contribute to creating a toxic marriage.

16. Passive Aggression

People employ passive aggression when they want to look like they’re taking the high road but are really taking the low road and hiding it under a layer of soft-spoken words. These words often point indirectly to the source of resentment without someone actually saying what’s on his or her mind. These can be couched as jokes or light commentary but are actually designed to be punitive. Because passive aggression can easily be denied, it’s often used as a covert way to do damage without taking blame for it—a hallmark of a toxic marriage.

17. Resentment

Resentment is often at the root of passive-aggression and usually has its root in anger over an issue that’s not been addressed. It could also be part of an underlying jealousy in the relationship or perceived imbalances in power. Either way, resentment (like contempt) is a highly damaging element of toxic marriage and needs to be resolved for the relationship to survive.

18. Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a toxic behavior that’s complex enough to need its own article. This is an insidious and subtle form of emotional and psychological manipulation aimed at causing an individual to mistrust their own self-worth or emotions. A gaslighter invalidates their partner’s feelings and perceptions and instead forces them to rely on the gaslighter’s version of reality. This form of psychological control is a highly damaging sign of a toxic marriage.

Named for Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play “Gas Light,” in which the husband’s character kept dimming the lights in the house and telling his wife it was her imagination until she went insane, gaslighting is the province of someone who has a deep-seated need for control. Sometimes it’s purposeful manipulation and sometimes it’s the unconscious defense mechanism of one who needs to be right and has a difficulty taking responsibility for their own damaging behavior.

Gaslighters need to be right and may have a difficult time accepting they are capable of hurtful behaviors. Their strength is knowing their partner’s insecurities and areas of self-doubt; they can be very clever at leveraging those to undermine their partner’s perception, judgement, and self-confidence.

Common gaslighting phrases can be things like, “It’s just your imagination,” “I never said that,” “That was never my intention,” etc.

Whether it is purposeful or not, gaslighters employ subtle wordplay to resist having to acknowledge that they, like everyone else, have issues that need to be addressed. Sometimes, we are being too sensitive and sometimes a joke is just a joke, and that is where it gets tricky with a gaslighter. This is why this particular form of toxicity is difficult to combat.


For more information on how to access your marriage and your own sense of worth, read our popular  “Overthinking When to Leave Your Husband”.


19. Never Taking Responsibility for One’s Own Behavior

This sign of a toxic marriage shows up in many ways, by gaslighting, redirecting, playing the victim, making excuses, or playing the martyr. Those who do not take responsibility for their own behavior project an attitude of “being exempt.” It’s difficult to maintain a healthy relationship when one half of that relationship can never take responsibility for their actions.

20. Sabotage

Sabotage in a toxic marriage can have many forms. You drink too much to spend time with your partner, and then are too hungover the next day to help around the house. You promise to go to an event with them and then work out so hard that you injure yourself and can’t go. Maybe you promise to contribute to a household expense, project, or gift and instead spend the money on something frivolous for yourself then claim you forgot. You procrastinate to the point that you lose opportunities and income, thereby negatively impacting your family and everybody’s hopes for moving ahead.

You commit to an event but create so much drama around it that you end up not being able to participate after all. Your partner has an important interview coming up, but because you fear he might actually get the job and thereby rise and become successful and leave you in the dust, you purposely pick a fight with him the night before so he’s too disturbed to study or even sleep. Clearly, this toxic behavior is not healthy and can cause a lot of damage in a marriage.

21. Exclusion

Do you get the impression that your spouse’s co-workers don’t realize you exist? Does he take vacations and trips home to see his family without you, spending money on unnecessary collectibles instead of offering to buy you a plane ticket? Does he leave you out of his Facebook page? This is a bit of what exclusion looks like, and is an indication that there may not be full commitment, that he’s hiding the relationship from others or just himself. It is not so much a sign of disrespect, but more one of disregard or lack of cherishing.

22. Ignoring Your Own Self-Care

Perhaps all of your time and attention gets pulled into managing and meeting your spouse’s needs, to the point that you continually push aside the healthy practices you’d normally engage in—working out, preparing healthy lunches ahead of time, going to your women’s group, meditating, or journaling.

