If you are asking yourself this question, you need to know you are not alone. Our families in the United States did not ring in the new year prepared for the total upheaval our lives would take so quickly beginning as early as February 2020. When Coronavirus arrived to disrupt our American liberties, we did not have time to even get toilet paper stocked, much less think about enhancing our conflict resolution skills for what would become a very long period of family isolation.
Therefore, it is not a surprise that people are reexamining their marriage relationships. That’s exactly what happened in China. According to various news reports, provinces throughout China reported record-high numbers of divorce filings in early March, leading to long backlogs in the divorces. China had been optimistically hoping for a baby boom, rolling out campaigns encouraging couples to support the nation by getting busy in the bedroom, and even loosening the one-child policy. However, it appears that being quarantined together does not make the heart grow fonder.
What causes a “good marriage” to fail? As a divorce attorney, I have spent significant time with hundreds of clients helping them through the divorce process. While experts recite dramatic events, such as infidelity or money problems, as the cause of a divorce, I have found these are really symptoms of a marriage that is already broken. Throughout my practice, I have noticed that previously “good marriages” tend to fail due to complacency, uncommon interests, and failure to connect.
Complacency. Complacency happens when couples take each other for granted, and stop showing appreciation and gratitude for their partner. It’s so easy to become comfortable in your stretchy sweat pants (especially when quarantined), and to stop putting effort into showing up for your partner in a way that says, “you are important to me.” If you recognize this feeling of complacency in your own heart, I would challenge you to find something you can do for your partner tomorrow. Bring him or her a cup of coffee in the morning, write a little love note with something you appreciate about your partner, or go out of your way to help your partner do one of his or her daily chores. It may or may not bring a smile to their face – but it won’t make your situation worse. And it might even ignite a spark.
Uncommon Interests. It’s not unusual for individuals in a marriage to have different interests. In a healthy marriage, couples will support each other in their common and separate interests, and may even go along to events that are not really “of interest” to that spouse out of care and concern for their partner. In couples facing marital difficulty, however, there is no effort to show support for the interests of the other partners. Couples stop spending time together, even when they’re stuck in the same living quarters round the clock. Instead of cooking meals together, or starting a garden one of you has always wanted to have, you spend time on your devices, distancing from each other. If you have stopped showing any interest in the things that matter to your spouse, think about whether you are willing to give up an evening to do something with your partner that he or she wants to do. You might just find a new “common interest.”
Failure to Connect. It is easy to become disconnected in marriage, especially in relationships where there is a lot of blame and criticism. So many couples struggle with trying to connect because they don’t know how to talk about the stuff that’s really bothering them, so they stop talking at all. Of course, the real “connector” in a marriage is sexual intimacy. It is not unusual for many divorcing couples to admit they’ve been living in a marriage without sexual intimacy for an extended period of time, in some cases more than ten years. If you’ve stopped having sex with your spouse, that is a serious red flag. For most people who have gone without sexual intimacy for a long time, it can be very difficult to reignite that spark. You should consider speaking with a therapist trained in this area, even before you approach your spouse about this issue. There may be underlying health or emotional issues that need to be dealt with compassionately so you don’t add fuel to the fire.
When couples become complacent, lose interest, and forget how to connect, they become vulnerable to the external forces that ultimately result in divorce, like infidelity.
If you are afraid your marriage is on the rocks, what should you do? Now is the time for you to get really clear about your values, your options, and ultimately your decision.
- Clarify your Values. If you are questioning whether your marriage will survive, you are no doubt fighting an internal battle of value conflicts. On the one hand, you value marriage and family. You don’t want your children to grow up in a broken home. On the other hand, there may be other values you have regarding your own personal goals and dreams, that cannot be fulfilled in your marriage. It may be very difficult for you to identify what you value, if you ‘ve spent years trying to please everyone around you. Now is the time to get really clear about what YOU value. What do you want your children to learn about marriage and family from the example you are setting for them?
- Understand your Options. So often, when people think about divorce, they have preconceived ideas about divorce that bear no resemblance to reality. One of the best things you can do is explore all the options available to you. Spend an hour with a divorce attorney to get a better understanding of what divorce might mean in your situation. Learn about different process options, such as Collaborative Divorce. Research different therapists, and learn about Discernment Counseling, which is not marriage therapy, but rather provides a means for a couple together to discern whether they are each willing to do what they can do to save their marriage. Whenever you feel stuck in situation, you need to know you always have options. Exploring those options will help you make an empowered decision.
- Make a Decision. The most important thing you will do is make a decision. Sitting on the fence is painful. So many people live their lives sitting on the fence, not really committing to their marriage, but not having the courage to call it quits, either.
If being quarantined in your home with your partner has brought to light the dysfunction in your marriage, now is the time to decide what you are going to do to fix it. Will you double down on efforts to restore your marriage, by investing in your partner, supporting his or her interests, showing gratitude and building connection? Or, if it’s too late, will you choose divorce. Divorce is not a destination, or a defining moment. It is a process, with a beginning and an end, that prepares you for the next chapter in your life. What will you decide?
Jennifer S. Hargrave is a family law attorney in Dallas, Texas, and is Board Certified by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. She is the owner of Hargrave Family Law. www.HargraveFamilyLaw.com