The Big "D" Word

Being a couple’s therapist means addressing personal and societal fear of the concept of divorce. I have sat across from many couples and individuals struggling to make a decision to stay in their relationship or go. This is a very tumultuous time in a person’s life and not a decision that is made with cavalier attitudes. 

I could talk about that process for hours on end, but today I want to address the moment or moments long before a person sits across from a professional considering two options: stay or go. These moments are tangible and, when understood, can actually improve a relationship if handled appropriately.

What makes people consider divorce as an option? Even while the divorce rate in this country remains a steady 45-50 percent (depending on how you interpret the numbers), premarital couples are shockingly optimistic about their own odds. I have never met a premarital couple that went through with their marriage that said “Well, we might get divorced. We don’t have the best odds.” They all believe that they will be the other half of the first marriages that survive a lifetime. 

There are popular sweeping generalizations that assume current marital partners have a “throw away” mentality, don’t understand commitment, or aren't open to hard work. Some people believe that divorce is a spiritual issue, even though devoted church goers have roughly the same divorce rate as their non church attending counterparts. 

I am not here to make sweeping generalizations. I am here to offer an observation. I believe that divorce becomes a thought when a partner believes that they are in a situation all alone without the presence or support of their partner. Dr. Susan Johnson might define it as an attachment wound, a time when a person was going through a difficult time and wanted to lean on a partner and the partner was unavailable. Couples can survive attachment wounds, or times of intense loneliness if they are acknowledged and infrequent. If they are not, these moments can plant the seeds of negativity toward a partner and self preservation in self, both of which spell the eventual death of a connection.

These moments take different forms. They can be one stand out memory. One woman reported that it was the moment her child was born with health problems. Her husband left to take care of a work issue and went home afterwards to care for their other children. She felt unsure, panicked, and completely alone. “I will never forget how awful I felt in that moment. I believed that I didn't even matter.”

Other people describe the incidents in a more gradual way. “I was caring for the children alone, making dinner alone, cleaning up alone, putting the kids to bed alone and going to bed alone. It only takes so long doing this when you begin to see you don’t need them. And maybe you don’t even want them.”

Alone is a state in which we humans are not wired to thrive. We are attaching creatures. Attachment theorists point out examples of war-torn countries with orphanages filled with young babies and only a few caretakers. These children were fed and changed but not held or interacted with on a consistent basis. Many of them died. In others studies (Check out Harlow if you are interested), young monkeys are given the option of a cage with a soft cloth makeshift “mommy” with no food provided and a cage with a wire “mommy” who provided food at all times. The rhesus monkeys spent significantly more time with the cloth mothers than the wire mothers and later even used the soft cloth to feel safe while exploring new places. I cannot stress this enough, humans crave connection. And when they do not get it in a consistent manner, the results are devastating on a relationship.

One of the most damning parts of couple's therapy is that many couples come to therapy “too late.” Often one partner has been hurt by the persistent lonesomeness, the wounds from this have scarred over and that partner has made up their mind to never get hurt like that again. They close up to vulnerability and any chance of having a truly connected relationship with that person. And that is when divorce moves from a thought to an option. And it can happen to anyone. Anyone. 

People don’t leave their partner alone in important moments because they are cruel and mean. Usually, they are completely unaware that they have made a dastardly mistake. It is often years before the offended partner acknowledges that moment that has grown and spread like a cancer. Take the earlier examples of attachment wounds: the man who left his wife at the hospital mistakenly assumed that he could ease his partner’s anxiety more if she knew the children were cared for. The partner who was not participating in life in the second scenario suffered from depression and it was all they could do to go to work and make money for the family to survive. They thought they were doing a good enough job. People do not hurt their partners because they are bad, they do it because they don’t know what to do instead.

If I can implore one thing of you, the reader, it is this: If you feel alone in your relationship, do not assume you are stupid for wanting what you want. Do not assume your partner does not care because if they did they wouldn't have hurt you like that. Just acknowledge that you feel alone. Then tell your partner. Maybe they do too. 

And if you are the one hearing this message from your partner, remember, you are not a bad person. You are not being attacked. Often people just don’t know what to do because if they did, they would have already done it. Understand that if your partner feels alone that all they need is for you to commit to doing something different. If you don’t know what to do differently, commit to learning. Maybe it will involve reading a book together or separately, going to counseling, attending a relationship seminar, going back to what you did when you were courting. 

That pervasive feeling of alone can be the beginning of the end if it is not uncovered and healed. But if it is addressed, cared for and treated like the wound it is, your relationship has the opportunity to grow in ways you could never imagine. 

“Breakdowns can create breakthroughs. Things fall apart so things can fall together.”-Author Unknown

Whitney Warren Alexander, LMFT LADC is a therapist in Stillwater, OK who specializes in working with couples.