We all cycle through phases with our self-care, but when it’s chronically shunted aside, or you are clearly trying to keep up the practice but your partner evinces a cavalier or even insulting attitude about it, this is not only a sign of disrespect on their part but also a self-centered lack of love or caring.

For example, you are trying to come up with a time to complete a task or do something together, and when you ask for a different start time in order to work around your women’s group and they make a cutting remark about it. That is a clear sign of a toxic marriage. Or, you might be a Stay-at-Home-Mom, whose entire day is subject to the schedules of your children. You know you have a certain time to get the kids to school and then hurry home to complete household chores. You also know that the only time you can possibly go for a jog (your mental, physical, and emotional outlet) is during a particular window of time each day.

But your husband calls you when you’ve just laced up your sneakers, wanting to remind you to process the health insurance bills today. You are quick to say you’ll get to those bills but right now, you need to go for your run. Your husband stops you cold with, “How selfish of you, prioritizing yourself again.” You hang up the phone. Do you go for your run or do you angrily go find the health insurance folder?

23. Physical Illness

Stress can cause physical symptoms, whether that stress stems from emotional, circumstantial or self-created situations. For example, physical illness may occur in the form of a migraine or low back pain when one person is doing the bulk of the work in the relationship and is the only one putting forth the effort to move it forward. Perhaps everything in the household revolves around an illness-prone spouse whose “flair-ups” somehow occur whenever something that threatens her sense of control or need for constant attention happens. The other spouse then has to take up the slack, and in the face of the added work and pressure, overdoes it and ends up with a slipped disc, pneumonia, or adrenal fatigue.

Physical illness is often the cumulative result of chronic stress and living inside a toxic marriage. (Tip: Schedule a doctor’s appointment.)

24. Draining

Self-created, physical illness is one way that married people can drain each other. We often create our own illness with our lifestyle choices. For example, a drain on the marriage might be a husband or wife who continually engages in self-sabotaging behaviors, like over-consumption of alcohol or unhealthy foods. You know this will make you feel lousy and lead to things like sleep deprivation or excessive weight gain, thus negatively impacting your relationship and yourself, but you do it anyway. That is a drain. Likewise, corrosive emotions like anger that are a constant presence are also draining. A chronically negative, bitter, or pessimistic attitude is draining.

Talking over your spouse, to the point that you drown out what they are saying so that you don’t have to face an uncomfortable truth about yourself, is draining. Other drains might be having to provide constant reassurance to an anxious spouse; catering to one person’s chronic and bottomless need for admiration, affirmation, attention or rescuing; constantly interrupting; brow-beating; playing the martyr; playing the victim…

25. Lack of Empathy

All of us can be selfish, and the ability to see and feel the truth of something from someone else’s perspective is sometimes hard-won, especially if it means we have to take an uncomfortable look at ourselves. There are people, though, who either can’t or won’t take any interest in what someone else might be experiencing. They see those around them as only existing to serve them.

Not only do they not care about the feelings of the people in their lives but they often see those people as characters in their play, so to speak. You might know them as narcissists, a well-known buzz word these days.

26. Exploitation

The same individuals who lack empathy or feel entitled to the spotlight may even co-opt a spouse or a child’s accomplishments as their own—seeing the people around them in supporting roles only. If the people in their lives stop performing well—thus reflecting on them poorly—or balk at serving their agendas or their needs, they withdrawal love, withhold approval, or issue some other consequence. Narcissists often form relationships on the basis of how the dynamic will serve them. They also do not possess the ability to see their own narcissism.

27. Lack of Listening

If one person in a relationship is doing most of the talking, particularly if they are “always right,” it’s probably going to be difficult for them to hear from the people in their lives that their behavior is hurtful. We all have behavior that is toxic or hurtful at times, so the ability to hear others when they ask us to address our own behavior is foundational to healthy relationships. Toxic behavior involves telling other people how they can improve but showing inability to take direction.

