At the start of the new year it is common for many of us to face the challenge of an unknown future while reflecting on our experiences of the past. This is especially true as we contemplate our choices about the structure of our families. For most people, the decision to remain in a marriage or to disengage from a marital relationship is a radical change that may promote serious anxiety. To address the anxiety that comes from this uncertainty, I have found it useful to consider three intertwined yet distinct aspects of divorce: the emotional divorce, the financial divorce, and the legal divorce.
As I have come to understand it, an emotional divorce occurs when a spouse truly realizes that there is nothing more that can be done to ameliorate the unhappiness that he or she feels in relation to the marriage. This unhappiness can be manifested in many ways: constant bickering, stony silences, or eruptions in physical violence. Typically, at the root of this unhappiness is a profound difference in basic values held by each spouse. An emotional divorce often – although not always – precedes a financial and legal divorce which I will discuss in future newsletter articles.
Thinking about the signs of a healthy relationship may be useful in determining whether or not a spouse believes an emotional divorce is either happening or has occurred. Here is a brief– and non-exhaustive – list of some elements that mental health professionals suggest are signs of a healthy relationship between spouses:
- Sensitivity to the feelings of the spouse;
- Respect for the spouse’s opinions and values;
- Acceptance of who the spouse is without trying to change him or her;
- Willingness of the spouse to discuss problems and disagreements without fearing the reaction of the other spouse;
- Absence of criticism by the spouse;
- Avoiding embarrassing the spouse; and
- Understanding that while the spouse is part of a unit in the family, the spouse is also an individual with his or her own preferences.
Engaging the services of a trained therapist may be a very useful exercise in obtaining the support to determine whether or not a marriage can be repaired or if an emotional divorce has occurred. This effort can be invaluable in making the decision to move forward with a financial and ultimately legal divorce.