5 Signs You Need a Divorce

How to know when you're in for a long, unhappy ride and divorce really is the best choice.

by Lauren Steele
Originally Published: 
hand holding a white flag above a ditch.

According to relationship and marriage expert Dr. John Gottman, couples wait for an average of six years of being unhappy before getting help. That means that after an issue arises, people are more likely to live the better part of a decade with resentment growing, as opposed to addressing and fixing it — with a divorce — while it’s manageable. It sucks, but the only thing that’s worse than not fixing your marriage while it’s possible is to deny that it’s over. If you find yourself constantly wondering whether or not to file a divorce, these five signs will reveal whether that divorce is the next step for you and your spouse.

Sign 1: You’ve Tried (And Tried)

The first sign of knowing that you need a divorce is knowing that you tried not to have a divorce in the first place.

“The first question I ask couples who come to me for therapy in the midst of trying to decide whether they need a divorce or not is, ‘What have you done to remove the defense mechanisms and negativity from the relationship?’” Laura Heck, a certified Gottman marriage and family therapist with a private practice in Salt Lake City, says. “And people often haven’t done anything but they are ready to throw in the towel — and the biggest regret of divorcees is that they divorced.” In other words, per Heck, you don’t want to feel trapped by the mistakes of the relationship once you’re out of it. “Before signing any papers, make sure you can say you tried everything you could to save the relationship.”

If you are having issues sorting out whether you can fix the issues in your marriage or not, Heck recommends the research-driven book Should I Try to Work It Out? by Alan J. Hawkins. “It’s a great resource for those who are undecided, standing at the fork in the road of ‘recovery’ and ‘is it too far gone?’” Heck says. “It differentiates which path you can choose to go down and supplies facts on people who do get divorced and if/why they regret it afterward. It also explains which type of conflict you should and shouldn’t be worried about.”

Sign 2: There Is a Deal Breaker

There are instances where one spouse wants to reestablish the goodness of a relationship, but the other doesn’t. There may be cases of infidelity or addiction — and these issues can be the hardest when it comes to deciding to divorce. According to Heck, the hardline deal breakers for marriage that constitute divorce are complete emotional disengagement, physical or emotional abuse, active addictions that a spouse isn’t willing to work on, and explosive fights that happen quickly and often.

Sign 3: Small Arguments Don’t Happen Anymore

According to Heck, there are two types of couples: stone-cold couples and fiery hot couples. Fiery hot couples can get entrenched in arguments that can go on for days and often get wrapped up in small squabbles, while stone-cold couples are past the point of arguing and don’t let anything get to them. What seems like peace can actually be a sign that the couple is emotionally distant.

“People think that it’s the fiery couples who are more likely to divorce but it’s actually the stone-cold couples who are past the point of preserving a relationship — even a friendship,” Heck explains. “They don’t care to fight anymore and given up emotionally, which is a better indication of nearing the end than a few arguments are.”

Sign 4: There’s Contempt

There are four major defense mechanisms — which Gottman refers to as the “four horseman” — that can create patterns of discontent in your marriage. They are criticism, defense, stonewalling, and contempt. But out of these four, there’s one that is a bigger threat than any other: contempt.

According to Heck, contempt is an almost surefire sign that a couple is headed towards divorce. “Contempt involves attacking your spouse’s self-worth and making them feel like they are below you,” she says. “At that point, you might be having disgusted or nasty thoughts about your spouse. You are not being loved and or showing respecting or being a teammate — which are the baseline in a marriage.”

Sign 5: There’s No Appreciation

“Our brains are lovely in the sense that we feel what we think,” Heck says. “So think positive things, start meditating on the good, and shift the negative sentiment about your partner into some place of having gratitude for them. But what if you are past the point of trying to think happy thoughts and feel them? What if you can’t seem to see your spouse in a positive light no matter how hard you try? “It’s not a surprise that common issues turn into irreconcilable differences,” Heck says. “If you allow negativity to build up for six years that means that culture of appreciation in your relationship is long gone—and if you can’t appreciate someone, then your relationship is gone, too.”

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