Despite all the ways that people and relationships can be toxic, though, they can heal, provided both people commit to doing the work. Whether it’s couple’s counseling or self-help, both parties must be willing (and able) to do the work required to negotiate healthy boundaries and communicate in a way that makes everyone feel valued.

Notes:

Jennifer Bent is a freelance writer, former print journalist and feature writer living on the West Coast. Nicknamed Verbose at a young age, she loves word craft but has to keep a short leash on her fondness for the profane. Jennifer enjoys compelling content and the liberty to write about interesting contributors and innovative ideas. Connect with Jennifer at verbosej@hotmail.com 

 

Since 2012, SAS for Women has focused on the unexpected challenges women face while considering a divorce and navigating the divorce experience. SAS offers women six FREE months of email coaching, action plans, checklists and support strategies for you, and your future. Join our tribe and stay connected.

*We support same-sex marriages. For the sake of simplicity in this article, however, we refer to your spouse as your “husband” or a “he.”

Suing the other woman

Suing the Other Woman

A recent lawsuit in North Carolina has called attention to the presence of “the other woman” as a cause of divorce.

There are only six states left where a woman (or man) can file this kind of lawsuit—the other five being Mississippi, South Dakota, Hawaii, New Mexico and Utah. The legal suit, termed “alienation of affection” and its precedent dates back to the 1800s when women were still considered property. Initially, only men could make such a claim. That right shifted later to married women as well, but most states have repealed the dated laws in part because they were vehicles for revenge, greed, and blackmail. There is also the slipperiness of trying to litigate what makes a good marriage. Even the most practiced lawyer might find that tying the ideals of partnership, commitment, respect, and trust to the pragmatic iron of money is a bit like trying to put the mercury back into the thermometer.

In the case of N.C. residents Elizabeth Clark vs. Adam Clark (U.S. Army Major, Special Forces) and Dr. Kimberly Barrett (U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel and an ob-gyn at Womack Army Medical Center), the questions of infidelity and revenge include both the plaintiff and defendant. Both Clarks cheated on each other during their marriage, but later renewed their vows and went to marriage counseling. Regarding the issue of revenge, the former Mrs. Clark sought and won punitive damages against Barret for alienation of affection.

Details of The Clark v. Clark Case

The motivation for seeking these damages may have had more to do with child support than revenge, as Major Clark allegedly refused to pay most of it on behalf of the two children the couple had together. In retaliation, Clark posted nude pictures of his now-ex-wife on dating web sites, along with the claim that she had sexually transmitted diseases. Aside from being against the military code of conduct and behavior unbecoming of an officer, these were pictures that Clark had sent to her husband while they were married. He had been the only recipient—the only one, that is, before he made them public and publicly humiliating.

Revenge and punishment make up one aspect of the Clark v. Clark case.

Another is the question of property—begging the question addressed in some articles of whether it is possible to steal a spouse as a thief might steal a car or necklace. Marriage does involve property, but holding to the idea that such lawsuits are not valid from a humanist/feminist perspective because they sustain the antiquated, demeaning idea that the spouses themselves are property is one-dimensional. A more accurate interpretation is that this is far less about property than it is about a spouse violating a contract—that promise to love and cherish that are typically part of the marriage vows.

The Other Woman

It is not the “Other Woman” who made that vow; it is the spouse who is responsible for his (or her) end of that stick.

So why should a spurned wife go after the other woman for punitive damages—an action characterized as simply revenge, just a way to lash out at her for being his new choice?

The spouse breaks the vow; why should the other woman be on the hook for a promise he made? Because, in making the decision to get involved with and pursue a lasting relationship with a married man, the other woman is an agent of that contract violation.


If you are dealing with infidelity, consider reading What to Do With Your Cheating Spouse


She may not have made any promises to the wife of her lover, and she may not have signed a non-compete clause, and he may have cheated with someone else if he hadn’t with her.

But the fact remains: she helped him cheat.

