Dear Dr. Yael,
My husband and I are married for over 20 years. Our children are all teenagers, and are either in yeshiva dorming or away from home. We fight a lot. Neither of us are abusive, and we are debating if we should stay married or get divorced because of all of the fighting. We know that for shidduchim, it is better that we stay married; however, we are both unhappy together. We had many good years, but in the past few years, we have grown apart. I think my husband wants to stay married more than I do. He has a clean home and good meals. He is happy in his career, and I love my career as well. I think divorcing will be harder for him, as I take care of everything and I run our lives. People think that we are the perfect couple, but we live very separate lives at this point. Please give us some insight on this matter.
A Confused Wife
Dear Confused Wife,
I am sorry to hear that you are unhappy. Sometimes, people think divorce is easy, but in reality, divorce is hard on everyone. It may seem more challenging to stay married; however, getting divorced will affect your children, their shidduchim, and both you and your husband. You say in your letter that you had many good years. I am assuming that this means that you both used to enjoy each other and enjoy being together. This is very important as it means that there is something there to save! Although it may be challenging to rekindle your marriage, it will ultimately be most rewarding. You claim there is no abuse in the marriage, so I am comfortable encouraging you to work hard to reclaim the special marriage that you once had. When there is abuse, my answer would be different, as you cannot usually save an abusive marriage (unless the abuser is able to work on himself/herself tremendously and change his/her ways).
A lot of people think they will be happier getting divorced, as they do not find their marriage fulfilling or happy anymore. The truth is that divorce is really, really hard. Besides the astronomical financial loss, there is also a significant emotional loss. There are two different issues that people deal with during the emotional roller coaster of divorce. First, there is the difficult process of revamping your personal identity. Post-divorce, individuals struggle with the idea of, “If I’m not a part of a couple, then who am I?” Many of those invitations to do “couple things” dry up very quickly. After a divorce, people find themselves without their friends and social circle. Most of the time, couple friends do not want to take sides and feel uncomfortable with inviting only one person. Most of the time people feel more lonely after a divorce. Another idea that is difficult to process is “How am I going to do this on my own?” While the thought of not having to take care of your husband anymore may be tantalizing at first, you may feel less fulfilled and more alone once you’re actually in that situation.
Second, there is the grief of losing a loved one. Even though you may not feel the same loving feelings towards your husband right now, divorce is a real loss and it’s important to take these feelings into account before taking any action towards a divorce.
Individuals at the crossroads of divorce, like you appear to be, sometimes struggle with a false choice: “Do I divorce so that I can find happiness again, or do I keep the family together and remain unhappy?” This is not really the choice you are facing because most unhappy marriages can become happy again, if couples can stick it out and work on rebuilding their happiness. While some divorces are necessary, many marriages can be repaired.
It may be hard for you and your husband to face the issues that you are struggling with, but research suggests that couples who can put in the hard work to stay together usually end up much happier down the road than couples who decided to divorce. I have had many patients who express regret that they and their ex-spouse did not work harder to try to save their marriage. In the end, divorce did not make their life better and they suffered terribly.
Instead of contemplating divorce, use these feelings as a wake-up call to work on your marriage. Please seek professional help to work on making your life happier. This will likely consist of you and your husband doing things to make you feel happier with yourselves (exercise, doing things you love to do, eating and sleeping better, etc.) and of you and your husband learning how to communicate effectively again. It will likely be important to date again. Do you and your husband complement each other? Do you do things that you enjoy together? Are you good to each other? Instead of focusing on all the fighting, perhaps you both can focus on how to make each other happy again. Of course, this won’t be as easy as it sounds. Additionally, it appears that you are in a negative cycle, but that doesn’t mean that you cannot fight hard to get out of the negative cycle and start a new positive cycle. Working on your marriage now can strengthen it tremendously and give you a lot of joy and happiness. It will take a lot of honesty for each of you to take personal responsibility for your contributions to the problems that you are facing, but if you both choose to invest in your relationship, instead of continuing to repeat the same mistakes again and again, you will likely avoid an unnecessary divorce. Divorce may seem like the easy way out, but it definitely will not make your life easier.
I implore you and your husband to please try to seek an excellent marriage counselor who will help you strengthen your relationship and rebuild your happiness. Make sure you are clear when you find a therapist that you do not want to get divorced, and that you would like to enrich your relationship and find the happiness you once had. Hatzlocha in this difficult, but special journey! May you be zoche to a beautiful bayis ne’eman b’yisrael.