There are grey areas, of course, and love does make things messy with some frequency. Occasionally, the spouse who is being betrayed is venal or toxic or has some other aspect of character that their mate finds unsustainable and unlivable. People are also organic; they change and grow, and the partners who once fit now don’t, and both of you may now fit and feel better with someone else. The other woman may have been one agent of a marriage’s demise, but there are almost certainly others, and it is not often appropriate or healthy to blame her. One could make intellectual and spiritual arguments about the role of the “other” in a marriage.

Professional Implications

Cheating may not be illegal in most cases or most states, but it is a question of ethics–particularly for a woman who took the Hippocratic Oath to “abstain from that which is deleterious or mischievous.” (Technically that does only pertain to patients, though). We may not marry the guy or the gal, but when we mess around with a married person, we help them cheat. Grey areas or not, who took the vow or not, that fact does remain.

In the case of Dr. Kimberly Barrett, not only has she made a high-powered, highly educated career out of facilitating the birth of other women’s families, she sat there in the courtroom and watched her lover denounce the love he told his wife he had for her all along. He said out loud on legal record that he lied to her, and Barrett watched with complicity, so that she could avoid responsibility for her participation in the corrosion of another woman’s marriage.

Apparently, the court agreed that she was culpable. On charges of alienation-of-affection, libel and revenge porn, Clark (a Fayetteville bartender) won $3.2 million from her ex-husband and his (new) wife.

Facing Facts

All grey areas, intellectual and spiritual perspectives and angles aside for the moment, it does make you want to ask, “How dare you?” to both parties, as Annette Benning’s character in the new movie Hope Gap says to that other woman, after her husband of 29 years tells her he is leaving her for his new love.

Not only did Clark cheat on his wife (as have hundreds of thousands of other spouses, male and female, across the globe), he stood up and testified in court that he never loved her, despite telling her throughout their marriage that he did. Barrett and Clark used the defense that Clark never loved his wife; ergo, Barrett wasn’t guilty of despoiling the sanctity of anything. The court disagreed.

To a sharper point than alienation of affection laws, then, perhaps one should give more focus to making illegal and subject to punitive damages the practice of marrying someone and maintaining that marriage under false emotional pretenses.

Notes:

Jennifer Bent is a freelance writer, former print journalist and feature writer living on the West Coast. Nicknamed Verbose at a young age, she loves word craft but has to keep a short leash on her fondness for the profane. Jennifer enjoys compelling content and the liberty to write about interesting contributors and innovative ideas. Connect with Jennifer at verbosej@hotmail.com 

Since 2012, smart women around the world have chosen SAS for Women to partner them through the emotional, financial, and oft times complicated experience of divorce and reinvention. SAS offers women six FREE months of email coaching, action plans, checklists and support strategies for you, and your future. Join our tribe and stay connected.

*We support same-sex marriages. For the sake of simplicity in this article, however, we refer to your spouse as your “husband” or a “he.”

When Your Child Refuses to Visit Father

5 Must Do’s When Your Child Refuses to Visit Their Father

One of the more complex issues in coparenting after divorce is balancing your needs with your child’s needs. This is especially challenging when your child refuses to visit a parent based on the agreements made with your coparent, such as visitation time.

Some children do not want to spend time with their father* or other parent and refuse to go. This may be because of inconvenience in their life schedule: preferring to be with friends, participating in a planned event, avoiding the hassles of changing homes, travel, etc.

More troublesome is when the refusal is of a more emotional nature: saying I don’t have fun at daddy’s house, I don’t like daddy, he’s too strict, there’s nothing to do, he doesn’t spend any time with me, etc.

Obviously, the emotional argument demands more attention to unravel what’s going on.

And it requires your most objective perspective focused on listening, acknowledging, and responding as well as looking within.

  1. LISTEN ATTENTIVELY

Ask questions and listen to your child’s response about what they’re feeling—and try to figure out why your child refuses to visit their other parent. Put yourself in your child’s shoes and see the world from their perspective, without judgment. Reflect back to your child what you hear them saying to make sure you’re understanding them correctly. Respond with kindness and compassion, even if you don’t agree.

If you can, come up with alternative solutions or options: a time change, new agreements, more space for their things. Suggest you’ll have a conversation with dad if that’s appropriate—or perhaps they can have that conversation themselves.

  1. ACKNOWLEDGE THEIR FEELINGS

Don’t discount your child’s feelings or wishes. Don’t dismiss them as foolish or unrealistic. Tell them they have the right to anger, fear, frustration or other feelings. They also have the right to express their emotions—but without infringing on other people’s rights.

Children need to know they are not bad or wrong for resisting things they don’t like. However, life is full of obstacles that we have to cope with. Let’s look for solutions. But keep in mind you are the adult who is making decisions. Be sure they are mature, rational, compassionate decisions for everyone involved, including dad.

  1. RESPOND WITH SUGGESTIONS AND QUESTIONS

Can your child come up with a solution that is also fair to dad? Is dad being fair with them? If not, what can we do to make things better?

Should they talk to him so he has an opportunity to respond and address the issues? Should we have a family conference together, if possible?

Other questions: Are their ways to change the circumstances to find a middle-ground or compromise? What can your child do to adapt to the situation more easily? What can dad do to change the visiting experience?

  1. REFLECT ON YOUR OWN INFLUENCE

Are you letting your own feelings about dad impact your child? Kids pick up not only on what is said, but on facial expressions, intonations, and other non-verbal cues. If your child knows you don’t respect dad, or hears you talk about him to others in a derogatory manner, your child will want to refuse to visit in defense and support of you. But is that fair to their father?


When is it parental estrangement, and when is it parental alienation? Read more to understand what’s going on with your coparent and what can happen when your child refuses to visit a parent.


It’s important for you to keep your objections to yourself. Don’t confide negative opinions to your child. Don’t let them feel guilty for loving their other parent. And don’t encourage them to demean their other parent who loves them.

  1. TALK TO YOUR COPARENT

Whenever possible, discuss these issues with dad to create a plan you both can agree on. Encourage more interaction and communication between visits on phone or video to build a low-stress bond.

Consider reaching out to a therapist or divorce coach as an objective party supporting a peaceful resolution. This is especially important before bringing these issues into the court or legal proceedings.

Discuss ways to make the visit transitions as easy and stress-free as possible. In addition, be sure your child can call you when they are away for emotional support. Be positive and reassuring on these conversations. Don’t add guilt to the dynamic at hand by stressing how much you miss them. Let them know you’ll be busy while they’re away so they needn’t worry about you and your feelings.

A child who refuses to visit and doesn’t want to spend time with their father is a child in pain. It’s important to address the underlying factors contributing to this situation as quickly as you can. Get the support you need so you can support your child in the best possible ways while respecting the father-child relationship at the same time.

 

Notes

Rosalind Sedacca, CDC is the founder of the Child-Centered Divorce Network, a Divorce & Co-Parenting Coach and author of numerous books, e-courses and programs on divorcing with children and co-parenting successfully. For instant download of her FREE EBOOK on Doing Co-Parenting Right: Success Strategies For Avoiding Painful Mistakes! go to: childcentereddivorce.com/book

Since 2012, SAS for Women is entirely dedicated to the unexpected challenges women face while considering a divorce and navigating the divorce experience and its confusing afterward. SAS offers women six FREE months of email coaching, action plans, checklists and support strategies for you, and your future. Join our tribe and stay connected.

 

* SAS for Women is an all-women website. At SAS, we respect same-sex marriages.  For the sake of simplicity in this article, we refer to your spouse as a male.

Divorce Guilt

The 5 Sides to Divorce Guilt

The process of divorce is harrowing enough. It’s physically, emotionally, and financially draining. It’s life-altering for everyone involved. And it comes with a guaranteed grief cycle in its wake. So the idea of adding divorce guilt to the heap of undesirable feelings seems almost, well, unfair.

Guilt is the usual accompaniment to having done something wrong or bad. It’s the expected emotional reaction for someone with a conscience in the aftermath of going against his or her moral compass.

But guilt is actually multi-faceted and is sometimes warranted, sometimes not. It’s on the spectrum of negative emotions driven by thoughts.

Underlying this whole concept of guilt is a Freudian treasure chest of theories involving thought, behavior, upbringing, and even sexuality. Add religion to the mix, and guilt can become a Beast with a capital B.

So what exactly is divorce guilt?

And why does it exist even for those who have made the painful decision to divorce for the right reasons?

In cognitive theory, there are five types of guilt:

  1. Guilt for something you did.
  2. Guilt for something you didn’t do, but want to.
  3. Guilt for something you think you did.
  4. Guilt that you didn’t do enough to help someone.
  5. Guilt that you’re doing better than someone else.

And divorce guilt can bear shades of any or all of these types.

Take, for example, the first and most obvious: divorce guilt for something you did. 

1. Guilt for What You Did

Infidelity is likely the first trespass that comes to mind. Cheating on your spouse, regardless of how or why and regardless of how the infidelity is discovered, can cause irrevocable damage.

Even with agonizing remorse and repentance on the part of the unfaithful, you can’t undo infidelity.  Often, you cannot transcend it.

Knowing that your marriage has been lost because of a choice you made—regardless of your reasons—can leave you with profound guilt.

We expect people who “misbehave” to bear an appropriate amount of guilt and healthy shame.

But perpetual rumination by the guilty serves no good, even if the harm caused has led to an irreversible consequence like divorce.

There is, of course, always the choice to actively learn from the destructive behavior and work to change your contributing thoughts and behavior patterns going forward.

2. Guilt for Having Thoughts

You may even feel guilty for contemplating or fantasizing about things you’ve never followed through on doing.

What if you have lain awake at night, wondering what life would be like on your own or with someone else?

What if you fantasized about someone from work who makes you feel comfortable, heard, and alive?

Even if you’ve never acted on these notions, is it possible that they have drawn energy away from your marriage? Is it possible that your inner voice has actually been heard and has hurt your spouse or your marriage?

Again, rumination beyond insightful reflection can be counterproductive in the long term.

3. Guilt for What You Did NOT Do

One of the most frequent causes of divorce guilt falls under the category of “believing you didn’t do enough.”

You want to leave or already have, but you feel guilty because your marriage doesn’t have the “drama” to justify divorce.

This is always a difficult guilt to grapple with because it challenges your very sense of relationship, commitment, and doing your best.

You may compare your marriage story to that of others who have far more “obvious” reasons to leave. You’re not being abused or neglected. Your husband isn’t a bad man.

Shouldn’t you be counting your blessings? Aren’t you being ungrateful? Do you even “deserve” to get a divorce and move on with your life?

What about all that unsolicited advice from family and friends who tell you to count your blessings? Are you missing something here—being selfish, “just going through a phase,” not seeing what’s right in front of you?

What if he provides for you and your family? What if your life seemingly checks off all the white-picket-fence boxes?

You may wonder if this is all just part of being married and if it will happen again if you enter another relationship.

Or you may have wanted the divorce but wonder why you feel so sad. Is it because of guilt? Is it because you really want to stay but don’t know what to do to make things better?

What if he left you? What if he was unfaithful at some point? Why on earth would you feel guilty?

And yet, maybe you do. Maybe there is a nagging realization beneath your hurt that says, “There were signs. I had an opportunity to work on things with him. And I had things I could have changed, but I didn’t. I missed the opportunity. And now look….”

4. Survivor’s Guilt

You may also feel guilt because you were the one who pushed for the marriage, and now you want out. Was your husband right all along about wanting to wait? Should you have waited?

And what if you’re the one who moves on more quickly and easily or who has more financial success after the divorce? This is a form of “survivor’s guilt” that can tug at your heart, especially if you genuinely want your ex to be happy.

5. Parental Guilt

There is, of course, one form of divorce guilt that is likely to affect both you and your (soon to be?) Ex: guilt over the children.

They didn’t ask for this. They didn’t cause this (even though children often believe they did and end up suffering their own form of “divorce guilt”).

They’re innocent bystanders—defenseless, voiceless, penniless, and essentially powerless.

Guilt over children can plague you for years to come. And children can help perpetuate it in an effort to manipulate or blame their parents.

So how do you deal with, let alone mitigate, that understandable form of divorce guilt?

How do you stop the nagging questions, “Should I have stayed for the kids? Will they be damaged by the divorce? And will they be okay without both parents around? Will they blame me for all the changes in their lives?”

The choice you both have, of course, is how you navigate your divorce and your lives after it’s over.

You can go at it like The War of the Roses. Or you can approach it like two people whose primary role in life is that of parents.

You can set your children up for success and happiness. You can help them see the hope in their future.

And you do that by being mature in your handling of the divorce, even when things get tedious or confrontational. You lead with your children’s welfare and highest good.

And you draw into your circle of professionals those who will prioritize your children as part of your divorce recovery.

Divorce Recovery

Divorce is a rending experience. But the space created by the brokenness can be seen and used as an opportunity for growth and stronger connections.

Buried at the root of guilt is a lifetime of built-in thoughts: “I’m not worthy. I don’t deserve (fill in the blank). I am responsible for everyone’s happiness. If something goes wrong, it’s my fault. I shouldn’t feel (fill in the blank).”

Because the emotion of guilt is a spur of the thought process, dealing with it effectively involves dealing with your thoughts. The enlightenment of your thoughts will ultimately light the way to your future by releasing the guilt of the past. Working with a divorce coach and therapist can greatly help with these feelings.

 

If you are considering or dealing with divorce, or recreating your life in its afterward, you are invited to experience SAS for Women firsthand and schedule your free, 15-minute consultation. Whether you work further with us or not, we’ll help you understand your next, black-and-white steps for walking into your brave unknown—with compassion and integrity.

*We support same-sex marriages. For the sake of simplicity in this article, however, we refer to your spouse as your “husband” or a “he.”

Unconditional love

How to Reconcile Unconditional Love and Divorce

All of us have the capacity for unconditional love. However, while this lofty concept is an ideal we can nurture in ourselves, it is not at all appropriate to hold ourselves to it as a gold standard if it is to the exclusion of our own well-being. For this reason, the value of unconditional love can become difficult during divorce.

In fact, many experts believe that no one should throw themselves under the bus of a marriage, or indeed, any relationship, in an attempt to love without boundary. We can love and forgive, accept, understand, and nurture. We can also operate lovingly at a deficit for a while; sometimes our person needs more support and doesn’t have it to give back. This is a situational love deficit, though, not a chronic one. There are healthy conditions for love and there are unhealthy ones. The idea that we must love this way, regardless of how we are loved and treated by the other person in the relationship, is a dangerous one.

Understanding Unconditional Love and Divorce

At the risk of oversimplification, let’s use the following metaphor. To expect unconditional love from ourselves for a spouse is a bit like the pedestrian right-of-way law. It is a great and necessary guideline in theory but in practical application, it is potentially destructive. It’s great if both parties are respectful of the other. However, giving 100 percent of the benefit of the doubt to one partner at all times means that one of them becomes a martyr instead of an equal participant.

The concept of unconditional love was originally coined in the 1930s by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm. Psychologist and A Way of Being author Carol Rogers later expanded on the concept, which he coined as “unconditional positive regard”. While the loving acceptance and non-judgmental receptivity to the whole person that is inherent in Rogers’ philosophy is worth emulating, a therapist is in a much different and much less emotionally vulnerable position than a spouse. The client-therapist relationship might be a symbiotic one, but it is not an intimate partnership.

When I say that the online articles about this concept are often cautionary about some forms of unconditional love, there are still some who attempt to lock spouses into unconditional love by taking a stringently religious, anti-divorce angle. And even those articles spend an awful lot of time circling the issue with scriptural quotations rather than analysis.

Religion and Unconditional Love

Some pastors take a more metaphorical interpretation of religious texts, while others hold a black-and-white interpretation of what Christianity means and what the Bible asks of marriages and spouses. Both can be incredibly supportive of women considering divorce, but the latter can be more apt to counsel women to stay in marriages where abuse runs rampant. All humans are flawed, even church leaders, so if this is happening to you, please consider that we can all have opinions that are skewed a bit too much by bias and seek a third opinion—whether from a divorce coach, therapist or lawyer. Family members often carry the same bias and while well-meaning, they are not always the best source of help when you are unsure.


For healthy action steps, you may wish to read “36 Things to Do If You are Thinking About Divorce.”


While acknowledging that perhaps all world religions weigh in on the subject of unconditional love, this piece only uses Christianity as a point of extrapolation for simplicity’s sake. Not all the religiously inclined online authors take this “unconditional love at the cost of ourselves” perspective, though.

What Scripture Says

The term unconditional love is mentioned on the Bible. However, there are conditions that exist, particularly within the relationship between deity and religious adherent. One example of this is the repentance required for forgiveness, and the Ten Commandments could certainly be viewed as conditions.

“And this is perhaps the nuance we need when thinking about unconditional acceptance. Love calls us to honor the emotions and experiences of others but not to accept any and all behaviors that arise out of these emotions.

This would tend to argue against the idea that unconditional love is synonymous with blind devotion. It challenges the idea that a devout Christian woman must stay in a marriage even if her spouse is abusive, or that she must acquiesce to our children’s tantrums without curbing them.

What We can Learn from Other Forms of Love

Some of the writers claimed that a mother’s love is the closest thing we have to unconditional love on this planet. To a point, this seems to head in the direction of truth (although it is not to suggest that mothers are perfect or on the hook for being so, and indeed, anyone who has seen the true-story movies Mommy Dearest or Precious know that mothers are just as capable of love’s opposite as anyone else). But mothers who are trying to be their best do reach a place of selflessness with their children. They embody a complete willingness to make the facilitation of their child’s life a priority over their own. That is certainly a facet of unconditional love.

I would say that a dog’s love is the closest thing to unconditional love, and I think that the saying “God is Dog Spelled Backwards” is as accurate an assessment of a spiritual truth as any from the great spiritual leaders.

But even a mother has to set limits with her children. A parent must say “no” occasionally; it is not very loving to take an “anything goes” attitude with a child. That she loves them is unquestionable. But to love without enforcing rules or requiring a code of behavior confuses permissiveness for love. One could make the same argument for a spouse.

The Takeaway

Many people misinterpret unconditional love. It is not spiritually or emotionally mature to go into a long-term relationship with the agenda that we can love our spouse only if they maintain a certain level of wealth and success or if they maintain their 30-year-old physique at 60 or as long as they remain wrinkle-free. This entitled, exclusionary, transactional thinking comes based on conditions somewhat outside our partner’s control.

But it is a mark of self-esteem to go into a long-term relationship with the understanding that we can expect emotional symbiosis—that we love and respect one another to the best of our ability, make allowances on occasion, sustain patience in the face of occasional spats or crankiness, nurture in the face of illness. The golden rule of treating someone the way we would want them to treat us does go both ways, though.

You can love someone completely and even forgive them the very worst abuse without staying married to them. It’s also possible to love from a distance and sometimes that is the only way.

You do not have to stay with someone in order to love them. The only fully enforceable covenant is the one we make to both love ourselves and also be spiritually present by taking responsibility for ourselves and our actions.

If we’re all children of divine love, then we can assume that we are as deserving of that kind of regard as our spouse. Unconditional love does not expect us to tolerate abuse or chronic disrespect, and is therefore perfectly compatible with divorce. Love doesn’t seek to make doormats of us.

Notes

Jennifer Bent is a freelance writer, former print journalist and feature writer living on the West Coast. Nicknamed Verbose at a young age, she loves word craft but has to keep a short leash on her fondness for the profane. Jennifer enjoys compelling content and the liberty to write about interesting contributors and innovative ideas. Connect with Jennifer at verbosej@hotmail.com 

 

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*SAS for Women is an all-women website. At SAS we respect same-sex marriages. However, for the sake of simplicity in this article we refer to your spouse as a male.